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Some 150 years ago, Western armies all but abandoned torture. It has returned with a vengeance.

In 1849, pacifists felt history was on their side. A series of idealistic revolutions had shaken autocratic regimes across Europe the previous year, extending universal voting rights in many countries and spurring extensive constitutional reforms in Denmark and the Netherlands. Hundreds of intellectuals, philanthropists, and politicians had gathered in Brussels to discuss how to bring an end to war itself, endorsing arms limitations and a ban on military lending. In August of that year nearly a thousand delegates from Europe and North America convened in Paris to further their plans to bring down “the war system” and replace it with the rational adjudication of a Congress of Nations.

“A day will come when a cannon will be a museum-piece, as instruments of torture are today,” French author Victor Hugo told the Paris delegates. “And we will be amazed to think that these things once existed!”

The pacifists were to be disappointed. The Crimean War—a continental-scale conflict, despite its name— broke out four years later, killing 400,000 and foreshadowing the horror of industrialization visited upon the battlefields of the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the First World War. The 20th century would see more war deaths than any in history, and the early 21st promised the killing would continue apace.

But Hugo was right about one thing: Torture as a matter of state and military policy had indeed all but vanished from the Western world. Torture—the use of physical coercion to extract information or break down the subject—had fallen out of favor in Europe for a variety of reasons, including the rise of Enlightenment philosophes, revised attitudes to battlefield treatment of prisoners, and new thinking among doctors. By 1851, every country in Europe had banned torture altogether. A few years later, Union armies went to battle with rules for warfare that explicitly condemned prisoner abuse.

Torture by military forces was thought a thing of the past. Indeed, the American historian John Fiske in 1889 declared it almost “as extinct as cannibalism.”

Then it came roaring back.

The 20th century saw military forces around the world torturing prisoners as a matter of operational policy, some at a scale that might have shocked Genghis Khan or Vlad the Impaler. Americans tortured and slaughtered prisoners in the Philippines. Japanese raped, tortured, and murdered captives by the tens of thousands in China and dissected Allied prisoners on Pacific islands. German military units were ordered to treat Soviet POWs as subhuman slaves, transferring some to be experimented upon by state-employed medical doctors. In more modern conflicts of every size and type—Korea and Vietnam, the Belgian Congo and Liberia, the Algerian civil war and the bitter Yugoslav split, Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and American-occupied Iraq—soldiers tortured soldiers on the orders of their superiors. “It has reached a scale that dwarfs even the darkest Middle Ages,” wrote British foreign affairs columnist Jonathan Power in his 1981 history of Amnesty International.

Why did torture, after nearly vanishing as acceptable military practice in the 19th century, return with such a vengeance? It’s a question that has challenged 21st-century scholars, particularly since President George W. Bush condoned the use of certain torture techniques on prisoners held by U.S. military forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba—techniques that allegedly played a role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Their conclusion: The nature of war has come full circle since the early 17th century, from total war to gentlemanly clashes and, beginning around 1900, back again. Counterinsurgency and civil wars have become the norm, making it far more likely that combatants will be regarded as treasonous criminals rather than defeated soldiers. Both developments have resurrected operational torture, sometimes in forms not seen since ancient times.

Captured soldiers had few rights in antiquity. The Greeks protected citizens from torture, but slaves—many of them captured combatants— were fair game. Torturing battlefield captives during interrogations was also considered acceptable. Indeed, when Athenian military leader Nicias was captured at Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War, the treacherous Syracusans killed him, Thucydides tells us, for fear that he “might be put to torture” by the Syracusans’ Spartan superiors and “bring trouble on them in the hour of their prosperity.” Dead Athenians could tell no tales; alive, they might relent under the interrogative regime put forth in Aristophanes’s play The Frogs: “Tie him to a ladder, suspend or whip him. Pile rocks upon him. Put vinegar in his nose. Whip him with bristles.”

Rome had a similar policy, though the standard means of torture was the rack. Prisoners of war might also face flogging with barbed whips, burning with red-hot implements, or battle against one another in gladiatorial blood sports. Again, torture of full citizens was generally prohibited, unless they were suspected of treason. According to the New Testament, St. Paul successfully challenged a centurion’s use of whips in his interrogation by invoking his Roman citizenship. The ancients had started what would prove a lasting tradition: For two millennia, torture has generally been condoned only when applied to noncitizens (such as POWs and conquered civilian populations) or classes of people suspected of plotting against the state (including, at one time or another, rebels, insurgents, terrorists, or members of ethnic, religious, or socioeconomic minorities.)

In Western Europe, medieval armies regularly tortured and killed prisoners—except when those prisoners were aristocrats. While the abuse of an enemy knight was cause for social censure, attacking peasants was entirely acceptable. For centuries Catholic bishops in France campaigned against the abuse of noncombatants; under their Peace of God movement, those who beat or stole from unarmed peasants or clergy were subject to excommunication. The campaign had little effect. Even captured soldiers could be slaughtered as a matter of military necessity. After Henry V ordered hundreds of unarmed French soldiers executed during the Battle of Agincourt, he was not admonished by either English or French chroniclers because he justly feared his captives would rearm themselves in the midst of a perceived counterattack.

Torture and abuse of any non-Christians was accepted as well, as evidenced time and again during the Crusades to liberate the Holy Land from Fatimid Arab rule. “Some of our men (and this was more merciful) cut off the heads of their [captive] enemies; others shot them with arrows [or]…tortured them longer by casting them in the flames,” one participant in the 1099 sacking of Jerusalem recalled. “Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city [and]…in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.”

Battlefield attitudes toward torture were informed by European judicial practices. Prior to 1215, courts often had defendants in capital cases tortured in “trials by ordeal”: If God protected them from harm, they were deemed innocent; otherwise, they were found guilty. But after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, God was no longer called upon to judge serious cases. Rather, prosecutors needed either two witnesses or a confession, usually secured by, yes, torture. The preferred methods were to slowly crush the defendant’s leg in a vice or to tie his hands behind his back and hang him from a ceiling beam—sometimes with weights attached—for long and increasingly excruciating periods. Thus, throughout the Middle Ages, torture wasn’t just legal; it lay at the very heart of jurisprudence.

European perspectives began to change with the Enlightenment’s assertion of human dignity and reason. Voltaire and others condemned torture as a barbaric vestige of humankind’s cruel and primitive past. Increased faith in human judgment had transformed judicial proceedings, allowing judge and jury to convict suspects in the absence of a torture-induced confession.

At the same time, medical practitioners changed their view of pain. Medieval healers had deemed it a valuable path to spiritual growth. But by the 18th century, doctors were seeing it as entirely negative, driving a consensus that torture was spiritually valueless and morally repugnant.

On the battlefield, the early 17th-century works of Hugo Grotius helped transform attitudes on the treatment of prisoners of war. Grotius’s 1625 treatise De Jure Belli Ac Pacis has served as one of the foundation stones of international law. In it, the influential Dutch jurist argued that while POWs were essentially slaves—and thus could legally have absolutely anything done to them—they should nonetheless be protected from abuse under humanitarian considerations. POWs were to be seen as fellow humans rather than as enemies and should be neither punished for what their superiors or colleagues had done nor tortured to reveal information.

Grotius’s ideas were tremendously influential in the subsequent conflicts of early modern Europe. Henceforth, European captors would be expected to behave as stewards, not as slaveholders. When the English Civil War broke out in the 1640s, officers on both sides accepted “Lawes of Armes” and codes of conduct that prohibited the execution, starvation, and torture of prisoners in most circumstances. “They shall be free from wounding or beating, shall enjoy warm Cloaths to cover them and keep them warm,” Parliamentary commander Sir Thomas Fairfax said of POWs.

This code was often breached—one Captain Smith of Oxford beat, starved, and subjected prisoners to stress positions with their necks roped to their heels—but prisoner abuse was no longer accepted as the norm. Indeed, those who mistreated prisoners were roundly condemned as behaving like “base Egyptians,” “Turkes,” or other peoples considered barbarous.

Similarly, while French, Italian, Russian, Prussian, and Spanish forces all participated in battlefield massacres of prisoners— in some cases torturing captives to death and leaving their mutilated bodies on display—their behavior was not celebrated. By the middle of the 18th century, Western cultures across the globe came to see torture, abuse, and slaughter of prisoners as heinous acts unbecoming of the professional soldier (except when dealing with alleged savages, Irish and Native Americans counted among them, who weren’t accorded the same protection).

Admonitions against prisoner abuse became increasingly codified. Prussia and the United States negotiated a 1785 treaty under which prisoners were to be well fed, housed, exercised and not “put into irons, nor bound, nor otherwise restrained in the use of their limbs.” In 1863 a German-born Columbia University professor, Francis Lieber, created for Abraham Lincoln’s Union Army the most detailed rules of warfare that had yet been devised.

“The modern law of war permits no longer the use of any violence against prisoners in order to extort the desired information, or to punish them for having given false information,” Lieber’s regulations—adopted as General Orders No. 100—declared. “Military necessity does not admit of cruelty…nor of maiming or wounding except in fight, nor of torture to extort confessions.”

Lieber’s Code formed the basis for the 1899 Hague Convention, the first international treaty on the rules for land warfare, under which the Great Powers agreed prisoners “must be humanely treated” and afforded the same quality of food, quarters, and clothing as the troops of the government that captured them. With the start of the new century, torture once widely accepted was considered a violation of international law.

In 1901, American troops found themselves in the midst of a new kind of foreign war: one to occupy and rule a distant overseas territory in the face of a formidable liberation movement. The essential scenario would later be repeated in Indochina and elsewhere: When their ruler’s empire falls apart, a colonial people rise up in arms and declare their independence, only to find themselves at war with a successor empire.

In this case, U.S. Marines found themselves in an unconventional war against Filipino guerrillas, who had broken free of Spanish rule after the May 1898 U.S. naval victory in the Battle of Manila Bay [see “Folly in the Philippines,” MHQ, Autumn 2010]. American forces were soon engaged in atrocities that resulted in the deaths of tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of civilians as well as the burning of villages and the widespread use of torture to extract information. Brigadier General Robert Hughes defended the actions before Senate investigators in 1902 on grounds that would be familiar to the ancients: “These people,” he said, “are not civilized.”

Officers testified that the standard procedure when interrogating suspected insurgents was to use the “water cure,” a method that had apparently been favored by Spanish officials. “That torture,” occupation governor (and future U.S. president) William Howard Taft explained, “involves pouring water down the throat so that the man swells and gets the impression that he is going to be suffocated and then tells what he knows.”

Soldiers sometimes forced the water out of captives’ bodies by stamping on their engorged stomachs, and the “cure” would be repeated. “They swell up like toads,” a member of the 32nd Volunteer Infantry Regiment reported. “I’ll tell you it is a terrible torture.”

Although the actions clearly violated the Lieber Code, those court-martialed received minimal sentences such as small fines and short suspensions from duty. Only Brigadier General Jacob H. Smith, the commander who had ordered a murderous reprisal by American troops in 1901, was severely punished; he was forced to take an early retirement. The Senate closed its investigations a few months later, and press coverage faded. The incident was soon forgotten, and with it the fact that a Western democracy had reverted to torturing battlefield captives.

Most scholars blame totalitarianism for reintroducing torture to the Western world. Indeed, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union made a mockery of 19th-century prohibitions against mistreating captives and noncombatants. All three regimes tortured prisoners as a matter of official policy and with a brutality shocking to contemporaries. Their military units engaged in torture to extract information but more often simply slaughtered captives, in some cases executing tens of thousands in a single incident.

Nazi Germany murdered millions of noncombatants, of course, but its military also systematically murdered enemy POWs. A few days after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Lieutenant General Hermann Reinecke, head of the German High Command’s POW department, sent out orders declaring that “the Bolshevist soldier” had “lost all claim to treatment as an honorable opponent in accordance with the Geneva Convention” and could be subject to “ruthless and energetic action…at the slightest indication of insubordination.” Soviet POWs were subsequently starved, deprived of medical care, used for biological warfare experiments, or shot. When a German admiral challenged the orders as contrary to the spirit of the Geneva Conventions and military tradition, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel dismissed the objections as having arisen from an outdated “military concept of chivalrous warfare.” Estimates of the number of Soviets who perished in German POW camps run as high as 2.3 million. Unlike those of Slavic nations, American and British POWs were generally treated properly on account of their supposed racial superiority.

Soviet forces behaved as the Nazis did. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, the Red Army handed some tens of thousands of captured Polish officers over to Stalin’s secret police, who interrogated them in special camps. More than 14,000—half the Polish officer corps—were executed and buried in Katyn Forest, near Smolensk. Some 1.3 million German soldiers are thought to have died in Soviet camps.

Japanese military forces behaved with particular brutality. During the invasion and occupation of China in the 1930s, Japanese armies raped and executed civilians by the tens of thousands in cities like Nanking. Scholars estimate that under the Emperor-sanctioned “three alls” policy—kill all, burn all, and loot all—between two and four million Chinese were killed during the war, most of them civilians.

During the Pacific campaign, Japanese officers subjected Allied prisoners to beatings, live dissection, and execution by bayoneting or dismemberment and beheading with swords. Toward the end of the war, Japanese army and navy personnel took to eating enemy prisoners, even when other food was available. A war crimes tribunal accused Lieutenant General Yoshio Tachibana of ordering the torture, beheading, and consumption of hundreds of prisoners at a POW camp in the Bonin Islands. He had claimed that eating human flesh made his soldiers “strong for battle.” Captain Hiroshi Iwanami, a medical officer at the Japanese depot at Truk Atoll, was sentenced to death by U.S. war crimes tribunals for experimenting on American POWs with unnecessary tourniquets, the injection of pathogens, and explosives (to blow off their feet); Iwanami tied some captives to posts and had his staff use them for bayonet practice. Several Japanese soldiers were also convicted of war crimes for torturing Allied soldiers with the “water cure.”

The horror of Axis crimes became widely known after the war, prompting an international movement for additional human rights protections. The result was the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which banned torture, and the 1949 Geneva Convention, which made it illegal to subject civilian noncombatants to violence, cruel treatment, degradation, and torture. But even as the leading powers signed the conventions, their militaries were violating their conditions.

During the Korean War, North Korean forces took few captives, machine-gunning or bayoneting any United Nations troops who fell into their hands. But China—which intervened in late 1950—took thousands prisoner and subjected them to a form of coercion that was new to Westerners. Americans held by the Chinese on the Yalu River were tortured not to procure intelligence but to indoctrinate or brainwash them. The Chinese preferred nonviolent coercion—a regimen of lectures, ideological debates, and memoir and confession writing—but turned to more abusive methods if that failed to convert captives. Emphasis was on breaking the mind through a rotating regime of sleep deprivation; solitary confinement; prolonged exposure to heat, cold, or filth; or simply being forced to stand for long periods.

It was extremely effective. Twenty-one captives famously refused to be repatriated in 1954, claiming life was better in China. One Marine aviator signed a 6,000-word statement broadcast over state radio that claimed U.S. forces were planning to use biological warfare agents to separate North Korea from China. According to one survey, 70 percent of American POWs collaborated with the Chinese and North Koreans by signing propaganda, writing articles, or making recordings.

Chinese methods were so effective, in fact, that they were studied, scrutinized, and adopted by American forces. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the United States founded the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program. Aviators, commandos, and other troops likely to wind up behind enemy lines were subjected to Chinese torture methods as training to prepare them for possible capture. The same techniques were adopted by the Central Intelligence Agency, which ultimately used them on captives along with LSD and other drugs. (SERE also passed the Chinese methods on to interrogation training programs, including those used in 2002 and 2003 at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility for battlefield detainees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other theaters of the so-called War on Terror.)

While effective at breaking a captive, brainwashing was actually an unreliable means of collecting usable intelligence. Air Force sociologist Albert D. Biderman interviewed 235 airmen who had been held by the Chinese, and he concluded the techniques mainly served to “extort false confessions.” Why the military employed them at Guantánamo decades later—complete with classroom charts copied from Biderman’s studies— remains something of a mystery.

In 1953, Westerners could still believe that the revival of torture was a totalitarian or “Asiatic” aberration. Liberal democracies, with their Enlightenment underpinnings, would never do such things as a matter of policy. Then the truth came out about what the French military had done in Algeria.

Faced with an independence uprising in its African colony, the French Parliament declared a state of emergency and, after a series of rebel shootings and bombings targeting civilians in 1956, gave its military and colonial officials “special powers” to detain suspects—“terrorists”—at will [see “Revolution Unleashed,” MHQ, Summer 2011]. Freed from constitutional constraints, Major General Jacques Massu, commander of military forces in Algiers, oversaw what he later described as “institutionalized” torture. The preferred method was to attach electrodes to genitals and other body parts, because it left no marks afterward. Interrogators also raped women with bottles, sodomized men with pressurized hoses, and employed the water cure. Prisoners who failed to talk were often executed, their bodies dropped into mass graves or—with the help of helicopters— the ocean. More than 3,000 detainees “disappeared” and 55,000 people—including 40 percent of the adult males in the capital of Algiers—underwent interrogation, even though most were innocent. “You were basically torturing vast numbers of people, 20 people, 30 people, maybe for one accurate hit,” said Darius Rejali, a scholar of torture at Reed College.

The torture regime broke the terrorist network, but the French lost the war, in part because their tactics thoroughly alienated the Algerians and discomforted the French at home. Senior officers resigned over the policies. By 1961, protests in France prompted President Charles de Gaulle to agree to an independence referendum in the colony.

Despite the worldwide exposure of French behavior in Algeria, Western democracies have continued to engage in torture when fighting “savage” insurgents, to whom the normal laws of war don’t seem to apply. In the mid-1960s, the United States found itself in just such a situation in Vietnam, a counterinsurgency war in which torture and extrajudicial killings became the norm. The South Vietnamese army regularly tortured and killed captives. They were dragged behind vehicles, electrocuted with field telephones, sodomized with shovel handles, wrapped in barbed wire, and subjected to water torture. Some had bamboo slivers driven under fingernails and fingers chopped off or were made to watch as a comrade was forced to take the “long step” out of a helicopter.

Such abuse was well known to the Pentagon. The International Council of the Red Cross notified the United States that it was violating the Geneva Conventions by transferring prisoners to its ARVN allies. And even though both President Lyndon Johnson and General William Westmoreland were aware of the United States’ responsibility for troops it captured, American troops continued to turn Viet Cong fighters over to the South Vietnamese for several years.

American soldiers also tortured prisoners and civilian detainees. A trove of once classified U.S. documents discovered in 2002 revealed that investigators had found 141 instances of such abuse. Members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade had beaten prisoners and civilian captives, subjecting them to water torture and electrocutions, sometimes just to determine if they were “innocent civilians.” Those found guilty were sent to “joint interrogation centers,” where they spent weeks in solitary confinement. Many were then transferred to South Vietnamese facilities, including the French-built Con Son Island prison, with its tiger cages, where prisoners were shackled for weeks at a time, sprinkled with lime, and given little food or water. (North Vietnam had similar facilities where U.S. airmen such as future senator John McCain were tortured.) Most allegations of torture and abuse by U.S. troops were never properly investigated; only 14 resulted in prison time for the perpetrators. It appears that while U.S. top commanders did not condone torture, they failed to prevent and forcefully respond to it.

The debate over torture was rekindled after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and began interrogating captives under conditions widely regarded as incompatible with the Geneva Conventions.

At Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, the military-run prison at Abu Ghraib, Iraq, and the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, enemy detainees were subjected to what the George W. Bush administration termed “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Many of these were familiar to scholars of torture: the variation of the water cure known as waterboarding, beatings, sleep deprivation, use of stress positions, exposure to heat and cold, and the threat of dog attacks. The Bush administration, reversing longstanding U.S. policy, determined the Geneva Conventions did not apply to captives it regarded as terrorists. “I wonder, given the times that we currently live in and given this new enemy and this new kind of conflict, whether all of the provisions continue to make sense,” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales queried Congress in 2005, although he had already secretly endorsed a memo authorizing torture techniques. This position—which was criticized by Secretary of State Colin Powell and his legal adviser, William H. Taft IV—was condemned and rolled back by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006.

But Bush administration officials also maintained that these interrogation techniques did not constitute either torture or “humiliating and degrading treatment” under the conventions. The latter term, officials said, was vague and open to interpretation, while supporters of the policies argued that techniques that cause no permanent damage were acceptable. “Sleep deprivation or making someone stand in a certain position for a long time isn’t torture,” argued security consultant and former Marine major Kelly McCann. “There are things you can do, such as striking the common peroneal nerve on the leg, that can cause a lot of pain and won’t do any damage. That seems perfectly reasonable to me.” Critics asserted that under international law, torture is the administration of severe pain or discomfort.

“The torture convention does not distinguish between temporary pain and permanent damage, nor should it,” said Duke University law school professor Scott Silliman in 2003. “All pain, physical or mental, is torture, no matter how long it lasts.”

In practice, however, interrogators went beyond the techniques sanctioned by the Bush administration. At Abu Ghraib prison, military police photographed naked prisoners being led around on leashes, piled naked in pyramidal heaps, masturbating at attention, handcuffed naked in stress positions, bruised and bloodied from apparent beatings, and standing hooded atop a box with electrodes attached to their arms and genitals (presumably to shock the captives if they moved from the stress position).

Several detainees died in custody, and some deaths were ruled homicides. As in the Algerian War, revelations of the extent of prisoner abuse led to an international outcry and damaged the moral authority of occupation forces both within the zone of operations and at home. To date, nine enlisted soldiers have been prosecuted, and the military police’s commanding officer, Army Reserve Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, was relieved of her post. No high-level officials were charged.

“Historically, torture has always happened in democracies,” Rejali of Reed College noted in the aftermath of the scandal. “The Greeks and Romans, the Renaissance republics, all—even Britain, France, and America were torturing in their colonies well before World War II. Long before the CIA existed, these techniques all happened.”

The torture debate flared again after bin Laden was killed earlier this year, with former Bush administration officials claiming that enhanced interrogation of prisoners in 2003 helped show the way to bin Laden’s door seven years later. But present and former intelligence and national security officials told the New York Times that torture played, at best, a minor role in identifying the bin Laden courier who led authorities to the terrorist’s hideout. One al-Qaeda operative, Hassan Ghul, gave a crucial description of the courier in 2004, but apparently had not been waterboarded and may not have been subjected to harsh techniques at all. Two detainees who were—including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—gave what later proved to be false information about the courier.

“Everyone was deeply concerned [about coercive techniques] and most felt it was un-American and did not work,” Glenn L. Carle, a CIA officer who had overseen the torture of a high-level detainee in 2002, told the Times. It “didn’t provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information.”


Originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here