FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Waterboarding in American History

by WILLIAM LOREN KATZ

Some high U.S. officials claim not be aware of it, and Judge Michael Mukasey, the President’s choice for attorney general, prefers to equivocate, but water boarding has long been a form of torture that causes excruciating pain and can lead to death. It forces water into prisoner’s lungs, usually over and over again. The Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s used this torture to uncover and punish heretics, and then in the early 1500s Spain’s inquisitors carried it overseas to root out heresy in the New World. It reappeared during the witch hysteria. Women accused of sorcery were “dunked” and held under water to see if they were witches.

In World War II Japan and Germany routinely used water boarding on prisoners. In Viet Nam U.S. forces held bound Viet Cong captives and “sympathizers” upside down in barrels of water. Water boarding also has been associated with the Khmer Rouge.

An extensive record of its use by the United States land forces exists in the records of the invasion and occupation of the Philippines that began in 1898. As the U.S. encountered armed resistance by the liberation army of Filipino General Emilio Aguinaldo, and sank into a 12-year quagmire on the archipelago, U.S. officers routinely resorted to what they called “the water cure.” Professor Stuart C. Miller’s study of the Philippine war, “Benevolent Assimilation,” reveals this sordid story through Congressional testimony, letters from soldiers, court martial hearings, words of critics and defenders, and newspaper accounts. The pro-imperialist media of the day justified the “water cure” as necessary to gain information; the anti-imperialist media denounced its use by the U.S or any other civilized nation.

Fresh from their recent victories in the Indian wars, the Philippine invasion of 1898 began with a big war whoop. U.S. forces landed in the Philippines in 1898 led by American officers such Pershing, Lawton, Smith, Shafter, Otis, Merritt, and Chafee, who had fought “treacherous redskins.” At least one officer had taken part in the infamous 1891 massacre of 350 Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee. A U.S. media that had supported the Army’s brutal Indian campaigns rhapsodized about this new opportunity for distant racial warfare. The influential San Francisco Argonaut spoke candidly: “We do not want the Filipinos. We want the Philippines. The islands are enormously rich, but unfortunately they are infested with Filipinos. There are many millions there, and it is to be feared their extinction will be slow.” The paper’s solution was to recommend several unusually cruel methods of torture it believed “would impress the Malay mind.”

President William McKinley dispatched Admiral Dewey to the Philippines with a pledge to bestow civilization and Christianity on its people, and promise eventual independence. Perhaps he was unaware that most Filipinos were Catholics. Perhaps he did not know that General Aguinaldo and his 40,000 troops were poised to remove Spain from the islands. Dewey supplied Aguinaldo with weapons and encouraged him, but that soon changed.

From the White House and the U.S. high command to field officers and lowly enlistees the message became “these people are not civilized” and the United States had embarked on a glorious overseas adventure against “savages.” Officers and enlisted men – and the media — were encouraged to see the conflict through a “white superiority” lens, much as they viewed their victories over Native Americans and African Americans. The Philippine occupation unfolded at the high tide of American segregation, lynching, and a triumphant white supremacy ideology.

U.S. officers ordered massacres of entire villages and conducted a host of other shameful atrocities as the Philippine quagmire dragged on for more than a decade. “A white man seems to forget that he is human,” wrote a white soldier from the Philippines.

Atrocities abounded. To produce “a demoralized and obedient population” in Batangas, General Franklin Bell ordered the destruction of “humans, crops, food stores, domestic animals, houses and boats.” He became known as the “butcher” of Batangas. General Jacob Smith, who had been wounded fighting at Wounded Knee, said his overseas campaigns were “worse than fighting Indians.” He promised to turn Samar province into a “howling wilderness.” Smith defined the enemy as anyone “ten years and up” and issued these instructions to Marine Commander Tony Waller: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.” He became known as “Howling Jake” Smith.

The “water cure” was probably first instituted when U.S. forces encountered local resistance. Professor Miller states that General Frederick Funston in 1901 may have used it to capture the Filipino General Emilio Aguinaldo. A New York World article described the “water cure” as forcing “water with handfuls of salt thrown in to make it more efficacious, is forced down the throats of patients until their bodies become distended to the point of bursting . . ..” This may have been only one on the versions used.

The water cure became front-page news when William Howard Taft, appointed U.S. Governor of the Philippines, testified under oath before Congress and let the cat out of the bag. The “so called water cure,” he admitted, was used “on some occasions to extract information.” The Arena, an opposition paper, called his words “a most humiliating admission that should strike horror in the mind of every American.” Around the same time as Taft’s admission a soldier boasted in a letter made public that he had used the water cure on 160 people and only 26 had survived. The man was compelled by the War Department to retract his damaging confession. But then another officer stated the “water cure” was being widely used when he reported, “the problem of the ‘water cure’ is in knowing how to apply it.” Such statements leave unclear how often the form of torture was used for interrogation and how often it became a way to exhibit racial animosity or display contempt.

During a triumphal U.S. speaking tour General Frederick Funston, bearing a Congressional Medal of Honor and harboring political ambitions, bellicosely promoted total war. In Chicago he boasted of sentencing 35 suspects to death without trial and enthusiastically endorsed torture and civilian massacres. He even publicly suggested that anti-war protestors be dragged out of their homes and lynched.

Funston’s words met far more applause than criticism. In San Francisco he suggested that the editor of a noted anti-imperialist paper “ought to be strung up to the nearest lamppost.” At a banquet in the city he called Filipinos “unruly savages” and (now) claimed he had personally killed fifty prisoners without trial. Captain Edmond Boltwood, an officer under Funston, confirmed that the general had personally administered the water cure to captives, and had told his troops “to take no prisoners.”

President Theodore Roosevelt reprimanded Funston and ordered him to cease his inflammatory rhetoric. Facing a political challenge from General Nelson Miles based in the Philippines, TR, who rode into the White House on his heroic exploits at San Juan Hill, did not intend to nourish more competition. The President privately assured a friend the water cure was “an old Filipino method of mild torture” and claimed when Americans administered it “no body was seriously damaged.” But publicly TR was silent about the “water cure.”

In an article, “The ‘Water Cure’ from a Missionary Point of View,” Reverend Homer Stunz justified the technique. It was not torture, he said, since the victim could stop it any time by revealing what his interrogators wanted to know. Besides, he insisted, it was only applied to “spies.” The missionary also justified instances of torture by pointing out that U.S. soldiers “in lonely and remote bamboo jungles” faced stressful conditions.

Mark Twain, a leading anti-imperialist voice, offered this view of the water cure:

“Funston’s example has bred many imitators, and many ghastly additions to our history: the torturing of Filipinos by the awful ‘water- cure,’ for instance, to make them confess — what? Truth? Or lies? How can one know which it is they are telling? For under unendurable pain a man confesses anything that is required of him, true or false, and his evidence is worthless. Yet upon such evidence American officers have actually — but you know about those atrocities which the War Office has been hiding a year or two….”

U.S. military trials for what are now known as war crimes all resulted in convictions. Waller was acquitted because he followed the orders of Smith, and later retired with two stars. “Howling Jake” Smith was convicted, but he returned to a tumultuous citizens’ welcome in San Francisco. When the convicted U.S. war criminals received only slaps-on-the-wrist U.S. prestige abroad sunk to new lows.

A San Francisco park was named after General Funston. TR appointed General Bell of Batangas infamy as his chief of staff. And the President continued to wave the banner of aggressive imperialism. In 1903 he flagrantly seized a broad swath of Columbia’s Isthmus of Panama so he could link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans under U.S. control. This boosted his popularity and splintered the anti-imperialist movement. TR also worked to undermine efforts to grant the Philippines independence, which finally took place after World War II.

TR easily won a return to the White House in 1904, and in 1908 he chose Taft as his successor. By the time Taft left the White House in 1913, military resistance in the Philippines had ended, and so presumably had the “water cure.” TR had become a Mount Rushmore-size American icon.

The “water cure” was accepted as a necessary embarrassment in wartime. Appeals to muscular patriotism had exonerated the “water cure” and reduced a crime of torture to a misdemeanor. Is the U.S. headed the same way in 2007?

WILLIAM LOREN KATZ is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. His new, revised edition of The Black West [Harlem Moon/Random House, 2005] also includes information on the Philippine occupation, and can now be found in bookstores. This essay is based on his latest book, “The Cruel Years: American Voices at the Dawn of the 20th Century” [Beacon Press, 2003] and even more heavily draws on Stuart Creighton Miller, “Benevolent Assimilation” [Yale University Press, 1982. He can be reached through his website: www.williamlkatz.com

 

William Loren Katz is the author of 40 books on African American history, and has been associated with New York University as an instructor and Scholar in Residence since 1973. His website is www.williamlkatz.com. Read an interview with Katz about his life teaching and writing history.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Obama Said Hillary will Continue His Legacy and Indeed She Will!
Jeffrey St. Clair
She Stoops to Conquer: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Rob Urie
Long Live the Queen of Chaos
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Evolution of Capitalism, Escalation of Imperialism
Vijay Prashad
The Iraq War: a Story of Deceit
stclair
It Wasn’t Just the Baton Rouge Police Who Killed Alton Sterling
Brian Cloughley
Could Trump be Good for Peace?
Patrick Timmons
Racism, Freedom of Expression and the Prohibition of Guns at Universities in Texas
Gary Leupp
The Coming Crisis in U.S.-Turkey Relations
Pepe Escobar
Is War Inevitable in the South China Sea?
Margot Kidder
My Fellow Americans: We Are Fools
Norman Pollack
Clinton Incorruptible: An Ideological Contrivance
Robert Fantina
The Time for Third Parties is Now!
Andrew Tillett-Saks
Labor’s Political Stockholm Syndrome: Why Unions Must Stop Supporting Democrats Like Clinton
Andre Vltchek
Like Trump, Hitler Also Liked His “Small People”
Serge Halimi
Provoking Russia
Andrew Stewart
Countering The Nader Baiter Mythology
Ron Jacobs
Something Besides Politics for Summer’s End
David Swanson
It’s Not the Economy, Stupid
Erwan Castel
A Faith that Lifts Barricades: The Ukraine Government Bows and the Ultra-Nationalists are Furious
Steve Horn
Did Industry Ties Lead Democratic Party Platform Committee to Nix Fracking Ban?
Robert Fisk
How to Understand the Beheading of a French Priest
Colin Todhunter
Sugar-Coated Lies: How The Food Lobby Destroys Health In The EU
Franklin Lamb
“Don’t Cry For Us Syria … The Truth is We Shall Never Leave You!”
Frederick B. Hudson
Well Fed, Bill?
Harvey Wasserman
NY Times Pushes Nukes While Claiming Renewables Fail to Fight Climate Change
Uri Avnery
The Orange Man: Trump and the Middle East
Marjorie Cohn
The Content of Trump’s Character
Missy Comley Beattie
Pick Your Poison
Joseph Grosso
Serving The Grid: Urban Planning in New York
John Repp
Real Cooperation with Nations Is the Best Survival Tactic
Binoy Kampmark
The Scourge of Youth Detention: The Northern Territory, Torture, and Australia’s Detention Disease
Kim Nicolini
Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red In It
Cesar Chelala
Gang Violence Rages Across Central America
Tom H. Hastings
Africa/America
Robert Koehler
Slavery, War and Presidential Politics
July 28, 2016
Paul Street
Politician Speak at the DNC
Jeffrey St. Clair
Night of the Hollow Men: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Renee Parsons
Blame It on the Russians
Herbert Dyer, Jr.
Is it the Cops or the Cameras? Putting Police Brutality in Historical Context
Russell Mokhiber
Dems Dropping the N Word: When in Trouble, Blame Ralph
Howard Lisnoff
The Elephant in the Living Room
Pepe Escobar
The Real Secret of the South China Sea
Ramzy Baroud
Farewell to Yarmouk: A Palestinian Refugee’s Journey from Izmir to Greece
John Laforge
Wild Turkey with H-Bombs: Failed Coup Raise Calls for Denuclearization
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail