The History of Torture- Why We Can’t Give It Up
August 12, 2011
In 1849, pacifists felt history was on their side. A series of idealistic revolutions had shaken autocratic regimes across Europe the previous year, extending universal voting rights in many countries and spurring extensive constitutional reforms in Denmark and the Netherlands. Hundreds of intellectuals, philanthropists, and politicians had gathered in Brussels to discuss how to bring an end to war itself, endorsing arms limitations and a ban on military lending. In August of that year nearly a thousand delegates from Europe and North America convened in Paris to further their plans to bring down “the war system” and replace it with the rational adjudication of a Congress of Nations.
“A day will come when a cannon will be a museum-piece, as instruments of torture are today,” French author Victor Hugo told the Paris delegates. “And we will be amazed to think that these things once existed!”
The pacifists were to be disappointed. The Crimean War—a continental-scale conflict, despite its name—broke out four years later, killing 400,000 and foreshadowing the horror of industrialization visited upon the battlefields of the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the First World War. The 20th century would see more war deaths than any in history, and the early 21st promised the killing would continue apace.
But Hugo was right about one thing: Torture as a matter of state and military policy had indeed all but vanished from the Western world. Torture—the use of physical coercion to extract information or break down the subject—had fallen out of favor in Europe for a variety of reasons, including the rise of Enlightenment philosophes, revised attitudes to battlefield treatment of prisoners, and new thinking among doctors. By 1851, every country in Europe had banned torture altogether. A few years later, Union armies went to battle with rules for warfare that explicitly condemned prisoner abuse.
Torture by military forces was thought a thing of the past. Indeed, the American historian John Fiske in 1889 declared it almost “as extinct as cannibalism.”
Then it came roaring back.
The 20th century saw military forces around the world torturing prisoners as a matter of operational policy, some at a scale that might have shocked Genghis Khan or Vlad the Impaler. Americans tortured and slaughtered prisoners in the Philippines. Japanese raped, tortured, and murdered captives by the tens of thousands in China and dissected Allied prisoners on Pacific islands. German military units were ordered to treat Soviet POWs as subhuman slaves, transferring some to be experimented upon by state-employed medical doctors. In more modern conflicts of every size and type—Korea and Vietnam, the Belgian Congo and Liberia, the Algerian civil war and the bitter Yugoslav split, Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and American-occupied Iraq—soldiers tortured soldiers on the orders of their superiors. “It has reached a scale that dwarfs even the darkest Middle Ages,” wrote British foreign affairs columnist Jonathan Power in his 1981 history of Amnesty International.
Why did torture, after nearly vanishing as acceptable military practice in the 19th century, return with such a vengeance? It’s a question that has challenged 21st-century scholars, particularly since President George W. Bush condoned the use of certain torture techniques on prisoners held by U.S. military forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba—techniques that allegedly played a role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Their conclusion: The nature of war has come full circle since the early 17th century, from total war to gentlemanly clashes and, beginning around 1900, back again. Counterinsurgency and civil wars have become the norm, making it far more likely that combatants will be regarded as treasonous criminals rather than defeated soldiers. Both developments have resurrected operational torture, sometimes in forms not seen since ancient times…