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Teddy and the "water cure"

The president who took a stand against waterboarding

In his news conference on Wednesday night, President Obama was asked whether he believes that the Bush administration sanctioned torture. In response, he sought to rebuke Bush by invoking Winston Churchill. From the transcript:

Waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture...I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British, during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, "we don't torture," when the - the entire British - all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat. And - and - and the reason was that Churchill understood, you start taking shortcuts, and over time, that corrodes what's - what's best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.

You can rarely go wrong quoting Churchill, although some observers contend that Obama was wrong to invoke him on the torture issue. Churchill aside, however, Obama did miss a golden opportunity. His point would have been far stronger had he simply quoted the Republican president who railed against torture, and punished a top military general for war crimes, more than a century ago.

Somehow, the precedent set by Theodore Roosevelt didn't get much attention from the Bush Justice Department lawyers who crafted the legal justifications for torture. So let's review the record here. It would have been great grist for Obama.

Having defeated Spain in the Spanish-American war, U.S. troops occupied the Philippines and other former Spanish territories. But the Filipinos were not anxious to be annexed. They fought back, and a long guerrilla war ensured. That's when the American military discovered waterboarding - a technique brought to the island by the Spanish, who had first employed it against heretics during the Inquisition). The Americans adopted it for use against the Filipino insurgents, as a means of extracting information.
The "water cure" scandal first surfaced in 1902, when the U.S. governor of the Philippines, William Howard Taft, spilled the beans under oath in front of a congressional committee. One newspaper called his testimony "a most humiliating admission that should strike horror in the mind of every American." The subsequent official report described the workings of the water cure:

"A man is thrown down on his back, and three or four men sit in his arms and legs and hold him down, and either a gun barrel or a rifle barrel or a carbine barrel or a stick as big as a simply thrust into his jaws...and then water is poured onto his face, down his throat and nose...until the man gives some sign of giving in or becomes unconscious...His suffering must be that of a man who is drowning, but who cannot drown."

Apparently the details of the practice varied a bit, depending on which Americans were doing the water cure. A New York newspaper reported: "Water with handfuls of salt thrown in, to make it more efficacious, is forced down the throats of patients until their bodies become distended to the point of bursting."

Many Americans condemned the practice, on both moral and pragmatic grounds. As one critic wrote, "The torturing of Filipinos by the awful 'water cure,' for instance, to make them confess - what? Truth? Or lies? How can one know which it is they are telling? For under endurable pain, a man confesses anything that is required of him, true or false, and his evidence is worthless."

That argument sound familiar? Yet those words were penned more than a century Mark Twain.

To refute critics such as Twain, a pro-water lobby quickly developed. For instance, a church official named Homer Stunz wrote a piece entitled "The 'Water Cure' From a Missionary Point of View," and argued that the practice wasn't torture because the suspect could make it stop at any time simply by agreeing to provide the requested information. Others argued that the security of American troops was at stake, thus requiring that strong measures be taken to extract intelligence.

But Theodore Roosevelt, the new president, didn't buy those arguments. He didn't try to manufacture any legal justifications. He didn't bless the errant behavior by claiming that it was all conducted at the behest of his all-powerful executive authority. Instead, he kicked butt in a cable sent to the U.S. military authorities in the Philippines. The text can be found on page 100 of "Theodore Rex," the second volume of the TR biography written by Edmund Morris. The key passage:

The president desires to know in the fullest and most circumstantial manner all the facts...for the very reason that the president intends to back up the Army in the heartiest fashion in every lawful and legitimate method of doing its work; he also intends to see that the most vigorous care is exercised to detect and prevent any cruelty or brutality and that men who are guilty thereof are punished. Great as the provocation has been in dealing with foes who habitually resort to treachery, murder and torture against our men, nothing can justify or will be held to justify the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind on the part of the American military.

(Roosevelt also ordered the court martial of General Jacob "Howling Jack" Smith, who got his nickname when he directed his troops to reduce one particular province to "a howling wilderness." When Smith was subsequently cleared of war crimes charges, Roosevelt - insisting on "the right of review" - had him thrown out of the army.)

But, with respect to Roosevelt's cable, the meaning is clear: Waterboarding was deemed to be a crime by the Republican president of the United States, who declared that "nothing can justify" its use. Today's Republicans, including those who are defending the Bush torture memos, keep talking about the importance of returning to their party roots, so perhaps they should start with this issue and heed the GOP leader whose face is on Mt. Rushmore.

In fact, with TR's words in mind, perhaps we should all remember what philosopher George Santayana once warned: "Those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it."