Blogs > Liberty and Power > Continuity in American History: The Torture Issue and Punishing Civilians

Apr 21, 2009 6:50 am

Continuity in American History: The Torture Issue and Punishing Civilians

Anthony Gregory is undoubtedly correct that it is important that Americans explore the history of our massive “Warfare State.” When did it all begin?

The torture issue, much now in the news with respect to the CIA, overlaps with that of the punishment and killing of civilians as is evident almost daily in the drone missile killings of whole families in Afghanistan.

One might begin with our treatment of Native Americans as they were dragged westward in the 1820s. In an article on that in the 2nd Ed. of News of the Nation: A Newspaper History of the US (1976), I described the shame of American soldiers, many of them veterans going back to our Revolution, of the way in which the Indian peoples were treated, the number who died, as a result of carrying out these orders of the American government.

The counter-insurgency tactics in vogue today (so-called 4th generation warfare) of punishing the civilian population harboring the insurgents as in Vietnam and Afghanistan today, much beloved by people like Gen. Patraeus, and used all over Central America and the Caribbean for decades, were already evident in war against the Seminoles in the 1830s, as detailed in Tebeau & Marina, A History of Florida (3rd Ed., 1999). One officer who learned his tactics there was later Gen., William T. Sherman, who used these on the South with a vengeance in our Civil War.

The Indians, however, did not escape retribution then either. In 1864, the Western Command ordered that the Indians “must be punished." One result of this was the Sand Creek Massacre, sometimes mentioned by the name of the commander, Chivington. The Senate investigation mentioned the cutting open of the bellies of pregnant women and the cutting off of men’s testicles in order to make tobacco pouches of the sacks. This is sometimes called, “the Winning of the West,” as we brought them Christian Civilization.

But with the development of the Overseas Empire in 1898, we really got down to formally developing tactics of counter-insurgency, what Big Bill Taft and others called “civilizing ‘em with a Krag!” The favorite was the Water “Treatment,” or “Cure,” or, with refreshing candor at least, “Torture.” This is detailed in a pamphlet compiled by the Anti-Imperialist League Marked Severities (1902). A Senate Investigation was stymied by Republican politicians such as the imperialist Henry Cabot Lodge, and the so-called Anti-Imperialist, Andrew Carnegie, withdrew $5,000 he had promised to aid such an investigation. We should not be surprised that these same politics have prevailed with respect to investigating our tortures and atrocities since 2003. One difference, in the water torture then, we used a pressure hose, so that whether you talked or not, you would die from the infection as a result of the lesions caused to the wall of your stomach. There would not be the hundreds of"boardings" on a single person, now attributed to the CIA.

There is some hope that not only are a number of nations concerned about our disregard for international law, but some in the Congress, and perhaps even the Attorney General, do not wholly agree with President Obama and his Chief of Staff, that these hundreds of incidents of water boarding cannot simply be brushed aside. And, of course, the use of drones continues with a vengeance!

I often wonder if our veterans in the 1820s, or 1898, or our other numerous interventions, have suffered from the same mental symptoms that increasingly since Vietnam, and now in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have come to call PTSD, ”Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” The VA has only haltingly begun to deal with this problem.

Joseph Welch once asked of Sen. Joesph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, Sir,” but that has sometimes been rendered as “shame,” rather than “decency.” I believe that it is long past time for the people of a nation that some claim to be Christian, to look in the mirror and ask of themselves, since most of their politicians will not do so, “have we no sense of shame, no sense of law, for what we have asked our soldiers to do in our name?”

Perhaps, it is not the growing number of our veterans who are ill, but rather, the great mass of our people, in a rather “sick” nation that have accepted this kind of torture and killing policies for well over a century now, ordered by those in the highest echelons of our Government, who are the real problem. Empire does, indeed, have a high price!

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