war on the rocks

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

April 8, 2016

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