Forsaking the Moral High Ground: Why Presidential Candidates Err in Supporting Waterboarding and Other Forms of Torture

April 8, 2016
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Two of the candidates remaining in the Republican presidential field — Donald Trump and Ted Cruz — have indicated their support for waterboarding as a means to interrogate suspected terrorists. Ted Cruz defends waterboarding as an “enhanced interrogation technique,” claiming it does not cross the threshold of torture. Donald Trump has gone further, stating that he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” In other words, he would approve of methods that go beyond the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” approved in the earlier years of the George W. Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks against the United States.

As a retired U.S. Army officer and a military historian, I have publicly disagreed with the use of waterboarding as a means of interrogation and categorically reject the use of torture, even in a “ticking time bomb” scenario. Indeed, one of my first acts after returning from my second tour in the Iraq War was to sign on to the Campaign to Ban Torture, which successfully lobbied for an executive order to ban the use of harsh interrogation techniques.

A document that I discovered in the course of my research on a monograph on the liberation of the Philippines during World War II put my opposition in sharp focus. At the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, I ran across a history of the guerrilla movement on the island of Mindanao during World War II, in which the author — a staff officer working with the guerrilla movement — made a list of “third degree” torture methods used by Japanese forces on captured resistance operatives — or terrorists, in the eyes of the Japanese occupiers of the Philippines. I offer this item for consideration by those Americans who approve of waterboarding or “worse than waterboarding.”

First on the list was a technique that American soldiers had used during an earlier war in the Philippines and the Japanese had recycled:

Water: A person is first tied securely with a rope to a bench, face up and mouth forced wide open by inserting a piece of wood between the teeth. The Japs directed water from a hose at full blast to the open mouth of the prisoners. Before long, the victim is rendered unconscious. When he regains consciousness he is made to confess his guilt. If he answers in the negative, the terrible process is repeated. If he admits his guilt, or owns it even if he is not [guilty], a more heinous fate awaits him. This procedure caused the death of many suspects.

Known then as the “water cure,” this technique goes beyond waterboarding in that it fills the victim’s stomach with water, which waterboarding does not. The effect in each case is the same — a sense that the victim is drowning. As for techniques used by Japanese forces that were “worse” than waterboarding, here’s the rest of the list:

  • Electric shock: The prisoner “in most cases, to stop the inhuman torture, admits his guilt even if in reality he is innocent.”
  • Fire: Heated objects are applied to the prisoner’s belly or “private parts” or “he is made to step on live charcoals.”
  • Beating: The prisoner is beaten unconscious then revived through the application of fire and then beaten again.
  • Rounded stick: The wife of a male prisoner is raped with a stick in front of her husband.
  • Depriving the prisoner of food.
  • Pulling out finger nails.
  • Hanging by the thumbs.
  • The prisoner’s “thighs are slashed with a razor” and salt is applied to the open wounds.

The United States and its allies rightly viewed these horrendous techniques as outside the bounds of civilized behavior. Some Japanese personnel who engaged in these acts were tried afterwards as war criminals, a few even ending their lives on the scaffold. U.S. commanders, aware of public indignation over the use of torture during the Philippine Insurrection at the turn of the century, disavowed the use of such techniques on enemy prisoners of war.

Those candidates who support the use of waterboarding and worse owe the American people an explanation as to why such techniques were considered torture during World War II, but are acceptable today. Perhaps Donald Trump could expand on which of the techniques above he would approve for use in the interrogation of suspected terrorists.

All presidential candidates should forsake these brutal measures — even waterboarding — as a matter of policy. The United States took the moral high ground during the largest and most destructive war in human history. It should remain there today.

 

Dr. Peter R. Mansoor, Colonel, U.S. Army (Ret.), is the General Raymond E. Mason Jr. Chair of Military History at The Ohio State University. He served in the Iraq War as the commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division (2003-2004) and as executive officer to General David Petraeus, command of Multi-National Force-Iraq, in 2007-2008.

 

Photo credit: Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth, U.S. Air Force

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7 thoughts on “Forsaking the Moral High Ground: Why Presidential Candidates Err in Supporting Waterboarding and Other Forms of Torture

  1. I applaud the COL’s service to our nation but must respectfully take issue with a number of his points, assumptions, and gaps in his line of thinking. It is certainly his right to declare his opposition to waterboarding. However, if one is to draw historical parallels then the onus resides on the author to consider a wider comparison than simply the blusters of those in full campaign mode with an incredibly narrow snapshot of history.

    It’s not my intent to conduct a base level debate regarding the employment of the techniques on which the author dwells. Yes, people on all sides have done bad things during combat. Historical reality.

    “U.S. commanders, aware of public indignation over the use of torture during the Philippine Insurrection at the turn of the century, disavowed the use of such techniques on enemy prisoners of war.”

    An important point omitted by the author is that during the Insurrection, American forces essentially divided the Philippines into four major geographic areas. Within each of those areas, different tactics and methodologies were employed to attend to guerrilla activities. Some of those methods included the seizing control of food availability and forcing re-location of local populations. Others engaged with the local clergy to enable a softer method of persuading locals to not support guerrilla forces. These were two polar but important methods employed in order to get control of a local population and, ultimately, guerrilla forces. Does that mean one is better than the other? No. A solid academic examination would demonstrate that in this particular space and time, different methodologies were required to achieve tactical, operational, and strategic successes.

    “Those candidates who support the use of waterboarding and worse owe the American people an explanation as to why such techniques were considered torture during World War II, but are acceptable today.”

    Again, Sir, you do yourself a disservice to allow individuals’ bombastic claims to drive your writing and your assessment.

    “The United States took the moral high ground during the largest and most destructive war in human history. It should remain there today.”

    This was a conflict in which we, the U.S. and Britain, intentionally firebombed Axis cities; let’s not forget that at the time the Circular Error of Probability (CEP) for Strategic Bombing was four to five miles! I, for one, am not condemning those techniques but would submit that folks like Michael Walzer might want to discuss your position further.

  2. Col Mansoor: give us a win, just one: VN, Beirut, Mog, Iraq, AFG, ISIS … you are part of the pol-mil establishment, so explain to me, what is wrong with us? why can’t we win? i think you and people who think think like you (BHO) are to blame … welcome views to the contrary ….

  3. Tibet held the high ground vs China, how did that work out for them. If you think the US will lose the moral high ground to 3rd world throw backs for doing some debatable if even real torture more mind games to enemy combatants you are a self hating moron. Islamic radicals purposely kill, maim, rape, slave out, brutalize, real torture, drills, fire, knives, hammers, pliers etc… innocent non affiliated women children. The US could go real modern Genghis Khan on ISIS and still have the moral high ground. Did the US lose the moral high ground in WW2, NO, did we do things that today you and your ilk would call losing the moral high ground, YES, was it justified to defeat a enemy that was horrific in their ways, ABSOLUTELY, did the whole world and everyone with a realistic view of life agree with that, YES.

    Losers begin at a losers mentality. You and your ilk have it and should be kicked out of and kept far from any position of power. We have men and women overseas fighting everyday. Losing the moral high ground is imposing ROE and battle planning that forces our men women to take more casualties or fight one day longer , just so you can have a warm fuzzy when you go to sleep.

    War is nasty it is brutal it is ugly as it should be so both sides do all it can to avoid. If when we go to war we should fight full alt to win and go home we owe it to our soldiers OUR NUMBER ONE OBLIGATION not some imaginary moral high ground.

  4. amen brother C Low … hate to ask this, but look at the Putin/bomber/Spetnaz/FSB example: did the Russians just win a counterinsurgency in 4 months? as I’ve said before, we need to toss about half of our FM’s

  5. I could not agree more with the comments to the article – not the article. I fear this article is more concerned with politics (i.e. bashing Trump) vs. having a debate on the need for maintaining the moral high ground.

    War is ugly…I totally understand that the 1st world wants to make it as painless as possible, but that simply isn’t how wars are fought and won. We’ve tried to win wars through hearts and minds with little success. I think it is time we rethink our elitist views on combat.

  6. IMHO only
    Torture may have produced actionable intel
    But Abu Ghraib was a loss across the board
    Hearts and minds
    Future radicals
    Our image as a nation

    If that wasn’t enough downsides, what being a torturer does to our people is looking like it will have long-term effects.

    1. Abu Ghraib was operated by a broken unit with weak leadership. It was simply a compilation of war crimes. Torture for no purpose didn’t serve any purpose.

      Utilizing enhanced interrogation on a high level operative would be a different story. As you stated actionable intel could be produced. Hugging and singing with them for a few hours isn’t going to get you the info you need in the next 20 minutes.