American Debate on Torture Rages: 100 Years Ago in the Philippines

Few Americans are aware that there was a Philippine-American War that grew out of the 1898 Spanish American War, and which quickly deteriorated into a nasty guerilla conflict that presaged what would happen in Vietnam 60 years later. Fewer still know that an issue that stirred debate in America during that war was the use by the Americans of a technique that was then known as the “water cure”, and is now known as waterboarding. Following is an interesting article by Paul Kramer in the Asia Pacific Journal.

The Water Cure. An American Debate on torture and counterinsurgency in the Philippines—a century ago

Just over one hundred years ago, in 1902, Americans participated in a brief, intense and mostly forgotten debate on the practice of torture in a context of imperial warfare and counter-insurgency. The setting was the U. S. invasion of the Philippines, a war of conquest waged against the forces of the Philippine Republic begun in 1899. Within a year, it had developed into a guerrilla conflict, one that aroused considerable anti-war opposition in the United States.

The controversy was sparked when letters from ordinary American soldiers in the Islands surfaced in hometown newspapers in the United States containing sometimes graphic accounts of torture, and activists within the anti-imperialist movement pressed for public exposure, investigation and accountability. At the center of the storm was what American soldiers called the “water cure,” a form of torture which involved the drowning of prisoners, often but not always for purposes of interrogation.

In early 1902, the Senate Committee on the Philippines embarked on an investigation into “Affairs in the Philippine Islands.” While pro-war Senators on the committee tried to sideline questions of U. S. troop conduct, anti-war Senators, working closely with anti-imperialist investigators, provided a platform for U. S. soldiers to testify regarding the practice of torture, including the “water cure.” Their accounts triggered a response by Secretary of War Elihu Root that included the minimization of atrocity and the inauguration of court-martial proceedings for some soldiers and officers accused of torturing Filipinos. Read the entire article at Asia Pacific Journal

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