Wednesday, February 27, 2008

History Has a Stutter; It Says, "W-w-w-watch Out!"

Paul Kramer has a fascinating article in the New Yorker about the last debate over torture--100 years ago, when American troops were fighting to suppress an insurgency in the Philippines. The lede:

Many Americans were puzzled by the news, in 1902, that United States soldiers were torturing Filipinos with water. The United States, throughout its emergence as a world power, had spoken the language of liberation, rescue, and freedom.
Of course it was worse than anyone knew; of course denial, rationalization, and cover-up were the order of the day. Tell me if this sounds familiar:
Confronted with the facts...Administration officials, military officers, and pro-war journalists launched a vigorous campaign in defense of the Army and the war. Their arguments were passionate and wide-ranging, and sometimes contradictory. Some simply attacked the war’s critics, those who sought political advantage by crying out that “our soldiers are barbarous savages,” as one major general put it. Some contended that atrocities were the exclusive province of the Macabebe Scouts, collaborationist Filipino troops over whom, it was alleged, U.S. officers had little control. Some denied, on racial grounds, that Filipinos were owed the “protective” limits of “civilized warfare.” When, during the committee hearings, Senator Joseph Rawlins had asked General Robert Hughes whether the burning of Filipino homes by advancing U.S. troops was “within the ordinary rules of civilized warfare,” Hughes had replied succinctly, “These people are not civilized.” More generally, some people, while conceding that American soldiers had engaged in “cruelties,” insisted that the behavior reflected the barbaric sensibilities of the Filipinos.
Same as it ever was.

The article is currently available online; by all means, go read the whole thing.

Update: Thanks for the link, Melissa! First-time visitors from Shakesville, take some time to look around--we've got a smart bunch of contributors and a lot of great posts, and on the whole we're fairly hospitable.