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 is 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
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
War Elihu] Root’s Record in the Philippines. As it became
clearer that the “antis” would focus on atrocities, some League
members wavered, such as Andrew Carnegie, who, perhaps concerned
about 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
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 surfaced
The Pentagon has been even less willing to discuss 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
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
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 certainly 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.
is Research Fellow at the
Institute in Oakland, Calif., and Professor Emeritus of History
at Florida Atlantic University.