THE BLOG
06/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Torture ... Fifty Years of U.S. Practice

Torture works. Hanging from the yardarm works. Disembowelment, rape, death by stoning, electroshock -- they all work at terrorizing people and extracting information. But what kind of information? Useful information, as Dick Cheney maintains? Or a babble of disinformation directed at God, America, Allah, or anyone else who can make the pain stop?

The United States used torture widely during the Vietnam war. After inheriting "tiger cage" torture cells from the French, the United States went on to build even more brutal tiger cages of its own. South Vietnam was laced with a gulag of prisons; the countryside was defoliated, napalmed, and emptied of peasants who were forced into concentration camps, euphemistically known as "strategic hamlets."

The prisons, torture cells, and tiger cages constructed on Con Dao island and elsewhere in Vietnam were built by RMK-BRJ, the Texas-sunbelt consortium of America's four largest construction companies: Raymond International, Morrison-Knudson, Brown & Root, and J.A. Jones. One of the successor companies to RMK-BRJ was Halliburton, whose CEO, before he was elected vice president of the United States, was Dick Cheney.

With Cheney acting as White House puppet master, Halliburton thrived on no-bid contracts to build prisons at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, and other CIA "dark sites" around the world. By recycling Vietnam-era blueprints and improving them for "enhanced interrogation," Halliburton for many years made good money out of torture.

This work was ennobled, of course, by the company's high-minded dedication to the United States' national defense. As Cheney can be heard saying on Sunday morning talk shows, "Torture works." It produces information, and information is the main weapon in fighting counterinsurgency warfare. The precise nature of this information is not a question that Cheney has entertained.

The modern practice of counterinsurgency was developed during the Vietnam War, first by the French, who carried these practices from Southeast Asia to North Africa, and then by the Americans, who reinvented everything already known by the French. French agrovilles became "strategic hamlets," but the idea of engineering what Harvard professor of government Samuel Huntington called "forced urbanization" was the same, and it ended with equally disastrous results.

The United States, twenty years later, lost the same war that the French had already lost at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. As British author Graham Greene wrote in Ways of Escape, one of his two autobiographies, "Dien Bien Phu was a defeat for more than the French Army. The battle marked virtually the end of any hope the Western Powers might have entertained that they could dominate the East. The French, with Cartesian clarity, accepted the verdict. ... (That young Americans were still to die in Vietnam only shows that it takes time for the echoes even of a total defeat to circle the globe.)"

Counterinsurgency is a tough slog, but the rules of the business are pretty simple. Because insurgencies are often dirty operations involving civilian populations in acts of urban terrorism, one needs a substantial force to counter them. French Colonel Roger Trinquier, who perfected many of the practices of modern counterinsurgency and wrote the classic text on the subject, Modern Warfare (1961), argued that counterinsurgency inevitably involves torture.

The French, first in Vietnam and then in Algeria, broke insurgencies one cell at a time through the measured application of torture. Trinquier aided General Jacques Massu in implementing these methods during the Battle of Algiers, and Trinquier himself is depicted in the film The Battle of Algiers by a French officer who busies himself throughout the movie drawing social network graphs.

He is assembling, one name at a time, in a great pyramid of names, the intelligence gathered from torturing hundreds of thousands of Algerian insurgents. Near the end of the movie, the very last name at the top of the pyramid is discovered, and the head of the Algerian insurgency is killed.

Two years later the French have lost the war and a million French colonialists are forced to flee North Africa. In other words, the French won the Battle of Algiers but lost the Algerian War -- an experience that America would come to know from its own debacle in Southeast Asia.

When Gillo Pontecorvo's film was screened at the Pentagon on August 27, 2003, the U.S. Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, which was sponsoring the event, sent out a promotional flyer saying: "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. . . . Children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film."

After Vietnam, United States' knowledge about counterinsurgency -- and torture -- was transferred to the South American dictators who organized death squads and started disappearing their citizens in "dirty" wars. The knowledge was repatriated after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade towers and the Pentagon. This is when America's enemies -- and a lot of people mistaken for being our enemies -- began disappearing into Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Bagram, and other "dark sites" around the world.

Confirmed by release of the "torture memos," we know that the Bush administration embraced torture as one of its central tools in fighting what it called the Global War on Terror. The administration struggled to hide this policy. It papered it over with legal documents so flimsy that they had to be retracted when brought to light. It worked through a spectrum of propaganda and lies to deny what was immediately obvious to the world when the first photos surfaced from Abu Ghraib in April 2004.

The spin masters lost control of the story as soon as "leash girl" Lynndi English was seen parading naked Iraqi prisoners with dog collars around their necks and piling them into pyramidal heaps of battered flesh. The one image that stands as the defining icon of America's embrace of torture is the man known derisively in the Middle East as "the Statue of Liberty." He is the hooded Iraqi shown teetering on a wooden box with outstretched arms. The electrodes and cables attached to his arms and penis are designed to administer an electric shock if he loses his balance and falls off the box.

When Time magazine put prisoner 151716 on the cover of its international editions -- I myself first saw this picture while traveling in Vietnam -- everyone around the world knew what they were looking at: Christ on the Cross, an old form of torture, where the victim inflicts pain on himself through what today we call "stress positions." The torture is passive. It is self-inflicted. It includes a large component of psychological torture, and many people in the United States are so confused on the subject that they would say that psychological torture is not really torture at all.

The rest of the world does not share this confusion. When they saw prisoner 151716, hooded and dressed in monkish brown sackcloth, with his arms outstretched in a helpless appeal for mercy, they knew that he was being tortured.

Mark Scheuer, the ex-CIA analyst from the Bin Laden Unit who wrote Imperial Hubris, said, in a talk delivered a couple of years ago at the U.S. Army War College, that he had no qualms about using torture. He would be glad to employ it, except for one problem. It doesn't work. In Scheuer's experience, insurgents are trained to hand out disinformation, and the intelligence one gets from torturing them is either dubious or wrong.

Scheuer gave as an example the famous case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the Al-Qaeda operative whom the United States sent to be tortured in Egypt. George Bush relayed Al-Libi's "confession" to the U.S. public when he announced during a speech in Cincinnati in October 2002 that "Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and gases." The story was fabricated, and this statement and the rest of al-Libi's "confession" have since disappeared into a hall of mirrors.

The argument on torture pits two schools of thought against each other. There are the Trinquierists who believe in the efficacy of torture. They advance their argument most strenuously through the "ticking time bomb hypothesis." You torture your opponent to get out of him the tactical information that allows you to diffuse a time bomb before it blows up in your face. Torture is a dark art that you use because it works.

The other side argues that this position is wrong. The strong when tortured confess to nothing, and the weak confess to everything. Torture produces an avalanche of disinformation. The Iraq war proves this handily. The war ranks among the most significant intelligence failures in American history. Everything the United States thought it knew about Iraq before the invasion was wrong. The supposed intelligence from "Curveball" in Germany and al-Libi in Egypt was nothing but red herrings and Al Qaeda disinformation.

The United States suffers from a kind of imperial amnesia, which presumes that U.S. power -- no matter how it projects itself in the world -- is always just and right. The strutting Bush in his flight suit and snarling Cheney were also channeling the myth of the American frontier and the redemptive value of violence. In this case, one employs torture not as a necessary evil, but as a social good -- a kind of refining fire, an apocalyptic strategy for separating believers from apostates.

Torture also separates Western from non-Western people, who tend to be red-, yellow-, brown-, or black-skinned. Targets of torture are reduced to the status of "other," and racial stereotypes further reduce them to being "inferior." Torture in this case is used to confirm what skin color and race have already implied about somebody's disloyalty to Western values. The treacherous redskin in his feathered headdress has been replaced by the new symbology of keffiyehs and hihabs.

As we shake ourselves awake from this terror-filled dream, it is time to remember America's long history of torture. The country may have been founded on witch trials, but torture is illegal. It is morally corrosive and strategically unwise. And not even Dick Cheney, if pressed, could pretend to have got anything more than confessional canards and disinformation from torturing "Curveball" and his colleagues.

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