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Remembering the past to change the future – We must hold the torture state accountable

by Kenneth J. Theisen Saturday, Apr. 25, 2009 at 6:37 AM

“Get the good old syringe boys and fill it to the brim We’ve caught another nigger and we’ll operate on him Let someone take the handle who can work it with a vim Shouting the battle cry of freedom” A U.S. Army marching song composed during the Philippine War entitled “The Water Cure” to celebrate a version of waterboarding used on Filipinos “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Poet and philosopher, George Santayana

Betrayal of American ideals or business as usual under imperialism?

The Obama administration has ignited another debate regarding the use of torture by the U.S. government by releasing four more “torture memos” from the Department of Justice. In this debate many arguing for prosecution of those that tortured and also of those who ordered or facilitated the torture, state something to the effect that this is necessary to return the nation to its mythical “ideals,” as a nation that does not use or condone torture. But they are only half-right.

Yes! The torturers need to be prosecuted. It is crucial that Bush, Cheney, Tenet, Rumsfeld, Rice, Gonzales, Addington, Yoo, and many other top criminals who either ordered or enabled torture during the Bush regime be prosecuted and imprisoned. But we should be under no illusions that the U.S. began torture only under the Bush regime or that U.S. imperialism has not used torture as a regular tool to enforce its rule for its entire existence. The collective U.S. historical memory is very short, or in some cases non-existent. This is particularly true when it comes to the subject of torture.

Torture has been used as a weapon by the U.S. government throughout the history of the nation. During the Bush era the government made a conscious effort to “legalize” and institutionalize torture and used lawyers at the top of the regime to accomplish this. Congress, through the passage of laws such as the Military Commissions Act, did much to facilitate it. But this does not mean previous administrations did not also use torture as a tool in the American wars of conquest. Let’s look at just a few of numerous examples of how torture served the interests of the U.S. government.

Waterboarding Filipinos at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries

At the beginning of the 20th century, future president, William H. Taft, was called to testify before the Senate. Anti-imperialist activists had exposed atrocities committed by U.S. forces in the Philippines and congress held hearings. At the time, Taft was the governor general of the Philippines which had been captured in the Spanish American War. At this 1902 hearing Taft revealed that the U.S. Army, even back then, used “enhanced interrogation techniques” against captured Filipinos.

At one point in his testimony he stated, “What I am trying to do is to state…that cruelties have been inflicted;…that there have been… individual instances of the water cure, that torture which I believe involves pouring water down the throat so that the man swells and gets the impression that he is going to be suffocated and then tells what he knows…” Taft was describing the use of waterboarding, which was later used hundreds of times by the Bush regime for interrogations. In suppressing the independence efforts of the Filipinos, U.S. forces used torture and other terror tactics which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Filipino nationalists. Waterboarding was so common that it became part of the lyrics of a army marching song that is at the beginning of this article.

Haitians and others as victims of U.S. imperialism

A few years after the “Philippine insurrection” was suppressed, the U.S invaded Haiti in 1915. The invading Marines were accused of killing and torturing hundreds of Haitian prisoners captured during the invasion. U.S. courts-martial boards then dismissed the cases against these marines because of “insufficient evidence.” Of course most of the witnesses had been murdered and those that remained were too frightened to testify. The U.S. crimes were covered up until election-year politics exposed them. But even then, Congress did not investigate the crimes until a 1921 Congressional inquiry finally was conducted and revealed many of the gruesome facts. Still no U.S. officials were prosecuted for the war crimes of the invaders. Throughout the early decades of the 20th century the U.S. repeatedly invaded many countries in the western hemisphere. Torture and death routinely became tools of control in these countries on behalf of U.S. imperialism.

In a 1933 speech, Marine Corp General Smedley Butler described his role in these countries, “I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916.”

Vietnam - the Phoenix Program

Sixty-some years after the suppression of the Philippines, the U.S. would again massively use torture against Southeast Asian people in the Vietnam War. The U.S. created the Phoenix Program. The program was conceived by the CIA and then “outsourced” to the puppet government of South Vietnam. U.S. Special Forces coordinated the program with the South Vietnamese. The Phoenix program targeted Vietnamese civilian opposition to the U.S occupation and its puppet supporters. More than 25,000 people were assassinated by U.S. killing teams. More than 35,000 Vietnamese were imprisoned and tortured. They were often held captive for long durations in so-called “Tiger Cages.” Prisoners were interrogated at more than forty different interrogation hellholes where the puppet government interrogators were “advised” by U.S. personnel. Torture not only served the purpose of obtaining “intelligence; it also was utilized to spread terror among the population to discourage resistance.

This brutal and inhumane program was well-known at the time, at least to those who wanted to listen. But William Colby, the head of the CIA told a congressional investigation in 1971 that the Phoenix program was “entirely a South Vietnamese program.” He said this even though he initiated the program on behalf of the CIA. No U.S. government officials were ever prosecuted for the crimes committed under the Phoenix Program.

The “this is not our program” excuse was used during the Bush regime when 173 Iraqi prisoners were located in an Iraqi Interior Department prison. The survivors had been tortured to such an extent that their skin was falling off. When Don Rumsfeld the Secretary of War was asked about this prison being run by the U.S. puppet government he replied, “Look, it's a sovereign country. The Iraqi government exists.” This was a transparent attempt to shift blame for the torture and prison conditions from the U.S., but the media let him get away with it. Now it appears Obama will too.

Vietnam – Con Son Island “recreational camp” pictures make Life Magazine

Another scandal that was exposed during the Vietnam War also illustrates that the U.S. has a long history of involvement in torture. Ten congressmen in 1970 went to investigate the so-called “U.S. pacification” program. This program was allegedly winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese to support the U.S. and it puppet government.

The congressmen went to visit Con Son Island where the government maintained a prison for political prisoners. On the plane to the island, the U.S. prison “advisor” told the congressional delegation that the prison resembled “a Boy Scout Recreational Camp.” He ironically referred to it as the “the largest prison in the Free World.” He had hoped to put on a show for the visitors, but the congressional investigators, using a map provided by a former Con Son prisoner, actually discovered a “hidden” prison on the island. They found prisoners incarcerated in small tiger cages under deplorable conditions. One prisoner had fingers cut off; another had his head split open; prisoners had open sores from their shackles. Most were suffering from various ailments, including malnutrition. The prisoners begged the delegation for water as they passed the cages. Pictures taken at the scene, by future Senator Tom Harkin who was a congressional staffer at the time, appeared in Life magazine and had the same shock value as those published showing what happened at Abu Ghraib during the Bush years. Readers of Life and many others could not believe that their American government could be responsible for such an atrocity.

One Con Son prisoner went on to tell her story in a book entitled “Just as I Thought.” She told of being beaten with clubs and of being suspended above the ground and hung from a hook for days at a time. She had her head locked between steel bars. She suffered a version of water boarding and was deprived of sleep. She was fed only bread and milk. Years after the war, she still suffered painful spine injuries and had to wear a neck brace. But she was one of the “lucky” ones, as many prisoners perished as a result of their torture and abuse.


[One interesting fact about the tiger cages used in Vietnam is that they were constructed by Texas military contractor RMK-BRJ. This company was a corporate forerunner of Halliburton subsidiary KBR. Even then the private contractors got rich from their share of the war contracts. During the Bush regime years, U.S. companies also made a tidy profit on the export of torture. Amnesty International, in its report entitled, "The Pain Merchants" (December 2003), reported that U.S. companies then were exporting torture instruments to twelve countries, which the U.S. State Department reported regularly engaged in torture. The U.S. rendered prisoners for torture to many of these same countries under its extraordinary rendition program. The companies had 2002 sales overseas of $14.7 million of electroshock equipment and $4.4 million of restraints. Twelve thousand leg irons were sold to Saudi Arabia in 2002.]

Teaching torture at the School of Americas

Still another fact that exposes the lie that the U.S. does not torture is the U.S.-run School of the Americas (SOA). (It has had different names in its long sordid history.) It originally was located in Panama and later was relocated at Fort Benning, Georgia.

SOA students came from various western hemisphere client governments of U.S. imperialism. Military and police personnel from these countries were taught torture and other crimes by the U.S. military instructors. Training manuals, that have been declassified, indicate the U.S. military personnel taught torture techniques similar to those later used at the hellhole prisons run by the military under the Bush regime.

The manuals recommended the immediate hooding and blindfolding of prisoners right after their capture. The use of forced nudity, sensory deprivation and overload, sleep and food deprivation, sexual humiliation, the use of extreme temperature, forced stress positions, isolation, and other tortures were part of the curriculum at SOA. In 1996, a U.S. Government Intelligence Oversight Board concluded that training manuals condoned "execution of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion and false imprisonment". Graduates of SOA went on to commit war crimes and other crimes against humanity in most of the nations of Central and South America. This is where it earned its nickname, the School of Assassins.

In a number of countries, SOA grads conducted military coups under the auspices of the U.S. government. In order to seize and maintain power, these military dictatorships practiced brutal terror against the populations of their countries. This terror included the arrests of thousands of people. Disappearances and the torture of prisoners became routine. Aiding and abetting these crimes were members of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies which often “advised” the torturers. Many survivors describe hearing their torturers talking to and getting instructions from people in nearby rooms who had “yankee” accents.

SOA continues to exist under a new name. Because of its infamous reputation, the War Department renamed it the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001. None of the military personnel responsible for the school teaching torture techniques to its nearly 60,000 graduates have ever been prosecuted or even charged. Each year Congress votes funds for the school at the request of the president. Its graduates make up the top echelons of the military in their respective country.

(Two excellent sources for the role played by the U.S. in the Americas are A. J. Langguth's “Hidden Terrors” and Michael Klare’s and Cynthia Arnson’s “Supplying Repression.”)


Exporting torture to Iran and the training of SAVAK

U.S.-sponsored torture in the Middle East has a long history, just as it does in the Americas. In 1953 the Shah of Iran came to power, courtesy of a U.S. coup that overthrew the elected government. For the next quarter century Iran was a forward outpost of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East region. But the Shah needed an iron fist to maintain his position, so he got the assistance of the CIA and the Israeli Mossad to create SAVAK and to train its personnel.

SAVAK learned well from its CIA and Mossad advisors and trainers. It routinely carried out disappearances and torture. It practiced virtually every kind of torture known, including: electrical shocks, forms of water boarding, sleep deprivation, extensive solitary confinement, the use of glaring searchlights, enforced stress positions, rape, the use of snakes particularly for women, dropping acid into prisoners noses, urinating on prisoners, and mock executions. SAVAK continued to kill and torture under U.S. auspices up to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. Is it any wonder while most of the people of Iran fear a return of U.S. imperialism to their country?

The above are just a few of the vast number of crimes committed by the U.S. government. I did not even mention the millions killed in the slave trade, the genocide of native Americans, and other victims of crimes committed as the U.S. “settled” the land that is now the U.S. Many of these victims were tortured. I have also left out the torture that occurs in U.S. prisons within this country.

How we deal with the past, determines the future

I am often asked why we should remember the past. Why not do as President Obama frequently states and look to the future?

Well what is done, or not done, to remedy the crimes of the past makes a difference in the future. If those responsible for the Phoenix Program had been prosecuted, would we have had Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, and Gitmo? If the conditions were created to result in the trials of past presidents for the war crimes committed under their leadership, would we be where we are today debating whether we should have a truth commission, congressional hearings, trials, or doing nothing?

Why were retired General Tommy Franks, who oversaw combat in Afghanistan and the initial invasion of Iraq; former CIA Director George Tenet who ordered torture conducted by the CIA; and former Iraq Viceroy L. Paul Bremer who oversaw the occupation of Iraq; given Presidential Medals of Freedom instead of the prison sentences they deserved for their various crimes committed during the Bush regime? What message did Bush deliver to the other criminals in his regime when he gave these men their medals? What was the message to the world?

The failure to prosecute those responsible for past war crimes is part of the reason that war crimes continue to be committed by those representing the U.S. government. Bush regime officials believed they could get away with ordering torture because there is plenty of past precedent to justify that belief. Troops, CIA agents, and others who conducted the actual torture believed they could get away with the “I was only following orders” defense because it has worked for those in the U.S., despite the judgments rendered at Nuremberg. The Obama administration has made it abundantly clear that they will not prosecute those following the orders of their superiors. Obama and his Attorney General, Eric Holder, have both said so. It also appears that those in the higher echelons of government and the military will also escape justice under the Obama administration if the president gets his way.

If we fail to try to hold those responsible for torture (the top officials that ordered and enabled it, those that created the legal pretext for it, and those who actually conducted it) on behalf of U.S. imperialism accountable, then we are just as complicit in those crimes as they are. We are also guaranteeing that torture will continue as the U.S. continues to fight its war of terror. The U.S. has already been responsible for more than a century of torture. When will it be stopped if we do not try now?

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