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Water torture: everything old is new again

Writing in this week's New Yorker, Paul Kramer reveals how, long before the waterboarding controversy, American forces in the Phillippines used a similar form of water torture, more than 100 years ago, to pry information from insurgents:

A picture of a “water detail,” reportedly taken in May, 1901, in Sual, the Philippines. “It is a terrible torture,” one soldier wrote.

Many Americans were puzzled by the news, in 1902, that United States soldiers were torturing Filipinos with water. The United States, throughout its emergence as a world power, had spoken the language of liberation, rescue, and freedom. This was the language that, when coupled with expanding military and commercial ambitions, had helped launch two very different wars. The first had been in 1898, against Spain, whose remaining empire was crumbling in the face of popular revolts in two of its colonies, Cuba and the Philippines. The brief campaign was pitched to the American public in terms of freedom and national honor (the U.S.S. Maine had blown up mysteriously in Havana Harbor), rather than of sugar and naval bases, and resulted in a formally independent Cuba.

The Americans were not done liberating. Rising trade in East Asia suggested to imperialists that the Philippines, Spain’s largest colony, might serve as an effective “stepping stone” to China’s markets. U.S. naval plans included provisions for an attack on the Spanish Navy in the event of war, and led to a decisive victory against the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay in May, 1898. Shortly afterward, Commodore George Dewey returned the exiled Filipino revolutionary Emilio Aguinaldo to the islands. Aguinaldo defeated Spanish forces on land, declared the Philippines independent in June, and organized a government led by the Philippine élite.

During the next half year, it became clear that American and Filipino visions for the islands’ future were at odds. U.S. forces seized Manila from Spain—keeping the army of their ostensible ally Aguinaldo from entering the city—and President William McKinley refused to recognize Filipino claims to independence, pushing his negotiators to demand that Spain cede sovereignty over the islands to the United States, while talking about Filipinos’ need for “benevolent assimilation.” Aguinaldo and some of his advisers, who had been inspired by the United States as a model republic and had greeted its soldiers as liberators, became increasingly suspicious of American motivations. When, after a period of mounting tensions, a U.S. sentry fired on Filipino soldiers outside Manila in February, 1899, the second war erupted, just days before the Senate ratified a treaty with Spain securing American sovereignty over the islands in exchange for twenty million dollars. In the next three years, U.S. troops waged a war to “free” the islands’ population from the regime that Aguinaldo had established. The conflict cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos and about four thousand U.S. soldiers.

Within the first year of the war, news of atrocities by U.S. forces—the torching of villages, the killing of prisoners—began to appear in American newspapers. Although the U.S. military censored outgoing cables, stories crossed the Pacific through the mail, which wasn’t censored. Soldiers, in their letters home, wrote about extreme violence against Filipinos, alongside complaints about the weather, the food, and their officers; and some of these letters were published in home-town newspapers. A letter by A. F. Miller, of the 32nd Volunteer Infantry Regiment, published in the Omaha World-Herald in May, 1900, told of how Miller’s unit uncovered hidden weapons by subjecting a prisoner to what he and others called the “water cure.” “Now, this is the way we give them the water cure,” he explained. “Lay them on their backs, a man standing on each hand and each foot, then put a round stick in the mouth and pour a pail of water in the mouth and nose, and if they don’t give up pour in another pail. They swell up like toads. I’ll tell you it is a terrible torture.”

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