Water Torture, as American as Apple Pie
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.
Try to remain calm -- even as you begin to feel your chest tighten and your heart race. Try not to panic as water starts flowing into your nose and mouth, while you attempt to constrict your throat and slow your breathing and keep some air in your lungs and fight that growing feeling of suffocation. Try not to think about dying, because there’s nothing you can do about it, because you’re tied down, because someone is pouring that water over your face, forcing it into you, drowning you slowly and deliberately. You’re helpless. You’re in agony.
In short, you’re a victim of “water torture.” Or the “water cure.” Or the “water rag.” Or the “water treatment.” Or “ tormenta de toca.” Or any of the other nicknames given to the particular form of brutality that today goes by the relatively innocuous term “waterboarding.”
The practice only became widely known in the United States after it was disclosed that the CIA had been subjecting suspected terrorists to it in the wake of 9/11. More recently, cinematic depictions of waterboarding in the award-winning film Zero Dark Thirty and questions about it at the Senate confirmation hearing for incoming CIA chief John Brennan have sparked debate. Water torture, however, has a surprisingly long history, dating back to at least the fourteenth century. It has been a U.S. military staple since the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was employed by Americans fighting an independence movement in the Philippines. American troops would continue to use the brutal tactic in the decades to come -- and during the country’s repeated wars in Asia, they would be victims of it, too.
Water Torture in Vietnam
For more than a decade, I’ve investigated atrocities committed during the Vietnam War. In that time, I’ve come to know people who employed water torture and people who were brutalized by it. Americans and their South Vietnamese allies regularly used it on enemy prisoners and civilian detainees in an effort to gain intelligence or simply punish them. A picture of the practice even landed on the front page of the Washington Post on January 21, 1968, but mostly it went on in secret.
Long-hidden military documents help to fill in the picture. "I held the suspect down, placed a cloth over his face, and then poured water over the cloth, thus forcing water into his mouth,” Staff Sergeant David Carmon explained in testimony to Army criminal investigators in December 1970. According to their synopsis, he admitted to using both electrical torture and water torture in interrogating a detainee who died not long after.
According to summaries of eyewitness statements by members of Carmon’s unit, the prisoner, identified as Nguyen Cong, had been "beat and kicked," lost consciousness, and suffered convulsions. A doctor who examined Nguyen, however, claimed there was nothing wrong with him. Carmon and another member of his military intelligence team then "slapped the Vietnamese and poured water on his face from a five-gallon can," according to a summary of his testimony. An official report from May 1971 states that Nguyen Cong passed out "and was carried to the confinement cage where he was later found dead.”
Years later, Carmon told me by email that the abuse of prisoners in Vietnam was extensive and encouraged by superiors. "Nothing was sanctioned," he wrote, "but nothing was off-limits short of seriously injuring a prisoner."
It turns out that Vietnamese prisoners weren’t the only ones subjected to water torture in Vietnam. U.S. military personnel serving there were victims, too. Documents I came across in the U.S. National Archives offer a glimpse of a horrifying history that few Americans know anything about.