Tuesday, September 18, 2018
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Looking Back

Wartime torture

When US President Trump made a statement last year condoning the use of torture in the war on terror, it reminded me of the use of torture more than a century earlier in the Philippine-American War. In the early 1980s, I spent a lot of time reading US Anti-Imperialist League pamphlets preserved in the New York Public Library that made the long-forgotten war real to me.

One pamphlet contained the testimony of Sgt. Charles S. Riley and Pvt. William L. Smith, who had seen action in the Philippines as members of the Sixth US Volunteers and, under oath, told the US Senate Philippine Investigating Committee that torture was systematically used for military purpose and that a special squad of soldiers were placed on “water detail” supervised by their officers. Riley arrived in Manila in October 1899 and served for 18 months. He detailed what he saw on Nov. 27, 1900, in Igbaras, Iloilo, when the town presidente was interrogated. The victim’s name was not recorded but his age was estimated at between 40 and 45 years old. He was stripped to his white shorts, his hands tied behind him. Riley had described the house where the interrogation took place and narrated:


“Just at the head of the stairs on the right there was a large galvanized-iron tank, holding probably 100 gallons, about 2 barrels. That was on a raised platform, about 10 or 12 inches, I should think, and there was a faucet on the tank. It was the tank we used for catching rain water for drinking …. [the presidente] was then taken and placed under the tank and the faucet was opened and a stream of water was forced down or allowed to run down his throat; his throat was held so he could not prevent swallowing the water, so that he had to allow the water to run into his stomach …. he was directly under the faucet with his mouth held open. I could not state exactly whether it was pressing the cheek or throat. Some say it was the throat, but I could not state positively as to that, as to exactly how they held his mouth open. [This lasted] I should say from five to fifteen minutes.

“When he was filled with water it was forced out of him by pressing a foot on his stomach or else with their hands. I did not see the water forced from him. Some said it was forced by the hand, and others by placing the foot on the stomach. After he was willing to answer he was allowed to partly sit up, and kind of rolled on his side, and then he answered the questions put to him by the officer through the interpreter. There was a native interpreter that stood directly over this man — the presidente — as he lay on the floor…. he practically kept talking to him all the time, kept saying one word which I should judge meant ‘confess’ or ‘answer.’ I could not understand the native tongue at all.”

The victim was then allowed to dress and leave the building but then more information was required and he refused to answer so a second round of torture was conducted on the sidewalk. Riley continued:

“Yes; on the stone walk …. One of the men of the 18th Infantry went to his saddle and took a syringe from the saddlebag, and another man was sent for a can of water, what we call a kerosene can, holding about 5 gallons. He brought this can of water down from upstairs, and then a syringe was inserted one end in the water and the other end in his mouth. This time he was not bound, but held by four or five men and the water forced into his mouth from the can, through the syringe … The syringe did not seem to have the desired effect, and the doctor ordered a second one. The man got a second syringe, and that was inserted in his nose. Then the doctor ordered some salt, a handful of salt was procured and thrown into the water. Two syringes were then in operation. The interpreter stood over him in the meantime asking for this second information. That was desired. Finally he gave in and gave the information they sought, and then he was allowed to rise.”

I wonder if this doctor took the Hippocratic oath because he supervised the torture to attain maximum effect without killing the victim. These were not stray or isolated incidents, torture was used during the Philippine-American War and it is unfortunate that we do not have the testimony of the victim to give us the other side of the story.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Donald Trump, Looking Back, wartime torture
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