A “Cure” Worse Than the Disease

In a story relevant to the present day, the February 25 issue of the New Yorker has an article, “The Water Cure,” exploring waterboarding and other acts of torture committed by U.S. forces in the Philippines during the “anti-insurgency” there in 1902.

The parallels are striking: U.S. forces turn to illegal practices in a guerilla struggle against a little-understood enemy far from home. Opponents of torture are derided as traitors and apologists for the enemy. The acts of others—past mistreatment of Filipinos by the Spanish, the supposed savagery of the “uncivilized” insurgents—are used to rationalize torture. And the public, initially outraged, quickly loses interest.

So what inspired that initial outrage? The article recounts:

In the wake of a surprise attack by Filipino revolutionaries on American troops in the town of Balangiga, which had killed forty-eight of seventy-four members of an American Army company, Waller and his forces were deployed on a search-and-destroy mission across the island. During an ill-fated march into the island’s uncharted interior, Waller had become lost, feverish, and paranoid. Believing that Filipino guides and carriers in the service of his marines were guilty of treachery, he ordered eleven of them summarily shot. During his court-martial, Waller testified that he had been under orders from the volatile, aging Brigadier General Jacob Smith (“Hell-Roaring Jake,” to his comrades) to transform the island into a “howling wilderness,” to “kill and burn” to the greatest degree possible—“The more you kill and burn, the better it will please me”—and to shoot anyone “capable of bearing arms.” According to Waller, when he asked Smith what this last stipulation meant in practical terms, Smith had clarified that he thought that ten-year-old Filipino boys were capable of bearing arms. (In light of those orders, Waller was acquitted.)


A letter from Riley had been published in the Northampton Daily Herald in March of the previous year, describing the water-cure torture of Tobeniano Ealdama, the presidente of the town of Igbaras, where Riley, then a sergeant in the 26th Volunteer Infantry, had been stationed…Upon entering the town’s convent, which had been seized as a headquarters, Riley had witnessed Ealdama being bound and forced full of water, while supervised by a contract surgeon and Captain Edwin Glenn, a judge advocate. Ealdama’s throat had been “held so he could not prevent swallowing the water, so that he had to allow the water to run into his stomach”; the water was then “forced out of him by pressing a foot on his stomach or else with [the soldiers’] hands.” The ostensible goal of the water cure was to obtain intelligence: after a second round of torture, carried out in front of the convent by a “water detail” of five or six men, Ealdama confessed to serving as a captain in the insurgency. He then led U.S. forces into the bush in search of insurgents. After their return to Igbaras, that night, Glenn had ordered that the town, consisting of between four and five hundred houses, be burned to the ground, as Riley explained, “on account of the condition of affairs exposed by the treatment.”

Waterboarding has been used by the Spanish Inquisition, the Khmer Rouge, the Gestapo, and other institutions of deserved infamy. But supporters of the Bush Administration are happy to be apologists for this torture technique. Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman said, “It’s not like putting burning coals on people’s bodies.” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told the BBC “it would be absurd to say that you can’t stick something under the fingernails, smack them in the face.” Vice President Dick Cheney labeled the practice “a no-brainer.”

But all of them would insist that “The United States doesn’t torture,” even as they destroy evidence of it to avoid future war crimes. (And the practice is a war crime, as Japanese military officials prosecuted in the wake of World War II discovered.)

Sadly, waterboarding is just the most egregious of the many cruel practices inflicted upon prisoners by American interrogators. But even when the White House formally admitted to it, the news was greeted with a collective shrug. Who would have ever thought the United States would become synonymous with torture? The answer to that question lies in the past, and the lessons we’ve failed to bring into the present with us.