The Doctrine of Atrocity

U.S. against "them"—a tradition of institutionalized brutality

The declassified documents reveal that the Tiger Force atrocities—and the resulting lack of punishment, which amounted to tacit approval—were merely the tip of the iceberg. In September 1967, for instance, an American sergeant killed two Vietnamese children, executing one at point-blank range with a bullet to the head. Court-martialed in 1970, the sergeant pleaded guilty to, and was found guilty of, unpremeditated murder. According to military documents, "he was sentenced by the court to no punishment." One of the most notorious incidents of the Vietnam War was the My Lai massacre (another story first reported by Seymour Hersh, in 1969). But the now declassified military documents reveal that it was hardly an isolated incident. On February 4, 1968, for example, just over a month before U.S. soldiers tortured and raped My Lai villagers and killed hundreds of them, a soldier in the same province and from the same division (Americal) gunned down three civilians as they worked in a field. He later admitted to his commanding officer, men in his unit, and others that he had done it, and he was charged with premeditated murder. But the soldier requested a discharge, which was granted by Americal's commanding general in lieu of a court-martial.

As the case of the 172nd MI unit demonstrates, U.S. troops in Vietnam not only beat enemy prisoners and civilian detainees but also used a wide variety of brutal methods, including a particular torture in which water was forced down a person's throat until he or she passed out or drowned—what U.S. troops had called the "water cure" during their battle against Filipinos in the early 20th century. One particularly heinous method was known among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam as "The Bell Telephone Hour," in which a hand-cranked military field telephone was used to generate electrical shocks through wires to hands, feet, nipples, and genitals.

In Iraq, only when the stunning photographs, including one of a prisoner who was apparently threatened with electrical torture, surfaced late last month on network TV did the press take notice in a major way, but even then, CBS News, at the behest of General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held the pictures back for two weeks and only decided to release them when prodded by Hersh's New Yorker article.


  • Is This America? For Now, Maybe. Sydney H. Schanberg on Iraqi torture and the presidency.
  • Brutal Logic It's bad, it's disgusting, it's wrong. But is it torture? Lawyers have some explaining to do. Sanford Levinson looks at the legal ramifications of the Abu Ghraib torture case.
  • She Held the Leash G.I. Jane in the Torture Room Ta-Nehisi Coates wonders, Was Iraqi torture a sex crime?
  • Remote Control A new film goes behind the scenes at Al Jazeera Kareem Fahim talks with Control Room director Jehane Noujaim.
  • Docs Populi Raging against the Republican machine Anthony Kaufman on election year documentaries.
  • The army itself described "wanton criminal abuses" at Abu Ghraib prison, and there have been numerous other reports of brutality since the invasion of Iraq, demonstrating that the doctrine of atrocity is still functioning.

    During the Vietnam War, a U.S. officer infamously announced that a town had to be destroyed in order to save it. Today, the same logic is used in Iraq. "With a heavy dose of fear and violence . . . I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them," U.S. battalion commander Nathan Sassaman was quoted as saying in a New York Times article in December 2003. The quote was buried deep in the article, but recent reports indicate that Sassaman's tough talk may have been backed up by wanton acts of terror. On April 5, The Washington Post reported that Sassaman, a lieutenant colonel, was recently punished for impeding an army investigation of the alleged killing of an Iraqi detainee, adding that it "marked the second time in recent months that a battalion commander in the Fourth Infantry Division has been disciplined in connection with mistreatment of Iraqis."

    Underlying attitudes apparently haven't changed either. Captain Todd Brown, a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division, told the Times late last year, "You have to understand the Arab mind. The only thing they understand is force. . . . " Nearly 40 years earlier, in Vietnam, another U.S. captain told The New Yorker's Jonathan Schell, "Only the fear of force gets results. It's the Asian mind." That thinking has long been evident in U.S. campaigns against racial and ethnic "others," from the Indian Wars to the Philippine-American War and occupation; the terrorizing of people in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Haiti; on to more conventional wars against the Japanese and Koreans; and perhaps most spectacularly in Vietnam. And now in Iraq—and not only at Abu Ghraib. Late last year, at another detention center, it was reported that Lieutenant Colonel Allen B. West allowed his soldiers to beat an Iraqi prisoner as a method of interrogation. When the illegal thrashing failed to induce the prisoner to talk, West threatened the man with death, forced his head into a sandbox, and conducted a mock execution, firing a shot next to the Iraqi's head. West confessed to the abuse, but he was not court-martialed; instead, he was simply allowed to retire.

    Then, as now, U.S. officials defend their soldiers' actions. President Richard Nixon, Rumsfeld's old boss, once pronounced that "throughout the war in Vietnam, the United States has exercised a degree of restraint unprecedented in the annals of war." Similarly, today's U.S. military claims that its recent assault on Fallujah has been marked by a "judicious use of force" by marines "trained to be precise in their firepower" and that "95 percent of those killed were legitimate targets."

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