Torture Is an American Value: Reality vs. the
By S. Brian Willson
12/07/05 "VVAW" -- -- I became aware of torture as a U.S. policy in
1969 when I was serving as a USAF combat security officer working
near Can Tho City in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. I was informed about
the CIA's Phong Dinh Province Interrogation Center (PIC) at the Can
Tho Army airfield where supposedly "significant members" of the VCI
(Viet Cong infrastructure) were taken for torture as part of the
Phoenix Pacification Program. A huge French-built prison nearby was
also apparently utilized for torture of suspects from the Delta
region. Many were routinely murdered.
Naive, I was shocked! The Agency for International Development (AID)
working with Southern Illinois University, for example, trained
Vietnamese police and prison officials in the art of torture
("interrogations") under cover of "public safety." American
officials believed they were teaching "better methods," often making
suggestions during torture sessions conducted by Vietnamese police.
Instead of the recent euphemism "illegal combatants," the United
State in Vietnam claimed prisoners were "criminal" and therefore
exempt from Geneva Convention protections.
The use of torture as a function of terror, or its equivalent in
sadistic behavior, has been historic de facto U.S. policy.
Our European ancestors' shameful, sadistic treatment of the
indigenous inhabitants based on an ethos of arrogance and violence
has become ingrained in our values. "Manifest destiny" has
rationalized as a religion the elimination or assimilation of those
perceived to be blocking American progress—at home or abroad—a
belief that expansion of the nation, including subjugation of
natives and others, is divinely ordained, that our "superior race"
is obligated to "civilize" those who stand in the way.
When examining my roots in New York and New England, I discovered
that Indian captives were skinned alive and dragged through the
streets of New Amsterdam (New York City) in the 1640s. Scalping
enabled Indian bounty hunters to be paid.
Captains Underhill and Endicott, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony
governed by John Winthrop, spent their time "burning and spoiling
the country" of Indians in Rhode Island and Connecticut in 1636–37,
while sparing the children and women as slaves.
My hometown of Geneva in the Finger Lakes region of New York State
was once home to the Seneca Nation with its flourishing farms,
orchards, and sturdy houses. In one two-week period in September
1779, General George Washington's orders "to lay waste…that the
country…be…destroyed," instilling "terror" among the Indians, were
dutifully carried out by General Sullivan, who promised that "the
Indians shall see that there is malice enough in our hearts to
destroy everything that contributes to their support." Sullivan's
campaign has been described as a ruthless policy of scorched earth,
bearing comparison with Sherman's march to the sea or the
search-and-destroy missions of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.
In northern California, where I now live, the same grueling history
exists. Bret Harte wrote in 1860 that little children and old women
were mercilessly stabbed and their skulls crushed by axes: "Old
women…lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out…while
infants…with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies
ghastly wounds" lay nearby.
In 1920, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People (NAACP) investigated the conduct of U.S. troops who had
occupied Haiti since 1915. More than 3,000 Haitians were killed by
U.S. Marines, many having been tortured.
When indigenous Nicaraguan resistance fought against the occupying
U.S. forces in the late 1920s, the Marines launched
counterinsurgency war. U.S. policymakers insisted on "stabilizing"
the country to enforce loan repayments to U.S. banks. They defined
the resistance forces as "bandits," an earlier equivalent to the
"criminal prisoners" in Vietnam and "illegal combatants" in Iraq.
Since the United States claimed not to be fighting a legitimate
military force, any Nicaraguan perceived as interfering with the
occupiers was commonly subjected to beatings, tortures, and
beheadings. When the Somoza dictatorship (installed by the United
States) was overthrown in 1979, the Somoza torture centers were
In 1946, the U.S. Army institutionalized teaching torture techniques
to Latin American militaries with the opening of its School of the
Americas (SOA), which continues today as the Western Hemisphere
Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC).
Torture has been a historical U.S. practice in police stations and
prisons—and via countless vigilante crimes of sadistic torture and
mutilation against black Americans.
The Wickersham Commission's 1931 Report on Lawlessness in Law
Enforcement concluded that "the third degree is the employment of
methods which inflict suffering, physical or mental, upon a person,
in order to obtain from that person information about a crime… The
third degree is widespread. The third degree is a secret and illegal
Seventy years later, the 2002 Human Rights Watch World Report
documented systematic use of torture by U.S. police: "thousands of
allegations of police abuse, including excessive use of force, such
as unjustified shootings, beatings, fatal chokings, and rough
My studies of brutality in Massachusetts prisons in 1981 concluded
(in "Walpole State Prison, Massachusetts: An Exercise in Torture")
by noting "a clear pattern and history of systematic torture
including withholding water, heat, bedding, medical care, and
showers; imposition of hazards such as flooding cells, placing
foreign matter in food, igniting clothes and bedding, spraying with
mace and tear gas; regular physical assaults and beatings; and
forcing prisoners to lie face down, naked and handcuffed to one
another…on freezing…outdoor ground while being kicked and beaten."
This was two decades before the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo
Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist, has testified about human rights
abuses in U.S. prisons. "The plight of prisoners in the USA is
strikingly similar to the plight of the Iraqis who were abused by
American GIs. Prisoners are maced, raped, beaten, starved, left
naked in freezing cold cells and otherwise abused in too many
American prisons, as substantiated by findings in many courts…"
It would behoove us to attempt to understand the underlying
psychological defenses that seem to have afflicted us like a
cultural mental illness since our origins.
S. Brian Willson was head of a USAF combat security unit in
Vietnam. A lawyer by training, and a writer (www.brianwillson.com
), he is a member of Humboldt Bay Veterans for Peace, a Northern
California contact for VVAW, and a member of the Arcata Nuclear Free
Zone and Peace Commission.
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