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Water Torture, as American as Apple Pie

What does it mean when torture, already the definition of “cruel,” becomes usual?

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The 1969 Inspector General’s report on American torture of American prisoners unequivocally defined the “water treatment” meted out to jailed American military personnel as “cruel or unusual.”  Bush administration lawyers in the post-9/11 years, however, attempted to  redefine the drowning of defenseless prisoners as something less than torture, basically turning the clock back to the ethical standards of the Spanish Inquisition. 

At least that 1969 report noted that water torture “was administered without authority” to those American prisoners.  The current situation has been radically different.  In recent years, it wasn’t merely low-level brutalizers and their immediate superiors who sanctioned and approved torture techniques, but senior White House officials,  including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney.  From George W. Bush’s own memoir, we know that the previous president gave an enthusiastic order (“ Damn right!”) to subject other human beings to water torture, just as we  know that President Obama has  made certain no one in the government involved in ordering or facilitating such acts would ever answer for any of them. 

In 1901, an American officer was  sentenced to 10 years at hard labor for waterboarding a Filipino prisoner.  By the late 1940s, the centuries-old practice was so reviled that significant prison time or even death lay in store for those using it.  In the late 1960s, it was still viewed as a cruel and unusual punishment, even if U.S. troops who tortured Vietnamese and American captives weren’t subject to prosecution for it. In the twenty-first century, as water torture moved from Southeast Asian prison showers to the White House, it also morphed into an “enhanced interrogation technique.”  Today, the president’s pick to head the CIA  refuses even to label waterboarding as “torture.”

What does it say about a society when its morals and ethics on the treatment of captives go into reverse? What are we to make of leaders who authorize, promote, or shield such brutal practices or about citizens who stand by and allow them to happen?  What does it mean when torture, already  the definition of “cruel,” becomes usual?  

[Note: I’m not the first to write about the American use of water torture on U.S. prisoners in Vietnam.  See Cecil B. Currey’s 1999 volume,  Long Binh Jail: An Oral History of Vietnam’s Notorious U.S. Military Prison.  For an account, both gripping and harrowing, by a victim of water torture, see  The Question, journalist Henri Alleg’s bite-sized account of his torture by French forces in Algeria during the 1950s.]

Nick Turse is the managing editor of and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times the Nation , and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller  Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam  (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books).  You can watch his recent conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by  clicking here .  His website is  You can follow him on Tumblr and on  Facebook.

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