Water Torture

by Richard Dieterle

Torture has in no way been anathema to Americans, only some Americans. George Washington, for instance, was adamantly opposed to it, and Lincoln as well. However, the American Indians used it extensively, especially on captive warriors. They had very high standards of cruelty, which they rarely failed to meet. Whites often pointed to this practice as one of the things that most distinguished them from the "savages," all the while liberally applying the whip to their African slaves.

To the Indians, pouring water down someone's gullet seemed a rather pointless exercise when fire would do so much better. Even they realized, however, that cruelty is not strength. If you enjoy inflicting pain, it doesn't take much force of will to abstain from the practice. Tecumseh, among his many virtues, is to be held in esteem for abolishing torture altogether. However, human nature, being what it is, will see the practice arise over and over again like any other vice or depravity.

Vietnam was a war full of crimes, but I am happy to report that A 1/8 had a clean record during the time that I was there. Nevertheless, there was one moral anomaly worth recounting. We were flown into a hamlet where our instructions were to sweep it and collect all the people at a place on the outskirts where a large tent was being set up. It was made of white canvass and ran about 10 meters long. It came with a squad of ARVNs, a US MP, and his German shepherd. They also unloaded quite a number of Gerry cans of water. It was pretty clear what they had in mind. They filed people of both sexes into the tent, most of them elderly. After awhile, one very old man came out about 10 yards from the tent, and fell on his knees. His wife came up to him and shouted at him in Vietnamese. He moaned and rocked back and forth like someone going into shock. She spit some of the betel nut she was chewing into his open mouth. She seemed to be annoyed that he wasn't responding with the resiliance that she would have expected from him. While this was going on Bullet came up to me. I expressed my outrage about what was going on. He suggested, I think just to curry my favor, that we go in there and break it up. We discussed this option seriously, but the problem was that there were about eight ARVNs inside as well as the MP and his dog. I figured we would have to kill the MP and his dog, and hope that the shock of it would subdue the ARVNs; but to reach this point, we would have to actively interfere with the interrogation. That would mean engaging the ARVNs first, then shortly on, the MP who would object in strong terms. This was too volatile a situation. After mulling this over, we decided to walk in anyways. There was still an attractive woman of about 30 years of age sitting in the fold-out chair. It seems at this point that they decided to break it up. So at least no one died, among whom not the least of which would have been Bullet and myself.

The procedure for water torture was to take a moist towel and put it over the mouth of the victim, who was invariably seated. Then enormous amounts of water were poured over it. I remember early on that this procedure was described to me. It was never, as it is today, called "water boarding," but always "water torture." So in the common name for it alone, there was never any issue about whether it was torture. There are plenty of worse forms of torture, especially those that the Indians called "making them play with fire"; but Tecumseh was right — it's altogether better to abandon the practice and learn to be brave about the consequences of doing so.