Revolution #138, August 3, 2008

Torture Techniques at Guantánamo: “Communist Inspired” ...or Developed, Refined, and Exported by the USA?

Part 2: The U.S. Roots of Waterboarding

A July 2 New York Times article titled, “China Inspired Interrogations at Guantánamo,” reported that in December 2002 military trainers at Guantánamo Bay based an entire interrogation class on a chart showing the effects of torture techniques that include “sleep deprivation,” “prolonged constraint,” and “exposure.” The article says this chart was copied from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain confessions from American prisoners. And the New York Times then goes on to claim that this chart is “the latest and most vivid evidence of the way Communist interrogation methods that the United States long described as torture became the basis for interrogations both by the military at the base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and by the Central Intelligence Agency.”

But the real truth is that historically, the United States has been NUMBER ONE when it comes to developing, refining, and exporting torture techniques—like electroshock and waterboarding that have been used by U.S. interrogators against suspected “terrorists.” And with regard to the actual policies and conduct of Maoist China towards U.S. POWs during the Korean War, the facts are utterly different than what has been propagated and repeated by the U.S. government, the mainstream media and standard histories. The approach of the Chinese communists towards POWs, far from being one of torture, so-called “brainwashing,” and inhumane treatment, centered on political education. This will be addressed in the next part of this series.

Part 1 of this series (Mad Scientists and Criminal Laboratories) exposed how the CIA and the U.S. military directly conceived of, funded, and utilized cruel and inhuman experiments, using human guinea pigs, to develop cruel and inhuman torture techniques—such as shock treatment, sensory deprivation, and the use of hallucinogenic drugs. Part 2 discusses how, at the turn of the 20th Century—before the existence of any communist government—the U.S. routinely carried out what is now called waterboarding, in the Philippines.

Panic and suffering is induced by tilting a victim’s head back and pouring water into their mouth and nose. The person is unable to breath or cough out water, the lungs collapse, and the sinuses and trachea are filled with water. In this way, the subject is “drowned from the inside.” The chest and lungs are kept higher than the head so that coughing draws water up and into the lungs while avoiding total suffocation.

This is a description of waterboarding, the torture technique U.S. interrogators have used against suspected “terrorists” in the years after 9/11, at the turn of the 21st Century.

Now read this description:

“A man is thrown down on his back and three or four men sit or stand on his arms and legs and hold him down; and either a gun barrel or a rifle barrel or a carbine barrel or a stick as big as a belaying pin,—that is, with an inch circumference,—is simply thrust into his jaws and his jaws are thrust back, and, if possible, a wooden log or stone is put under his head or neck, so he can be held more firmly. In the case of very old men I have seen their teeth fall out,—I mean when it was done a little roughly. He is simply held down and then water is poured onto his face down his throat and nose from a jar; and that is kept up until the man gives some sign or becomes unconscious. And, when he becomes unconscious, he is simply rolled aside and he is allowed to come to. In almost every case the men have been a little roughly handled. They were rolled aside rudely, so that water was expelled. A man suffers tremendously, there is no doubt about it. His sufferings must be that of a man who is drowning, but cannot drown. ...”

This is a quote from U.S. Lieutenant Grover Flint over 100 years ago—at the turn of the 20th Century. He is describing the “water cure”—a torture technique used by U.S. soldiers in the Philippine-American War that started in 1898.

A U.S. War for Empire

In 1896, after 300 years of Spanish colonialism, the Philippine Revolution broke out against Spain and when the Spanish-American War began in 1898, armed guerrilla struggle against Spanish colonial rule intensified. Spanish power collapsed throughout most of the archipelago. But meanwhile, U.S. imperialism was maneuvering to become the new colonial masters in the Philippines. Secret diplomatic negotiations were conducted between the U.S. and Spain, and on August 13, 1898, a mock battle was staged in order to justify Spain turning the Philippines over to the United States. After a few token shots were fired, Spain surrendered, and on December 18, 1898, the U.S. “bought” the Philippines from Spain for 20 million dollars.

Less than two months later, U.S. troops made a surprise attack on Filipino revolutionary forces near the capital of Manila and at least 3,000 Filipinos were killed. This was the beginning of the Philippine-American War. The masses of Filipino people waged a determined struggle to resist U.S. imperialism. But the U.S. won this war in 1902, after sending over 126,000 U.S. troops to the Philippines. Filipinos who refused to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag were persecuted, sometimes imprisoned. Filipino rebels were tortured and organizations of workers and peasants were suppressed. For every U.S. casualty, 50 Filipinos died. It is estimated that anywhere from 250,000 to one million Filipinos were killed in the U.S.-Philippine War.

U.S. Soldiers and the “Water Cure”

Some of the U.S. officers who led the U.S. invasion of the Philippines had taken part in the 1891 massacre of 350 Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee. And the conquest and “pacification” of the Filipino people was carried out with the same racist thinking and justification that had been embedded in the genocide of Native Americans. U.S. forces referred to the Filipinos as “niggers,” “barbarians,” and “savages.”

As historian William Lorenz Katz put it: “From the White House and the U.S. high command to field officers and lowly enlistees the message became ‘these people are not civilized’ and the United States had embarked on a glorious overseas adventure against ‘savages.’ Officers and enlisted men—and the media—were encouraged to see the conflict through a ‘white superiority’ lens, much as they viewed their victories over Native Americans and African Americans. The Philippine occupation unfolded at the high tide of American segregation, lynching, and a triumphant white supremacy ideology.”

What did this mean when U.S. soldiers implemented this on the ground?

U.S. General Franklin Bell ordered the destruction of “humans, crops, food stores, domestic animals, houses and boats.” General Jacob Smith, who had fought at Wounded Knee, defined the enemy in the Philippines as anyone “ten years and up,” telling his men:  “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.”

In a speech in the U.S. aimed at drumming up support for the War, U.S. General Frederick Funston openly bragged about how he had personally hung 35 Filipinos, who were suspected of supporting rebel forces, without trial. U.S. Major Edwin Glenn reported that he had forced a group of 47 Filipino prisoners to kneel down and “repent of their sins” before he bayoneted and clubbed them to death. General William Shafter in California declared that it might be necessary to kill half the Filipino population in order to bring “perfect justice” to the other half.

And as part of all this, U.S. soldiers routinely used what they called the “water cure” on prisoners—which was documented in Congressional testimony, letters from soldiers, court martial hearings, and newspaper accounts.

Letters from U.S. soldiers to their families back home, detailing the horrific details of the water cure, were sometimes published in hometown newspapers. In one letter that became public, a soldier wrote of how he used the water cure on 160 people and only 26 had survived.

Sergeant Charles S. Riley, one of the U.S. soldiers who entered the Philippine town of Igbaras on November 27, 1900, later described what happened. In a letter back home, published in the Northampton Daily Herald, Riley described how Tobeniano Ealdama, the presidente of the town, was tortured using the water cure.

Riley said Ealdama was bound and forced full of water. His throat was “held so he could not prevent swallowing the water, so that he had to allow the water to run into his stomach.” The water was then “forced out of him by pressing a foot on his stomach or else with [a soldier’s] hands.”

A group of five or six U.S. soldiers administered two rounds of this water torture to Ealdama, who then confessed to serving as a captain in the insurgency and helped U.S. soldiers search for rebel forces. The town of Ibgaras, of 400-500 houses, was ordered burned to the ground. Riley explained this was “on account of the condition of affairs exposed by the treatment.”

After public outcry against this war crime, the U.S. military was forced to hold a court-martial trial for Captain Edwin Glenn, the officer who had been in charge of the U.S. soldiers in Ibgaras. During the trial Glenn defended the use of the “water cure” saying it was “a legitimate exercise of force under the laws of war,” being “justified by military necessity.”

Glenn was sentenced to a one-month suspension and a fifty-dollar fine.


This is the real story of how the U.S. developed and adopted the use of water torture. This is the real history of the roots of waterboarding used by U.S. interrogators in the so-called “war on terror.” This is the real origins of this horrific torture technique—that has been given the green light by the U.S. White House, the U.S. Attorney General’s office, the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Congress.


Benevolent Assimilation: The American Conquest of the Philippines, by Stuart Creighton Miller, 1982

“U.S. Water Boarding, 1899 Style,” by William Loren Katz, November 6, 2007

Secretary Root’s Record: Marked Severities In Philippine Warfare: An Analysis Of The Law And Facts Bearing On The Actions And Utterances Of President Roosevelt And Secretary Root, by Moorfield Storey and Julian Codman

“The Water Cure. Debating torture and counterinsurgency—a century ago,” by Paul Kramer, The New Yorker, February 25, 2008

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