The Return of Water Torture

In the 1970s, while cleaning my closet one day, my sainted grandmother leaned into my room and said, “You should hold on to those platform shoes. They’ll come back in style someday.”

Mercifully, that particular item of 1970s male apparel has not yet reappeared in America’s prêt-à-porter, but Granny was right about the whole concept of cycles, closed loops, patterns and history repeating itself. Today, another piece of America’s past once again rears its ugly head–water boarding.

Water torture or drinking by force, a method of inflicting pain as punishment or to extract information, has been around as long as man has been near water. One of the earliest written records of the practice is the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1760 BC), which decreed that if a person suspected of sorcery survived a dunking in the Holy River, he was innocent. Throughout the centuries, societies have continued to use water as a tool to terrorize and no doubt, torturing with water survives today over other ancient practices such as quartering or burning chiefly because water leaves no incriminating marks on the victim.

In 1899, during what history books call the “Philippine Campaign,” occupying American forces learned of the procedure from the Spanish, who had practiced the “Water Cure” on defenseless Filipino peasants for centuries. As an extension of the Spanish/American War, American soldiers invaded the Philippines and fought a bloody, brutal nine-year guerilla action against Filipino resistance fighters for possession and control of the Islands. While researching and writing a 2004 historical novel of that period, I was surprised and disappointed to learn American hands were frequently bloodied in the act of torturing Filipinos–civilians and soldiers.

Man’s inhumanity to man rattles the sensibilities of all but the most hard-hearted, and like any other American, I was appalled to read the accounts of the very powerful (us) inflicting great harm on the weak and defenseless (them). Un-American to the core, torture by any method offends and repels, but nothing could have prepared me for the shocking, horrifying, de-humanizing accounts of the Water Cure inflicted by American soldiers on captured Filipino guerillas.
Whether any form of water boarding can be torture is beneath debate, and Attorney General nominee, Michael Mukasey, was horribly wrong to equivocate on this issue when questioned before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The following, excerpted from my 2004 novel, is a fictitious description of the Water Cure performed by American soldiers on a captured Filipino youth. Although the characters are products of my imagination, their actions are derived from numerous original sources, official record and eye witness testimony. I invite you to determine for yourself whether this practice is torture:

The men of H Company didn’t know what the water cure was, but Captain Baston’s Kansas volunteers did. In no time, the camp came alive with activity. Three men carrying ropes scurried up the rock ledge to the edge of the outcropping high over the mouth of the cave. Reaching the top, they dropped the lines down to men waiting below. The soldiers built a sling, placed an empty sixty-gallon barrel in it, and then hoisted it to the highest spot they could find.
The sergeant and two others stripped the boy and staked him out on his back, the barrel twenty feet over his head. The rest of the men formed a chain and passed buckets of water up the line and fed the barrel until full. This done, a soldier attached a long hose to the spigot at the bottom of the barrel and tossed the other end to the sergeant below.

Captain Baston shook the amputee awake, and then dragged him to the mouth of the cave, where the boy was pegged down. He’d lost a lot of blood from his stump, and his face was pail and drawn tight with pain. The captain knelt in front of him while a soldier fisted a handful of hair and lifted his head. “I would like to know your name,” the captain said.

The man croaked, “Antonio Salud.”

“Tell me where Aguinaldo is, Mr. Salud, and you will save this boy’s life.”

The man looked down at the boy on the ground next to him. “He is my nephew, Captain. I beg you to let him live.”

Baston shrugged. “His life is not in my hands, it’s in yours. I want Aguinaldo, not you or this boy.”

Antonio Salud pleaded through his tears, “I cannot tell you what I do not know, sir.”

Captain Baston stood and turned to the sergeant. “Proceed.”
The sergeant placed one big hand under the boy’s neck and lifted his head. Another soldier pried his jaws open, while a third jammed the rubber hose deep into his throat. The young Filipino screamed in horror and struggled desperately against the ropes that held his arms and legs.

“Lay still, you slope-headed gook bastard,” the soldier cursed and shoved the hose deeper. The boy wretched and coughed blood, tried to turn away from his tormentors. When the hose would go no further, the soldier looked up at the captain. “Ready, sir.”

Baston gave a signal to the men on the rock outcropping over the mouth of the cave, and one reached down and opened the spigot.
In the moments that followed, a strange silence settled over the camp. The only sounds were the popping and hissing of the fire, its flames lighting the faces of Captain Baston and the men, as all eyes traced the invisible flow of water from the barrel high overhead to the boy on the ground. For a long moment, nothing happened. Fagan wondered whether something had gone wrong; maybe they’d made a mistake somewhere. Even the boy had stopped struggling against the hose, although his eyes still darted in panic from one soldier to another.

Then it happened. The sergeant saw it first and smiled up at the captain. The rush of flowing water finally reached the boy’s stomach and forced his mid-section to swell and grow, and then become so grotesquely extended, it looked ready to burst. The boy let out a wild, animal scream, his face turned blue, and his eyes bulged as yellow water gushed from his nose. His stomach grew to four times its normal size, and still the water continued to flow.

Fagen was sure the boy would drown in his own bile, but somehow, he clung to life. Another minute passed. Fagen thought then the boy must have been driven insane. He’d stopped struggling against the ropes, but his eyes had rolled up in his head, and his body twitched and flopped like a fish out of water.

Finally, the captain gave the signal, and the sergeant pulled the hose from the young rebel’s throat. Baston squatted alongside the boy for a moment then turned to the amputee. “Mr. Salud, are you willing to let this boy die? By the looks of him, I’d guess you have another ten seconds to decide, and I should warn you, if he dies, you’re next.”

The amputee looked at the captain through tears of shock and pain. “Please, no more. I beg you for mercy. I will tell you. Aguinaldo has a jungle camp, like this one, three days northeast of San Isidro, near the big waterfalls. I think that is where he has gone.”
“Well done, Mr. Salud.” The captain smiled, and then with a little flourish, said, “Now observe while I bestow the gift of life on this young man.”

Baston rocked forward and pressed both knees deep into the boy’s bloated stomach. The youth’s choked, agonized screams filled the night and echoed through the jungle mountains, as a torrent of water gushed from his nose and mouth. The captain pressed harder, and bloody vomit pooled around his boots. Then he let up for a moment and gazed around at his men. As the boy choked and struggled for air, the officer stood up and motioned to a nearby soldier. “Finish this,” he said. “I’ve got what I wanted.” Then, he walked casually into his tent and closed the flap.

WILLIAM SCHRODER lives in Washington State. He is a Vietnam veteran and with Dr. Ron Dawe, co-author of Soldier’s Heart: Close-up Today with PTSD in Vietnam Veterans.