Three Presidents Who Ordered the Mass Torture of Prisoners

57 0 0

Portions of this essay were adapted from several entries in Presidents' Body Counts at The book is currently being given away for free.

Three Presidents That Ordered the Mass Torture of Prisoners (and Two That Failed to Stop It)

It is the tenth anniversary of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. Ten years have passed, with limited justice at best. Ten years with only a few of the low level guilty punished while those higher up not only went complete free. In some cases they prospered, and have even begun to regain respectability.

For most of US history, torture was something the enemy did, and their doing so was widely regarded as a sure sign of their evil. US troops might be ordered into unjust wars of aggression. They even carried out massacres. But torture of prisoners was something beheld as evil.

American Indians were often massacred, but not tortured, and the claim that some of them tortured was seen as evidence of their barbarism. Mexican civilians were also massacred, but not tortured. Union soldiers did not torture Confederate prisoners. In fact, the Civil War saw the first rules of war,  formulated by Lincoln. Confederates did massacre Union troops if they were Black, but even these traitors never tortured. Germans, Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese were all killed in great numbers, but never tortured. In fact, the torture of US POWs by North Koreans was held up as a great evil.

There were several huge exceptions. Here are three presidents who ordered mass torture, not just GW Bush. Two more failed to stop torture.

McKinley in the US-Philippines War

In the crushing of the Filipino independence movement immediately after the Spanish-American War. US President McKinley ordered the conquest and betrayal of the Filipino people they were supposedly there to liberate in what is variously called the Filipino War, the Filipino Insurrection, or the US-Philippines War.

The body count was at least 200,000 to up to 1.4 million deaths, almost all civilians. Many Filipino rebels and civilians were also tortured, including the first time US troops used water boarding against an enemy. The biggest losses were due to deaths from disease, mostly dysentery, directly caused by American troops herding Filipinos into concentration camps  named “zones of protection.” Famed Filipino historian E. San Juan Jr. argues this war constituted genocide. However, almost no other historians have agreed.

General Elwell Otis commanded US troops during the worst atrocities. Otis often acted on his own, without approval or consultation with Washington, and did his best to conceal atrocities under his command. He repeatedly ignored orders from his superiors to avoid fighting and actually turned down an early offer from Filipino President Emilio Aguinaldo to end the war. Otis had earlier commanded US troops during campaigns against the Lakota in the aftermath of the Battle of Little Bighorn, and more than a few historians see similarities in the tactics used against and the treatment of the enemy and civilian populations in both wars.

US troops, writing in their diaries, letters home, and interviews with journalists in fact often referred to Filipinos as “Indians” when describing the enemy's guerilla war tactics. But when justifying atrocities, many US troops described Filipinos as “niggers” and described going “nigger hunting.” Otis's tactics and the heavier US troop losses that resulted led to a great deal of opposition to the war within the US. Otis was relieved of command after two years and replaced by Arthur MacArthur, father of Douglas MacArthur.

Pseudo scientific racism and Anglo-American attitudes of racial superiority are often blamed by scholars as the cause for US abuses of not just Filipinos but also invasions in Latin America and interventions in other parts of Asia at the time. The scientific professions were flooded at the time with poor science trying to justify European and Anglo-American conquest and exploitation of African, Asian, Latin American, and Middle Eastern peoples around the world and within their own countries as well. In its most extreme form, pseudo scientific racism would eventually mutate into eugenics, which sought to sterilize “inferior” races. Pseudo scientific racism led American authorities to set up a Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes to “civilize” certain Filipino tribes, modeled on the Bureau of Indian Affairs inside the US.

Three Presidents Who Ordered the Mass Torture of PrisonersRead this story for FREE!