The Shadow of Torture: Debating US Transgressions in Military Interventions, 1899–2008

by Katrin Dauenhauer (Author)
©2015 Thesis 313 Pages
Series: Transcription, Volume 7


The photographs from Abu Ghraib triggered a debate on torture in the United States that has been led with a significant amount of visibility. What has been noticeably absent, however, is a thorough historical contextualization of US torture following September 11, 2001. The Shadow of Torture analyzes the debates on torture during the Vietnam War and the Philippine-American War and shows that the current controversy did not arise out of a political vacuum but reflects and draws upon pre-existing discursive contexts and practices.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One: Introduction: Debating US Torture in Military Interventions, 1899–2008
  • Chapter Two: “Curing” the Natives: Debating US Torture During the Philippine-American War, 1899–1902
  • “A Little Roughly Handled”: Accounts of Torture by American Servicemen
  • A Racial State of Exception
  • Progress, Civilization, Torture: The United States’ “Call to Duty”
  • “How Very Unpleasant!”: Public Opinion and the Anti-Imperialist League
  • Chapter Three: Forgetting/Rewriting/Reclaiming: Shadows of the Philippine-American War, 1899–1902
  • Forgetting and Remembering
  • Repressing Memories of Violence
  • The Raiders of Leyte Gulf
  • Denying Empire
  • Rediscovering Empire
  • Empire and the Future
  • Chapter Four: To Tell or Not to Tell: American Atrocities in Vietnam
  • Scholarship on US Transgressions During the Vietnam War
  • Media Reporting on the War
  • The My Lai Massacre: Scapegoating and the Bad Apple Defense
  • “The Blinders Must Be Removed”: Veterans Protest Against US War Crimes in Vietnam
  • Remembering Vietnam
  • The Shadow of Vietnam: John Kerry & the 2004 Election
  • Chapter Five: Framing the Human: Reading North Vietnamese Torture in POW Narratives of the Vietnam War
  • American POWs from Vietnam: From Forgotten to Fame
  • Good versus Evil: Representing the Vietnam POW in Congressional Debates
  • In Their Own Words: The POW Memoir as Neo-Captivity Narrative
  • Lessons Learned: John McCain’s Faith of My Fathers and Making Sense of Torture
  • Chapter Six: Abu Ghraib and the (Unexceptional) Rhetoric of the Exceptional
  • Abu Ghraib: The Unfolding of a Scandal
  • The Photos from Abu Ghraib
  • The Legal Memoranda on “Coercive Interrogation Techniques”
  • Exceptional or Not (So Much): Public Officials’ Reactions to the Abu Ghraib Scandal
  • “The Photographs Are Us”: (Early) Media Reactions to Abu Ghraib
  • “Architecture of Amnesia,” or: Torture Techniques Have a History
  • Chapter Seven: The Shadow of Torture: Projections
  • Works Cited
  • Image Sources
  • Index

← 6 | 7 → Acknowledgments

I want to express my gratitude to the people whose support and assistance were invaluable to the completion of this book. I am indebted to my dissertation advisor Sabine Sielke for her guidance, encouragement and insightful feedback that greatly contributed to the quality of this study. I am also grateful to the other members of my committee, Barbara Schmidt-Haberkamp, Elisabeth Schäfer-Wünsche, and particularly Marion Gymnich for her thoughtful comments on the manuscript. Of course, I alone am responsible for any errors or misjudgments.

While working on this book, I was fortunate to receive a two-year fellowship from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which greatly benefited my research. I particularly want to thank the International Office at Bonn University as well as the International Institute at UW-Madison for giving me this opportunity as well as the Fulbright Commission for providing further financial support and connecting me with fellow scholars. I also owe thanks to the librarians at the Wisconsin Historical Society and UW Memorial Library for their friendly support. My heartfelt thanks goes to Brian Williams and Virginia Piper from the UW Writing Center who were incredibly helpful sorting through ideas during the early stages of writing. I am particularly grateful to the Peter Lang publishing house for awarding me with one of their young academics awards and making this publication possible.

I especially thank Simone Knewitz for her constructive criticism on a substantial part of this study but first and foremost for her continuous friendship. Great thanks also to Edmunda Ferreira, heart and soul of Bonn University’s American Studies Program, for her all around positive character and her ability to effortlessly navigate university bureaucracy. To Jim Lobe whom I was lucky to call my boss during an internship at Inter Press Service and who has since supported me by sharing his insight on American foreign policy, providing me with letters of recommendation and connecting me with people with similar research interests. And to my fellow PhD students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sarah Bijani and Laura Frings, who have become dear friends, for sharing many a reading and writing session at the library as well as lots of laughter.

My deepest gratitude goes to my family, especially my parents, Elisabeth and Franz Dauenhauer, for wholeheartedly supporting my decision to go for a PhD but for not making too much of a fuss about it. And last but not least, I am immensely grateful to the wonderful Kevin Grogg, for his tireless editing of the manuscript and, most importantly, his emotional support and gift of putting things in perspective.← 7 | 8 →

← 8 | 9 → Chapter One
Introduction: Debating US Torture in Military Interventions, 1899–2008

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

- Art. 5, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.

Torture is a man-made disaster. It is the gravest violation of an individual’s fundamental right to personal integrity and freedom. The most widely accepted and quoted definition of torture internationally can be found in the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Article 1 of the CAT defines ‘torture’ as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” for a specific purpose and “by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity” (United Nations).1 Torture is often used to penalize; to extort information or force a confession; to take revenge or to spread terror and fear within a population. In torture, the body’s vulnerability to being subjected and controlled is abused with maximum effect. The extreme pain, a sense of complete subordination, powerlessness and humiliation and feelings of being completely at someone else’s mercy have consequences for the victim that reach far beyond the immediate physical injury. Many survivors of torture suffer from post-traumatic ← 9 | 10 → stress disorder (PTSD), with symptoms such as depression, memory lapses, flashbacks (or intrusive thoughts), nightmares, insomnia, and severe anxiety. In addition, torture victims often suffer from feelings of guilt and shame, caused by the humiliation they have experienced. Many believe they have betrayed themselves, their friends or family. “All such symptoms are normal human responses to abnormal and inhuman treatment” (International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims). And although torture is targeted towards the individual, it is not only the individual who suffers. Torture also destroys social groups (cf. Sironi 86-87). Victims’ families are greatly impacted by the torture of a relative. For the local community any instance of torture sends the signal that human rights are not respected. Due to its devastating consequences for the individual and society in general, there must be just one reaction to torture: its absolute prohibition and eradication.

In Rule of Law, Misrule of Men, Elaine Scarry writes that “[t]he prohibition of torture is […] not one important law among many important laws. Rather, it is the philosophic foundation on which all other laws are created and without which our confidence in all other laws wavers” (xvi). In fact, under customary international law, the prohibition of torture is jus cogens, meaning that it constitutes a peremptory norm that allows no derogation under any circumstances. It is binding for all nations. The prohibition of torture thus holds an elevated status within international law, placing it on par with genocide and slavery. Moreover, in accordance with the jus cogens nature of the prohibition of torture, states have universal jurisdiction and thus the right to investigate, prosecute, punish or extradite individuals who are accused of torture if they reside in a territory under their jurisdiction (Gail H. Miller, “Defining Torture” 3-4). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 codified in Article 5 the prohibition of torture. Created in reaction to the excesses of the Second World War, the declaration constitutes the first international expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.2 The Convention Against Torture adopted by the same body 36 years later to the day on December 10, 1984, renewed the effort by the United Nations to urge states to take effective measures to prevent torture within their borders. Both documents—along with a number of other international declarations, ← 10 | 11 → agreements, and conventions3—provide the normative framework for the prohibition of torture.4

Yet, while the prohibition of torture has such a prominent place in international law, clarity on what the term actually signifies is lacking. In fact, definitions of torture abound. They can be found on the international, national, and local level in conventions, constitutions, statutes, regulations, and judicial interpretations (Gail H. Miller 1-2). As Gail H. Miller poignantly attests, “[s]urprisingly, for an act that is so commonly condemned, there remains no clear understanding of what it actually is” (2). ‘Torture’ is a deeply contested term, contingent and contextual in its usage, employed both morally and legally for different purposes. As the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) states, “[t]orture is not an act in itself, or specific type of acts, but it is the legal qualification of an event or behaviour, based on the comprehensive assessment of this event or behaviour” (“Interpretation of Torture” 2). According to the OHCHR, labeling an act as torture requires a “comprehensive assessment” of the situation. These assessments, I contend, are always embedded in broader negotiations by a society on its use of violence and the justifications for it—negotiations that are not only limited to political debates but play out in media reporting, literature, movies, photographs and other images, addressing legal and political as well as ethical and aesthetic questions regarding torture. To trace these negotiations about torture as they pertain to US military interventions during the course of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century is the aim of this study. In doing so, I am guided by the following two questions: How is the term ‘torture’ employed in these debates, particularly when used to describe US actions on the one hand and actions of a declared enemy of the US on the other? And how can it be explained that US torture is justified while at the same time human rights violations including torture are vocally condemned and morally denounced?

← 11 | 12 → Despite the often-proclaimed imperative of an outright ostracism and categorical ban of torture, the bleak reality of the matter is certainly not absolute.5 The Cold War, the decade of the proclaimed “end of history”6 of the 1990s as well as the post-9/11 world did not see an end to torture. The US war in Vietnam, military dictatorships in Argentina and Chile, France’s war in Algeria, Pol Pot’s dreaded torture prison S-21 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, torture prisons maintained by the Stasi in the German Democratic Republic as well as recent reports of torture from Syria exemplify that torture has not been eradicated. Both autocratic regimes and democratic states still resort to torture. In its 2011 annual report, Amnesty International documented specific cases of torture and other mistreatment in 98 countries (Report 2011). While human rights, including the ban on torture, take on a central role in the official rhetoric of Western states, their record of human rights violations exposes a double standard between rhetoric and practice.

This discrepancy is also found in US foreign policy. Shaped by the belief that the country serves as the beacon of freedom to the world, the declared foreign policy aim of the United States is to spread human rights worldwide. Similarly, American exceptionalism, the idea of the unique destiny of the American people to lead the world toward liberty and democracy, forms the core of the predominant American political culture.7 However, “[h]uman rights in foreign policy is […] primarily a matter of Washington pressing others to improve personal freedom. International human rights is not primarily a matter of the United States applying global or regional standards to itself” (Forsythe, Human Rights 141). When on April 28, 2004, the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes first broadcast ← 12 | 13 → photographs of what took place in the now infamous Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib between October and December of 2003, the clash between the official foreign policy rhetoric of the US and said photographs could not have been more drastic. Following their revelation, a public debate on torture (re-)erupted that continues to this day. Of course, debating human rights violations, including torture, as part of US foreign policy is nothing new. Over the past forty years, there has been about a half-dozen major scandals over US torture, triggering congressional investigations (McCoy, Torture and Impunity 14). Yet the photographs from Abu Ghraib engendered a debate that has been led with much greater visibility. Discussions about “solitary confinement,” “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “simulated drowning,” sleep and food “manipulation” and various other euphemisms employed to camouflage torture not only engaged politicians, lawyers, the military and journalists but also extended to the arts, the literary world, TV and movie productions as well as, more broadly, popular culture. In fact, both opponents and proponents of the aforementioned techniques have led the current debate on torture with a significant amount of attention. This is striking as modern torture eschews publicity.8

What has been noticeably absent, however, is a thorough historical contextualization of US torture after September 11, 2001. In fact,

a startling number have begun to subscribe to an anti-historical narrative in which the idea of torturing prisoners first occurred to US officials on September 11, 2001, at which point the interrogation methods used in Guantánamo apparently emerged, fully formed, from the sadistic recesses of Dick Cheney’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s brains. (Klein)

Naomi Klein’s observations are noteworthy, as they point to the misconception of a seemingly spontaneous ‘invention’ of US torture during the Bush administration. In fact, it is not only defenders of torture who subscribe to what Klein labels as “anti-historical narrative.” John McCain, recounting his experiences as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, claimed that “we were different from our enemies, […] we were better than them, […] we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or approving such mistreatment of them” (“Torture’s Terrible Toll”). Democratic Congressman Jim McDermott on November 8, 2005, argued “America has never had a question about its moral integrity, until now.” And the late American columnist Molly Ivins, expressing outrage over Abu Ghraib, wrote that “this seems to me so preposterous, so monstrous. […] Maybe I should try to get a grip—after all, it’s just this one administration […]. And even at that, it seems to be mostly Vice President Dick Cheney.”

← 13 | 14 → Two things seem to be forgotten or simply ignored in the current debate on torture. First, US officials secretly condoned torture long before the Bush administration came into power. This history of American torture can be traced through a great number of sources: declassified documents, court records, truth commissions, and CIA training manuals, to name just a few. In addition, it has been documented in various books.9 In one of the more recent publications on the topic, A Question of Torture (2006), Alfred McCoy outlines how “[a]t the deepest level, the abuse at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and Kabul are manifestations of a long history of a distinctive U.S. covert-warfare doctrine developed since World War II, in which psychological torture has emerged as a central if clandestine facet of American foreign policy” (7). In the grainy images of Abu Ghraib, McCoy argues, we can see “the genealogy of CIA torture techniques, from their origins in 1950 to their present-day perfection” (5). Indeed, US torture has an even longer history that far exceeds the inception of the CIA in 1947 and dates back to the beginning of US imperialism: the Spanish-American War.

Second, even though commentators like to stress that the Bush administration’s open embrace of torture is unprecedented,10 this must not be equated with an overall absence of prior public debates on the issue. In other words, pointing to the particular bluntness of the Bush administration to promote so-called enhanced interrogation techniques does not mean that previous torture committed by US military personnel has been completely clandestine and without any kind of public knowledge. Rather, the American public debated torture previously, during the Vietnam War and also already during the Philippine-American War and thus from the beginning of the US’ ‘official entrance’11 into world politics.12 ← 14 | 15 → Yet knowledge about these debates is limited, as “the memory of US complicity in far-away crimes remains fragile, living on in old newspaper articles, out-of-print books and tenacious grassroots initiatives” (Klein).

The stakes of what I call a ‘willful amnesia’ are high. “If you don’t understand the history and the depths of the institutional and public complicity,” McCoy says, “then you can’t begin to undertake meaningful reforms” (qtd. in Klein). While individual programs might be eliminated under public pressure, a prison might be shut down or demolished as in the case of Abu Ghraib and now and again the resignation of an individual actor might be called for, “the prerogative to torture” will remain unaffected and be preserved, McCoy is convinced (qtd. in Klein). Furthermore, repression of war time atrocities always bears the danger of repetition: “On the one hand, we forget we have done this before, on the other, do not quite realize what we are doing again. The self-deception is complete” (Goleman 116). The battle over codification is thus not only a battle over historiography, but a battle over perceptions that shape the present and future.13 Moreover, I hold that a lack of knowledge of how debates on torture unfold prevents a more thorough understanding of the culture in which torture is legitimized. If cultural studies can provide insights into the cultural and political consequences (mediatized) exposure to violence has, then it is the awareness that violence is inscribed in discourse and resonates therein. If knowledge about the history of torture is lacking, on the other hand, inscriptions cannot be contextualized and thus cannot be processed.

This study is thus an attempt to counter the “wilful [sic] blindness, a studied avoidance of this deeply troubling topic” that is torture in US public debate and most scholarship today (McCoy, A Question of Torture 12). Employing the method of discourse analysis, I intend to analyze and recall past debates on torture and how they have been remembered for the purpose of adding depth to the current debate. In doing so, I trace and set in relation public debates on torture during the Philippine-American War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War. What continuities exist between the three debates? What are recurring discursive ← 15 | 16 → patterns? And how have past debates been remembered in public discourse? As I show, the “war on terrorism” and the ensuing debate on torture did not arise out of a political vacuum but reflects and draws upon pre-existing discursive contexts and practices. In turn, claims to exceptional circumstances point to the continuities in rhetoric for justifying the use of torture. Rather than constituting factual statements, they function as a means to disguise a systematic use of torture prevalent during military interventions in the 20th and 21st century.

There are two delimitations that mark this study, the first of which concerns the selection of three US military interventions that form the subject of my exploration. Investigating torture, I concentrate on the Philippine-American War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War. US military conflicts have indeed been numerous and varied, far exceeding the three wars selected. The same applies to the use of US torture. My selection of these three wars might therefore appear somewhat arbitrary, yet my choice is based on several considerations. First, all three conflicts share striking similarities concerning how they developed. During all three interventions, official combat operations were rather short-lived while actual US involvement dragged on mainly due to protracted insurgencies. In the Philippines, President Roosevelt declared the end of the war in 1902 and thus the war officially lasted about three years. Hostilities, however, continued until mid-year of 1913. In Vietnam, escalation of the war slowly mounted until 1965, when US Marines were dispatched to South Vietnam. This also marked the beginning of the US ground war, which reached its peak with the Tet Offensive in 1968, considered the largest battle during the war. Still, US military involvement dragged on, only ending in August of 1973. In Iraq, finally, the US invasion on March 20, 2003, was followed by a phase of overwhelming US military dominance leading President Bush to declare “Mission Accomplished” just six weeks later on May 1, 2003, thus supposedly ending major combat operations in Iraq. However, violence increased after this date with an Iraqi insurgency dealing heavy blows to American troops. This insurgency is in fact still ongoing despite the withdrawal of US military personnel in December 2011.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (May)
US Congress Vietnam War Abu Ghraib Philippine-American War Iraq War
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 313 pp., 1 coloured fig., 12 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Katrin Dauenhauer (Author)

Katrin Dauenhauer is a lecturer at the University of Bonn’s North American Studies Program. Her research focuses on American politics and culture, international relations, and human rights.


Title: The Shadow of Torture: Debating US Transgressions in Military Interventions, 1899–2008
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318 pages