Torture & Civilian Deaths in Three Counterinsurgencies

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Mr. Marina is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and Professor Emeritus in History at Florida Atlantic University. He is also a contributor to HNN's Liberty & Power Blog.

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It was revealed last week, that on top of the indiscriminate bombardment of civilians in Iraqi urban areas, both U.S. and British soldiers have become involved in torture as well. At the same time, comparing the three overall interventions, some writers have drawn attention to parallels with Vietnam a generation ago, and the Philippines a century earlier.

Massive civilian deaths and torture are characteristic of all three Imperial Interventions.

Our Philippine adventure resulted in the creation of The Anti-Imperialist League, in which a number of noted Americans, ranging from former General/Senator Carl Schurz to Mark Twain sought to draw attention to what the 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, some like Andrew Carnegie, 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 killing a village of about 1,000 after someone had fired upon them from there.

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 our 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 were certainly well over a million Asians.

Less so was the torture. One of my former students, in American intelligence, refused to participate in it. The Koreans for centuries have been employed for torture by the Chinese, and the U.S. often used them in that capacity in Vietnam. A common method was to jamb wire through the hands and wire them together. The person was then taken up in a helicopter, and pushed out the open door if he refused to talk.

Now, of course, in Iraq, we are repeating the shock and awe, kill civilians-torture the enemy tactics of our earlier imperial interventions. It is unclear to me 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 our tactics had lost the present generation of Vietnamese, but we would win over the next one. I wondered who he thought would father this new generation? Even General William E. Odum acknowledges we have lost legitimacy in Iraq, and a number of our military professionals warned against the adventure in the first place.

One thing is certain, just as Elihu Root could concoct these policies for the Philippines, and good ‘ol “fog of war,” Robert MacNamara 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 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 trained to do the torturing for the greater glories of the Empire!

To talk about the Philippines as a “great aberration,” as once did the historian Samuel Flagg Bemis, is errant nonsense. Our Imperial policies, and especially the “national security” bureaucracies and military forces to carry them out, have been developing for at least a century now. They were not disbanded after Vietnam, and the frustrations of Iraq are not likely to cause them to be dismantled into the future.

Remember that Julius Caesar was heavily backed by what one might today call the military-industrial complex of Ancient Rome. They used "private contractors," too, and the missile weapon of mass destruction was the catapult, as one sees in the opening scene of Gladiator. Someone had the contracts to supply all of that!

It will be interesting to see how this develops given George Bush’s fundamentalist fanaticism. Recall the definition of a fanatic, as someone who redoubles his effort when he has lost sight of his goal.

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Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Whilst fighting in 'Nam, 1st Infantry Division in III Corps TAO, 1966-7; 101st Airborne, northern I Corps, 1969-70 Yours truly never observed or received reliable evidence of torture commited by our troops. There were stories, hardly more than rumors, about our turning over prisoners to the South Viets, who supposedly played pretty rough from time-to-time.

Yes, armchair warriors are in the habit of bleating about supposed atrocities about which they've heard from some source or another, but such stories deny the reality that no officer concerned for his career, let alone concerned for his Christian soul would not permit improper abuse of anyone, combatant or noncombatant or the deliberate harming of non-combatants.

In my own instance I'm convinced that perhaps, only perhaps of course, one reason our Lord permitted me to survive normally killing wounds in that last-for-me firefight was that never once did I ever consider harming in any manner whatsoever a non-combatant. Nor was I careless, save once perhaps, enough that accidental harm was ever caused to a non-combatant.

It appears armchair warriors get the notion that G.I.s once on a battlefield go stark raving mad & perforce do things they'd never consider doing here at home. T'aint so! Just doesn't happen. Yes, the battlefield in an intensely emotional environment, but one doesn't necessarily lose one's sense of proportion or the basics of one's morality. On the battlefield one remains who one inherently was before getting there.

It was blathering lying propaganda to label us G.I.s one & all baby killers during the war. B.S.! Guys with kid brothers & sisters don't flip out & start killing children. Indeed, that was why so much of a fuss was made over My Lai, when a poorly led & badly disciplined platoon of infantry flipped out & murdered women & children, albeit in a known to be controlled by the Communists village--the only known instance of this happening in the war, mid-1966 through 1973, the time frame when large U.S. units were engaged in 'Nam.

Yes, frequently civilians suffer during wars, as they did during the London Blitz, the bombings of Berlin, Stalingrad, etc. Unfortunately, that's in the nature of modern warfare. Nonetheless, terrorism as a deliberate policy is not ordinarily employed by Western nations. The exercise of terrorism is counter to our culture.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Large U.S. units were engaged in combat in 'Nam from 1965 rather than as said in my typing error of 1966. Too, we'd advisors in 'Nam from at least 1959 to 1975 and limited numbers of aviation units, primarily Army helicopter elements, deployed to 'Nam from at least 1960 through early '75.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

The raising of the issue of our imperialist venture in the Philippines points up the contrast between our truly imperialist venture in the Phillipines to the non-imperialist conquest of Iraq. We went into Iraq not to acquire land or a colony, as we did in the Philippines. Nor did we conquer Iraq to acquire its oil. That has has been made plain as day to anyone not blinded by prejudice.

The campaign in Iraq is a defensive operation motivated by the attacks of militant Islam. Yes, some people, especially Arabs burndened by their history of previous imperial intrusions, look at our occupation of Iraq & think it is an imperial conquest. While it may be true
in a sense it is an imperial conquest our conqest of Iraq was not accomplished for the purpose of acquring a colony nor for our economic gain. It is purely a defensive measure with the goals to 1) impress upon regional governments that we will not quietly permit the recruitment & funding of hostile to us militant Islamic operations on their soil, 2) if indeed they permit such operations we stand ready to brush them aside & impose our will directly in their territories & 3) the occupation of large military facilities within Iraq permits us to interject large military formations into the region without having to reply upon the uncertain good will of allies, such as Turkey, or of former or iffy allies such as Saudia Arabia.

William Marina - 5/13/2004

While I did not in my article compare US counterinsurgency tactics to those of the Germans in WWII, as did some of the comments, the idea is not "absolute rubbish."
Some in the US forces at the end of that War wanted to hold off on executions of some of the Nazis at Nuremberg in order to gain from their expertise in such activities. Only President Truman's opposition stopped that from occurring.
It is clear from some of our operatring manuals that, indeed, the idea of harsh tactics was partly borrowed from the Germans.

Ben H. Severance - 5/13/2004

Once again, I read an HNN comment lumping together the U.S. military and the Nazi death squads. While I concede that U.S. special forces have likely carried out some unsavory strikes both in the past and in the present, I reject your assertion that the U.S. Army as a whole is conducting itself like the Waffen SS. The comparison is absolute rubbish. If U.S. forces fought like the SS, then Fallujah, Najaf, Karbala, and other hotspots would have already been reduced to ashes and rubble, like Lidice was, but like My Lai wasn't. There is a huge difference between making total extermination an official policy as the Nazis did and having directives to neutralize enemy locations go badly awry as is sometimes the case when the U.S. engages in puntive operations.

As for your other dubious assertions: 1) two million Vietnamese may have died, but not because of deliberate liquidation, but mostly as a byproduct of a nasty and protracted war (and I think you'll find that the VC killed quite a few peasants who were lukewarm on the revolution or who had interacted with the Americans). 2) there is no racial component to U.S. policy in Iraq. Many soldiers may regard Arab/Islam culture with some anxiety, but race hatred is not an issue motivating American soldiers to kill. 3) we can expect the reprisals over Abu Ghraib to extend beyond a handful of enlisted personnel; it is too disgraceful an event for the nation to sweep under the rug. Expect some MI and MP officers to face court martials as well. I will, though, add that I consider this incident an aberration, an admittedly frigtening one, but the U.S. fighting men and women have a well-deserved reputation for treating people with decency and goodwill, relatively and comparatively speaking of course, and are conducting themselves with marked professionalism in Iraq.

Kenneth T. Tellis - 5/12/2004

Was there a conspiracy to hide all the atrocities committed in Vietnam by the US forces? That really seems to be the case after the release of information regarding the 45 strong Tiger Force unit of the US 101st Airborne Division's wholesale massacres in the central highlands of Vietnam by the Pentagon 30 years ago. Are we to understand that the US Deparment of Defense has been open and honest in all the information it has so far revealed?

When one realizes that two million Vietnamese civilians disappeared mysteriously after US forces moved into their villages and hamlets in Vietnam, the question arises, where did they go? Surely there is a better explanation for all of this. Perhaps we have even hit the tip of the iceberg as yet. But we should not hold our breath, waiting for the US government to devulge such information.

If Iraq is any example of atrocities committed by US forces, then we certainly have not idea to what extent and how far this goes back. But one thing is sure, that it not really different to the attitude taken by the Nazi SS divisions that carried out their pogrom in various parts of Europe. It was race based as the case of US forces in Iraq, of that there should never be any doubt.

If My Lai was the Lidice of Vietnam, has there already been a My Lai of Iraq? Perhaps that is the moot point. We will just have to wait and see.

Meanwhile we are about to see the first set of mock trials of US army personnel for the Abu Ghraib atrocities being held after the script has been written and played out in the Pentagon. But don't hold your breath for any real prison terms to be given to the accused. This is only play acting, as in all other showed run by the US Defense Department.

Edwin Moise - 5/12/2004

Film was a widely used technology long before photography went digital. In fact there was one quite famous, but spurious, photograph that circulated during the Vietnam War, purportedly showing a man being thrown from a helicopter. But it was the shortage of eyewitness testimony that I mainly had in mind, when I said there was a lack of evidence for widespread use of helicopter interrogation.

I am aware of one purported witness, Kenneth Barton Osborn. Some of his other statements struck me as so unlikely as to deprive him of overall credibility. The Osborn testimony I have seen is in _U.S. Assistance Programs in Vietnam_ (Hearings of the Foreign Operations and Government Information Subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations, July 15, 16, 19, and 21, and August 2, 1971). I believe some can also be found in _Nomination of William E. Colby_ (Hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee, July 2, 20, and 25, 1973).

I would be grateful if David Salmanson would furnish details about the other eyewitnesses of whom he is aware.

Ed Moise

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/11/2004

"Massive civilian deaths and torture are characteristic of all three Imperial Interventions."

Assumes facts not in evidence. Where is the evidence of "massive civilian deaths" in urban areas. This is assumed, rather than argued for.

David Lion Salmanson - 5/11/2004

This raises an interesting question about evidence. In a non-digital age it was highly unlikely anyone filmed this technique. We do have several eyewitness accounts, although no one to my knowledge has admitted to performing the act themselves. I can't imagine what physical evidence we could find to support it. So what would count as affirmative evidence and where might such evidence be found? In this case, I think Mr. Moise's confidence is a bit misplaced. Eyewitness accounts however shaky deserve some credence and warrant further investigation.

Edwin Moise - 5/11/2004

Dr. Marina said, regarding the use of torture during the Vietnam War, "A common method was to jamb wire through the hands and wire them together. The person was then taken up in a helicopter, and pushed out the open door if he refused to talk."

While I would not try to deny that torture was used in Vietnam, there is a conspicuous shortage of evidence behind the often-made claims about frequent use of helicopters as interrogation devices. I am confident that these claims are unfounded.

Edwin Moise