Water Torture, as American as Apple Pie
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“I had a ‘water job’ done on me,” one former American prisoner told a military investigator, according to a 1969 Army report. “I was handcuffed and taken to the shower… They held my head under the shower for about two minutes and when I’d pull back to breath, they beat me on the chest and stomach. This lasted for about 10 minutes, during which I was knocked to the floor twice. When I begged for them to stop, they did.”
Another said that his cellmate had rolled their cigarette butts together to fashion a full cigarette. When the guards discovered the “contraband,” they grabbed him and hauled him to the showers. “Three of the guards held me and the other one held my face under the shower,” he testified. “This lasted quite a while and I thought I was going to drown.” Afterward, he said, the same thing was done to his cellmate who, upon returning, admitted that “he confessed” as a result of the torture.
Still another captive testified that handcuffed prisoners were taken to the showers. “The guards would hold the prisoner’s head back and make him swallow water,” he explained. “This treatment would cause the prisoner to resist which would give the guards an excuse to punch the prisoner.” He also testified that it was no isolated incident. “I have witnessed such treatments about nine times.”
“Cruel or Unusual”
This wasn’t, in fact, the first time Americans had been subjected to water torture while at war in Asia. During World War II, members of the Japanese military used water torture on American prisoners. “I was given what they call the water cure," Lieutenant Chase Nielsen testified after the war. When asked about the experience, he answered: “I felt more or less like I was drowning, just gasping between life and death."
The same tortures were also meted out to American pilots captured during the Korean War. One described his treatment this way: “They would bend my head back, put a towel over my face, and pour water over the towel. I could not breathe... When I would pass out, they would shake me and begin again.”
The legal response to torturers in Vietnam was very different. While investigating allegations against Staff Sergeant Carmon, for instance, Army agents discovered within his unit a pattern of "cruelty and maltreatment" of prisoners that went on from March 1968 to October 1969. According to an official report, Army agents determined that the evidence warranted formal charges against 22 interrogators, many of them implicated in the use of water torture, electrical torture, beatings, and other forms of mistreatment. But neither Carmon nor any of the others was ever charged, court martialed, or punished in any way, according to the records.
There was similar impunity for -- in one of the more bizarre uses of water torture -- Americans who tortured Americans in Vietnam. Although a 1969 Army Inspector General’s report into “alleged brutality and maltreatment” noted that “the water treatment was administered as a form of punishment and constitutes a form of maltreatment of prisoners,” those who water-tortured American personnel were never tried, let alone sentenced to long prison terms or executed for their crimes. In fact, those implicated -- Army guards working at the American detention facility informally known as Long Binh Jail -- apparently escaped any punishment whatsoever.
This record of impunity has continued in more recent years. While the CIA has acknowledged its use of waterboarding after 9/11 and President Obama has unambiguously stated that the practice is a method of torture, his administration declared that no one would be prosecuted for utilizing it or any other “ enhanced interrogation technique.” As a CIA spokesperson pointed out to ProPublica last year, after reviewing the Agency’s treatment of more than 100 detainees, the Department of Justice “declined prosecution in every case."