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Nick Turse: The Hidden History of Water Torture

7:29 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Waterboarding at a protest

A demonstration of waterboarding at a protest. In this article, Nick Turse reveals the historic use of water torture by US forces.

Sometimes, the world can be such a simple, black-and-white sort of place.  Let me give you an example.  Imagine for a moment that the Iranians kidnap an American citizen from a third country.  (If you prefer, feel free to substitute al-Qaeda or the North Koreans or the Chinese for the Iranians.)  They accuse him of being a terrorist.  They throw him in jail without charges or a trial or a sentence and claim they suspect he might have crucial information (perhaps even of the “ticking bomb” sort — and the Iranians have had some genuine experience with ticking bombs). Over the weeks that follow, they waterboard him time and again. They strip him, put a dog collar and leash on him.  They hood him, loose dogs on him. They subject him to freezing cold water and leave him naked on cold nights. They hang him by his arms from the ceiling of his cell in the “strappado” position. I’m sure I really don’t have to go on.  Is there any question what we (or our leaders) would think or say?

We would call them barbarians. Beyond the bounds of civilization. Torturers. Monsters. Evil. No one in the U.S. government, on reading CIA intelligence reports about how that American had been treated, would wonder: Is it torture? No one in Washington would have the urge to call what the Iranians (al-Qaeda, the North Koreans, the Chinese) did “enhanced interrogation techniques.” If, on being asked at a Senate hearing whether he thought the Iranian acts were, in fact, “torture,” the prospective director of the CIA demurred, claimed he was no expert on the subject, no lawyer or legal scholar, and simply couldn’t label it as such, he would not be confirmed.  He would probably never have a job in Washington again. If asked whether the Iranians who committed such acts against that American and their superiors who ordered them to do so, should be brought before an American or international court and tried, the president would surely not suggest that this was the moment to “look forward, not backward,” nor would his justice department give them a free pass.

You see what I mean? When evil is evil, the world couldn’t be more cut-and-dried.  It’s only when, as Nick Turse, author of the bestselling book Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, writes today, the acts in question are committed by Americans on Evil Doers, under the orders or encouragement of their superiors, based on policies set at the highest levels in Washington, that such matters become complex, shaded in greys, open to interpretation, understandable in human terms, and explicable by citing ticking-bomb scenarios (however imaginary). Tom

“I Begged for Them to Stop”  
Waterboarding Americans and the Redefinition of Torture
By Nick Turse

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

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Jonathan Schell, Seeing the Reality of the Vietnam War, 50 Years Late

7:49 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Editor's Note: The Firedoglake Book Salon will host Nick Turse for a discussion of Kill Anything That Moves on January 19. -MyFDL Editor]

Kill Anything That Moves cover

Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse, a new look at the cost of Vietnam in civilian lives

Forty-six years ago, in January 1966, Jonathan Schell, a 23-year-old not-quite-journalist found himself at the farming village of Ben Suc, 30 miles from the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon.  It had long been supportive of the Vietcong.  Now, in what was dubbed Operation Cedar Falls, the U.S. military (with Schell in tow) launched an operation to solve that problem.  The “solution” was typical of how Americans fought the Vietnam War.  All the village’s 3,500 inhabitants were to be removed to a squalid refugee camp and Ben Suc itself simply obliterated — every trace of the place for all time.  Schell’s remarkable and remarkably blunt observations on this grim operation were, no less remarkably, published in the New Yorker magazine and then as a book, causing a stir in a country where anti-war sentiment was growing fast.

In 1967, Schell returned to Vietnam and spent weeks in the northern part of the country watching from the backseats of tiny U.S. forward air control planes as parts of two provinces were quite literally blown away, house by house, village by village, an experience he recalls in today’s TomDispatch post.  From that came another New Yorker piece and then a book, The Military Half, which offered (and still offers) an unmatched journalistic vision of what the Vietnam War looked like.  It was a moment well captured in a mocking song one of the American pilots sang for him after an operation in which he had called in bombs on two Vietnamese churches, but somehow missed the white flag flying in front of them. The relevant stanza went:

Strafe the town and kill the people,
Drop napalm in the square,
Get out early every Sunday
And catch them at their morning prayer.

If Afghanistan is the war we somehow haven’t managed to notice most of the time, even while it’s going on, Vietnam was the war Americans couldn’t forget and have never been able to kick, possibly because we never managed to come to grips with just what it was and what we did there. Now, so many years later, in a monumental essay appearing in print in the Nation magazine and online here at TomDispatch, Schell returns (via Nick Turse’s new book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam) to the haunted terrain he last visited so many decades ago All of us, whether we know it or not, still live with the ghosts of that moment. Tom

How Did the Gates of Hell Open in Vietnam? 
A New Book Transforms Our Understanding of What the Vietnam War Actually Was 
By Jonathan Schell

For half a century we have been arguing about “the Vietnam War.” Is it possible that we didn’t know what we were talking about? After all that has been written (some 30,000 books and counting), it scarcely seems possible, but such, it turns out, has literally been the case.

Now, in Kill Anything that MovesNick Turse has for the first time put together a comprehensive picture, written with mastery and dignity, of what American forces actually were doing in Vietnam. The findings disclose an almost unspeakable truth.  Meticulously piecing together newly released classified information, court-martial records, Pentagon reports, and firsthand interviews in Vietnam and the United States, as well as contemporaneous press accounts and secondary literature, Turse discovers that episodes of devastation, murder, massacre, rape, and torture once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm, adding up to a continuous stream of atrocity, unfolding, year after year, throughout that country.

It has been Turse’s great achievement to see that, thanks to the special character of the war, its prime reality — an accurate overall picture of what physically was occurring on the ground — had never been assembled; that with imagination and years of dogged work this could be done; and that even a half-century after the beginning of the war it still should be done. Turse acknowledges that, even now, not enough is known to present this picture in statistical terms. To be sure, he offers plenty of numbers — for instance the mind-boggling estimates that during the war there were some two million civilians killed and some five million wounded, that the United States flew 3.4 million aircraft sorties, and that it expended 30 billion pounds of munitions, releasing the equivalent in explosive force of 640 Hiroshima bombs.

Yet it would not have been enough to simply accumulate anecdotal evidence of abuses. Therefore, while providing an abundance of firsthand accounts, he has supplemented this approach. Like a fabric, a social reality — a town, a university, a revolution, a war — has a pattern and a texture.  No fact is an island. Each one is rich in implications, which, so to speak, reach out toward the wider area of the surrounding facts. When some of these other facts are confirmed, they begin to reveal the pattern and texture in question.

Turse repeatedly invites us to ask what sort of larger picture each story implies. For example, he writes:

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Nick Turse: A War Victim’s Question Only You Can Answer

8:55 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Editor's Note: The Firedoglake Book Salon will host Nick Turse for a discussion of Kill Anything That Moves on January 19. -MyFDL Editor]

Kill Anything That Moves cover

Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse, a new look at the cost of Vietnam in civilian lives

In late December 2001, not long after Washington’s second Afghan War began, there was that wedding celebration in eastern Afghanistan in which 110 of 112 villagers were reportedly killed by American B-52 and B-1B bombers using precision guided weapons.  Then there were the more than 40 Iraqi wedding celebrants (27 from one extended family, including 14 children) who died when U.S. planes struck their party at a village near the Syrian border back in May 2004, and the Afghan bridal party of 70 to 90 who were taken out by a U.S. airstrike on a road near the Pakistani border in July 2008.  (The bride and 46 of those accompanying her died, according to an Afghan inquiry, including 39 women and children.)  Added to this list should be the 24 unarmed Iraqi men, women, and children, ranging in age from 3 to 76, murdered by U.S. Marines in November 2005 in the long-forgotten Haditha massacre. And the 14-year-old girl whom American soldiers gang-raped and murdered along with her family in Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad, the next year.  And then there was the headline-grabbing case of those 16 civilians, nine of them children, 11 from one family, reportedly slaughtered (and some of their corpses burned) by Staff Sergeant Robert Bales in two southern Afghan villages in the course of a single night in March 2012.

Let’s not forget either the 12 Iraqis, including two Reuters employees, shot dead (and two children badly wounded) on a Baghdad street in July 2007 by the laughing crew of an Apache helicopter, as revealed in an infamous video released by WikiLeaks.  There were also the 60 children (and up to 30 adults) who died in the Afghan village of Azizabad on an August night in 2008 while attending a memorial service for a tribal leader who had been, villagers reported, anti-Taliban.  That, too, was thanks to air strikes. There were also those three (or more) Afghan civilians hunted down “for sport” in the summer of 2010 by a self-appointed U.S. “kill team” who were collecting trophy body parts.  And there were the 10 boys, including two sets of brothers, collecting wood for their families in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province early in 2011, who were attacked by U.S. helicopters.  Only one wounded boy survived.  Or most recently, the 11 Yemeni civilians, including women and children, in a Toyota truck killed by a U.S. airstrike and initially labeled “al-Qaeda militants.”

Such a list, of course, only scratches the surface of a reality that we in the United States have hardly noticed and so have to expend no effort whatsoever to ignore.  Unlike for the victims of 9/11 or more recently of Newtown, there will be no memorials, no teddy bears, no special rites, no solemn ceremonies.  Nothing.  The distant dead of our wars have largely paid the price in silence and anonymity for what the U.S. intelligence community likes to call the last superpower’s duty of being a “global security provider” — and which elsewhere often looks more like inflicting mayhem on local populations.

In addition, the particular form of “security” we’ve brought to such areas via the U.S. military continues even after we leave.  U.S. troops are gone from Iraq, for example, but the violence our invasion and occupation set loose has never ended. Iraq Body Count has just issued its report on rising deaths from violence in that country in 2012, both among the Iraqi police (922) and civilians (4,471). It concludes: “In sum the latest evidence suggests that the country remains in a state of low-level war little changed since early 2009, with a ‘background’ level of everyday armed violence punctuated by occasional larger-scale attacks designed to kill many people at once.” We bear genuine responsibility for this, but no longer care a whit.

It’s good that one American did care and has spent the last decade preparing to help us remember what kind of “security” our wars have long brought to such distant regions.  Nick Turse’s new book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, paints a memorable portrait of the war that, unlike Iraq and undoubtedly someday Afghanistan, we can’t seem to forget.  Today, from his groundbreaking work on civilian suffering, he suggests the one way the “Vietnam analogy” really does apply to Iraq and Afghanistan. Tom  

“So Many People Died”
The American System of Suffering, 1965-2014
By Nick Turse

Pham To looked great for 78 years old.  (At least, that’s about how old he thought he was.)  His hair was thin, gray, and receding at the temples, but his eyes were lively and his physique robust — all the more remarkable given what he had lived through.  I listened intently, as I had so many times before to so many similar stories, but it was still beyond my ability to comprehend.  It’s probably beyond yours, too.

Pham To told me that the planes began their bombing runs in 1965 and that periodic artillery shelling started about the same time.  Nobody will ever know just how many civilians were killed in the years after that.  “The number is uncountable,” he said one spring day a few years ago in a village in the mountains of rural central Vietnam.  “So many people died.”

And it only got worse.  Chemical defoliants came next, ravaging the land.  Helicopter machine gunners began firing on locals.  By 1969, bombing and shelling were day-and-night occurrences.  Many villagers fled.  Some headed further into the mountains, trading the terror of imminent death for a daily struggle of hardscrabble privation; others were forced into squalid refugee resettlement areas.  Those who remained in the village suffered more when the troops came through.  Homes were burned as a matter of course.  People were kicked and beaten.  Men were shot when they ran in fear.  Women were raped.  One morning, a massacre by American soldiers wiped out 21 fellow villagers.  This was the Vietnam War for Pham To, as for so many rural Vietnamese.

One, Two… Many Vietnams?

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Nick Turse: Memory Failure at the Pentagon

6:42 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Photo by David B. Gleason

Call it a mantra, a litany, or a to-don’t list, but the drip, drip, drip of Afghan disaster and the gross-out acts accompanying it have already resulted in one of those classic fill-you-in paragraphs that reporters hang onto for whenever the next little catastrophe rears its ugly head. Here’s how that list typically went after the Los Angeles Times revealed that troops from the 82nd Airborne had mugged for the camera with the corpses or body parts of Afghan enemies:The images also add to a troubling list of cases — including Marines videotaped urinating on Taliban bodies, the burning of Korans, and the massacre of villagers attributed to a lone Army sergeant — that have cast American soldiers in the harshest possible light before the Afghan public.”

That is, of course, only a partial list. Left out, for instance, was the American “kill team” that hunted Afghan civilians “for sport,” took body parts as trophies, and shot photos of their “kills,” not to speak of the sniper outfit that posed with an SS banner, or the U.S. base named “Combat Outpost Aryan.” (For Afghans, of course, it’s been so much worse. After all, what Americans even remember the obliterated wedding parties, eviscerated baby-naming ceremonies, blown away funerals, or even the eight shepherd boys “armed” with sticks recently slaughtered by helicopter, or any of the “thorough investigations” the U.S. military officially launched about which no one ever heard a peep, or the lack of command responsibility for any of this?)

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