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Nick Turse: The Hidden History of Water Torture

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

Sometimes, the world can be such a simple, black-and-white sort of place.  Let me give you an example.  Imagine for a moment that the Iranians kidnap an American citizen from a third country.  (If you prefer, feel free to substitute al-Qaeda or the North Koreans or the Chinese for the Iranians.)  They accuse him of being a terrorist.  They throw him in jail without charges or a trial or a sentence and claim they suspect he might have crucial information (perhaps even of the "ticking bomb" sort -- and the Iranians have had some genuine experience with ticking bombs). Over the weeks that follow, they waterboard him time and again. They strip him, put a dog collar and leash on him.  They hood him, loose dogs on him. They subject him to freezing cold water and leave him naked on cold nights. They hang him by his arms from the ceiling of his cell in the "strappado" position. I'm sure I really don't have to go on.  Is there any question what we (or our leaders) would think or say?

We would call them barbarians. Beyond the bounds of civilization. Torturers. Monsters. Evil. No one in the U.S. government, on reading CIA intelligence reports about how that American had been treated, would wonder: Is it torture? No one in Washington would have the urge to call what the Iranians (al-Qaeda, the North Koreans, the Chinese) did "enhanced interrogation techniques." If, on being asked at a Senate hearing whether he thought the Iranian acts were, in fact, "torture," the prospective director of the CIA demurred, claimed he was no expert on the subject, no lawyer or legal scholar, and simply couldn't label it as such, he would not be confirmed.  He would probably never have a job in Washington again. If asked whether the Iranians who committed such acts against that American and their superiors who ordered them to do so, should be brought before an American or international court and tried, the president would surely not suggest that this was the moment to "look forward, not backward," nor would his justice department give them a free pass

You see what I mean? When evil is evil, the world couldn't be more cut-and-dried.  It's only when, as Nick Turse, author of the bestselling book Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, writes today, the acts in question are committed by Americans on Evil Doers, under the orders or encouragement of their superiors, based on policies set at the highest levels in Washington, that such matters become complex, shaded in greys, open to interpretation, understandable in human terms, and explicable by citing ticking-bomb scenarios (however imaginary). Tom

"I Begged for Them to Stop"  
Waterboarding Americans and the Redefinition of Torture
By Nick Turse

Try to remain calm -- even as you begin to feel your chest tighten and your heart race.  Try not to panic as water starts flowing into your nose and mouth, while you attempt to constrict your throat and slow your breathing and keep some air in your lungs and fight that growing feeling of suffocation.  Try not to think about dying, because there's nothing you can do about it, because you're tied down, because someone is pouring that water over your face, forcing it into you, drowning you slowly and deliberately.  You're helpless.  You're in agony

In short, you're a victim of "water torture." Or the "water cure."  Or the "water rag."  Or the "water treatment." Or "tormenta de toca."  Or any of the other nicknames given to the particular form of brutality that today goes by the relatively innocuous term "waterboarding." 

The practice only became widely known in the United States after it was disclosed that the CIA had been subjecting suspected terrorists to it in the wake of 9/11.  More recently, cinematic depictions of waterboarding in the award-winning film Zero Dark Thirty and questions about it at the Senate confirmation hearing for incoming CIA chief John Brennan have sparked debate.  Water torture, however, has a surprisingly long history, dating back to at least the fourteenth century.  It has been a U.S. military staple since the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was employed by Americans fighting an independence movement in the Philippines.  American troops would continue to use the brutal tactic in the decades to come -- and during the country's repeated wars in Asia, they would be victims of it, too. 

Water Torture in Vietnam

For more than a decade, I've investigated atrocities committed during the Vietnam War.  In that time, I've come to know people who employed water torture and people who were brutalized by it.  Americans and their South Vietnamese allies regularly used it on enemy prisoners and civilian detainees in an effort to gain intelligence or simply punish them.  A picture of the practice even landed on the front page of the Washington Post on January 21, 1968, but mostly it went on in secret.

Long-hidden military documents help to fill in the picture.  "I held the suspect down, placed a cloth over his face, and then poured water over the cloth, thus forcing water into his mouth," Staff Sergeant David Carmon explained in testimony to Army criminal investigators in December 1970.  According to their synopsis, he admitted to using both electrical torture and water torture in interrogating a detainee who died not long after.

According to summaries of eyewitness statements by members of Carmon's unit, the prisoner, identified as Nguyen Cong, had been "beat and kicked," lost consciousness, and suffered convulsions.  A doctor who examined Nguyen, however, claimed there was nothing wrong with him.  Carmon and another member of his military intelligence team then "slapped the Vietnamese and poured water on his face from a five-gallon can," according to a summary of his testimony.  An official report from May 1971 states that Nguyen Cong passed out "and was carried to the confinement cage where he was later found dead."

Years later, Carmon told me by email that the abuse of prisoners in Vietnam was extensive and encouraged by superiors.  "Nothing was sanctioned," he wrote, "but nothing was off-limits short of seriously injuring a prisoner."

It turns out that Vietnamese prisoners weren't the only ones subjected to water torture in Vietnam.  U.S. military personnel serving there were victims, too.  Documents I came across in the U.S. National Archives offer a glimpse of a horrifying history that few Americans know anything about.

"I had a "water job' done on me," one former American prisoner told a military investigator, according to a 1969 Army report.  "I was handcuffed and taken to the shower" They held my head under the shower for about two minutes and when I'd pull back to breath, they beat me on the chest and stomach.  This lasted for about 10 minutes, during which I was knocked to the floor twice.  When I begged for them to stop, they did."

Another said that his cellmate had rolled their cigarette butts together to fashion a full cigarette.  When the guards discovered the "contraband," they grabbed him and hauled him to the showers.  "Three of the guards held me and the other one held my face under the shower," he testified.  "This lasted quite a while and I thought I was going to drown."  Afterward, he said, the same thing was done to his cellmate who, upon returning, admitted that "he confessed" as a result of the torture.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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When men fight and see death and try to save frien... by Ivan Boatwright on Monday, Feb 25, 2013 at 4:13:24 PM
What is needed is a definition of 'torture' that e... by S. Juniper on Tuesday, Feb 26, 2013 at 1:04:54 PM