Stephen Bainbridge: We practiced torture in World War II

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Bainbridge is a professor of law at UCLA.]

As long-time readers know, I oppose the use of torture or other violations of the Geneva Convention in how the US treats war on terror detainees. But I also oppose historical inaccuracies. Balkinization blogger Scott Horton recently claimed that in World War II:

Allied propaganda made clear that torture marked our adversaries, but not us. The Greatest Generation upheld our nation's ideals when it went to war. It understood the value of those ideals as weapons. It won the war. And then it did some real magic. By treating our adversaries as human beings, by showing them dignity and respect, our grandfathers' generation created a new world in the rubble of the Second World War. The nations which were our bitterest adversaries - Germany, Italy and Japan - emerged in the briefest time as our committed friends and allies. A world was born in which America was the dynamic center. And the foundation was laid to win the Cold War as well, after which America would emerge as the world's sole superpower, its direction-giving force.

Anybody who's read anything about how the so-called "Greatest Generation" waged war knows that Horton is wrong or, at least, exaggerating.

Victor Davis Hanson rejects arguments that torture:

...  is entirely foreign to the U.S. military experience, at least from what we know of it even in so-called good wars like World War II. There were American soldiers — sometimes in furor over the loss of comrades, sometimes to obtain critical information — who executed or tortured captured Japanese and German prisoners. Those who did so operated on a de facto "don't ask, don't tell" understanding, occasionally found it effective and were rarely punished by commanding officers.

An HNN analysis by Caleb Miller cites sources documenting that:

There was widespread mistreatment of German prisoners in the spring and summer of 1945. Men were beaten, denied water, forced to live in open camps without shelter, given inadequate food rations and inadequate medical care. Their mail was withheld. In some cases prisoners made a "soup" of water and grass in order to deal with their hunger. Men did die needlessly and inexcusably.

Miller opines:

If rough treatment designed to break an individual's will constitutes torture, then some may conclude that Nazis were tortured when subjected to rougher treatment, Holocaust films and American propaganda in the reeducation process.

Ilse Dorothee Pautsch likewise argues that German POWs captured as the war ended often were:

... stripped of all their possessions, including their paybooks, and herded into fenced compunds, some reminiscent of ‘cages’, without shelter or even sanitation. Such breaches of international law were an excuse for the sufferers to see themselves as victims – of the Americans, the war, and finally of Nazism. It was a way of evading the need to face up to their own responsibility for what had happened.

More generally, a Journal of American History review points out that during WW II, American authorities censored photgraphs to prevent the public from seeing "indications of American atrocities."

And, of course, it was with Greatest Generation generals at the top that US troops and spies used waterboarding and other forms of coercine interrogation in Viet Nam and elsewhere during the Cold War.

There are plenty of good arguments against the use of torture and coercive interrogation. A misleading white wash of the so-called Greatest Generation isn't one of them.

Mistreatment of German and Japanese POWs at the hands of US troops doubtless was far less pervasive and far less brutal than that or Allied POWs at the hands of their Axis captives. But it doesn't mean that that torture marked only our adversaries, but not us. The Americans who fought World War II were the good guys, but we do their memory no disservice when we remind ourselves that they were no angels. They were tough men who fought a horrific war and, from time to time, without niceties.

Read entire article at http://www.stephenbainbridge.com (blog)

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