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Torture & Civilian Deaths in 3 Counterinsurgencies

Torture and Civilian Deaths in Three Counterinsurgencies

By William Marina*
May 3, 2004

It was revealed this past week that, on top of the indiscriminate bombardment of civilians in Iraqi urban areas, both U.S. and British soldiers have become involved in the torture of Iraqi prisoners as well. Ironically, the torture of prisoners by the U.S. military has been carried out in the very same Abu Ghraib Prison used by Saddam Hussein and his murderous regime. This not the first time that torture has been a central feature of U.S intervention. The war in Iraq shares parallels with both the Vietnam War a generation ago and the Spanish-American War a century earlier—massive civilian deaths and torture are characteristics of all three imperial interventions.

The U.S. adventure in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War resulted in the creation of The Anti-Imperialist League (the “antis”), in which a number of noted Americans, including former General/Senator Carl Schurz and Mark Twain, sought to draw attention to what the U.S. Army was doing in the Islands.

By 1902, the Senate, controlled by imperialists such as Henry Cabot Lodge, had initiated another of its often-feckless investigations into the conduct of a war. The “antis” developed a parallel investigation culminating in the publication of a small book, “Marked Severities”: Secretary [of War Elihu] Root’s Record in the Philippines. As it became clear, the “antis” would focus on atrocities. But some League members also cowered, such as Andrew Carnegie, who, no doubt concerned over losing possible business deals, withdrew the $5,000 he had promised to help with the investigation.

Calling attention to atrocities always causes the imperialists to drape themselves in the flag and denounce all such criticism as “unpatriotic.”

The estimates of civilians killed in the Philippines range from 200,000 to a high of perhaps 600,000—no one really knows. This writer has seen pictures smuggled out by American soldiers of pits filled with the bodies of dozens of Filipinos. One soldier wrote of troops massacring an entire village of one thousand people after a villager had fired upon them.

The “water cure” was the approved torture of the day. With the mouth held open by a knife, a water hose was thrust down the victim’s throat. Whether he talked or not, most often death came later from the infection of the stomach lesions caused by the water pressure. “Civilize ’em with a Krag” [rifle] was the U.S.’s great battle cry of the era.

The massive burning and killing of Vietnamese—including the whole village of My Lai—was much more publicized, of course, in the counterinsurgency in Vietnam. Again, total deaths are hard to estimate, but certainly well over one million Asians were killed. One American soldier, a member of the elite “Tiger Force” was reputed to have killed 1,500 Vietnamese by himself, although the Pentagon has declined to follow up on that newly released data.

The Pentagon was even less willing to follow up on allegations of torture in Vietnam. For centuries, Chinese officials have employed Koreans to carry out torture, and the U.S. often used them in that capacity in Vietnam. A common method was to jab wire through the hands and tie them together. The person was then pushed out the door of a flying helicopter if he refused to talk. The U.S. also relied on its South Vietnamese ally for torturing, and prisoners were kept in so-called “Tiger cages.”

Now, of course, in Iraq, we are repeating the “shock and awe,” kill-civilians-and-torture-the-enemy tactics of the U.S.’s earlier imperial interventions. Human rights groups estimate that more than 10,000 civilians have been killed so far, and the account of those tortured is only now beginning to emerge. The U.S. once stood as a beacon of liberty and moral responsibility in the world. That reputation is now being squandered for the power and glory of Empire.

It is unclear how this will ever result in “winning the hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people. I recall an interview in Vietnam where an American officer admitted that the U.S. had lost the trust of the current generation of Vietnamese because of its tactics, but that we would somehow win over the next generation. I wondered who he thought would father this new generation. Even conservative General William E. Odom now acknowledges we have lost legitimacy in Iraq, and, with other influential military professionals, warned against the adventure in the first place.

One thing is certain, just as President William McKinley’s Secretary of War, Elihu Root, could concoct these policies for the Philippines, and good ’ol “fog of war” Robert McNamara could do so for Vietnam, they would never personally be involved in such killings and torture—leave that to the soldiers in the field! The same goes for Bush and Cheney today, both of whom appear to be in “plausible denial.”

What a century of this imperialism has done to Americans is not apt to be mentioned by those who glorify empire such as Niall Ferguson or William Kristol. Perhaps these are the people who ought to be the ones trained to do the torturing for the greater glories of the Empire!

To talk about the Philippines as a “great aberration,” as the historian Samuel Flagg Bemis once did, is errant nonsense. The U.S.’s imperial policies, and especially the “national security” bureaucracies and military forces that carry them out, have been developing for at least a century now. They were not disbanded after Vietnam, and without a major sea change in opinion, the frustrations of Iraq are not likely to cause them to be dismantled in the future.

It would be wise to remember that the dictator—in reality already emperor—Julius Caesar was heavily backed by what one might call the military-industrial-university complex of Ancient Rome. They used “private contractors” then too, and the missile weapon of mass destruction was the catapult, as seen in the opening scenes of Gladiator. Someone crtainly had the lucrative insider contracts to supply those weapons!

It will be interesting to see how the issues of torture and civilian deaths develop given George W. Bush’s fundamentalist fanaticism. It is important to remember that the old definition of a fanatic is someone who redoubles his effort when he has lost sight of his goal.


William Marina is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and Professor Emeritus in History at Florida Atlantic University.

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