You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.

War crimes of the U.S. empire

May 14, 2004 | Pages 6 and 7

"PEOPLE IN Iraq must understand...that what took place in that prison does not represent the America that I know." So said George W. Bush in interviews on Arab television last week, in response to the pictures of U.S. soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. But America has a long history of torture, violence and bloodshed--committed at home and around the world in the name of U.S. empire.

NICOLE COLSON looks behind the rhetoric about "freedom and democracy"--and uncovers the long record of U.S. military atrocities.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

FROM THE earliest days, the U.S. empire was built on war, genocide and horrific brutality. In the 19th century, in a drive for westward expansion, the U.S. government engaged in the systematic slaughter of Native Americans. "Indian Removal" wiped out the majority of Native Americans.

According to historian Howard Zinn, in 1820, 120,000 Indians lived east of the Mississippi River. By 1844, fewer than 30,000 were left. This genocide is one of the two great crimes at the foundation of American power.

The other was slavery. Some 20 million Africans were kidnapped from their homes to fuel the trade in human beings--sent to the "New World" to be treated like animals.

About one-quarter didn't make it that far--because conditions during the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean were so barbaric. In the young United States, Black slaves became the engine of the American economy--both North and South.

The U.S. was late among the world's main powers in building an overseas empire, but it made up for that in violence. In 1898, it provoked a war with Spain--which even then was justified by war supporters with rhetoric about liberating the subjects of Spain's colonial rule. But the real aim of the U.S. was to become the new colonial boss itself.

In the Philippines, this required a war of conquest that killed as many as 1 million Filipinos. Typical of the U.S. barbarism in the Pacific was the raid on the town of Caloocan, where the entire population of 17,000 was slaughtered. "Our fighting blood was up, and we all wanted to kill 'niggers,'" one soldier wrote. "This shooting human beings beats rabbit hunting all to pieces."

As the Manila correspondent of the Philadelphia Ledger wrote in 1901, "[O]ur men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people from lads of 10 up, the idea prevailing that the Filipino as such was little better than a dog."

Washington didn't hesitate to become a colonial occupier in its self-declared "backyard"--which amounted to the Western Hemisphere. During the early 20th century, the U.S. invaded and ruled over Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. Marine Gen. Smedley Butler later described his role this way: "I spent most of my time being a high class muscleman for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism."

The Second World War, we're told, was the "good war"--a war against fascism for democracy. But there was nothing "good" or "democratic" about the U.S. conquest and occupation of Japan.

Despite the fact that Japan had been ready to surrender, the U.S. government dropped two atom bombs on a Japanese population that was starving--just to just to prove to the world its willingness to use its military might. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed over 220,000 immediately and 120,000 more from the effects of radiation poisoning.

In the years to come, Japanese civilians living under U.S. occupation were treated to vile racism and degradation. Thirty percent of the Japanese population--approximately 22 million people--were made homeless; 123,510 children were orphaned and homeless; 13 million workers were unemployed; and 10 million lived on the brink of starvation.

According to Japanese historian Takemae Eiji, "U.S. troops initially comported themselves like conquerors, especially in the early weeks and months of the occupation. Misbehavior ranged from blackmarketeering, petty theft, reckless driving and disorderly conduct to vandalism, assault, arson, murder and rape." And American occupation authorities collaborated with the Japanese regime in abusing Japanese women--hiring 70,000 poor women to work as prostitutes to service U.S. troops.

In the years following the Second World War, the U.S. armed and equipped murderous dictatorships around the globe--the military rulers of South Korea, Somoza in Nicaragua, Pinochet in Chile, Mobutu in Zaire, the Shah of Iran and many more. All this was justified in the name of fighting communism--as was the war in Vietnam.

The horrific tactics of the U.S. military were designed to inflict damage on civilians. With carpet bombings, napalm and wholesale massacres, 3 million Vietnamese and other Asians were dead by the end of the war. Then, as now, the horrific revelations about U.S. brutality against civilians led to an increasing number of people questioning the war here at home.

Most infamous is the 1968 My Lai massacre, in which U.S. troops in the Army's Charlie Company murdered 347 unarmed men, women and children in a four-hour assault. According to Sgt. Kenneth Hodges, "The order we were given was to kill and destroy everything that was in the village. It was clearly explained that there were to be no prisoners...The order that was given was to kill everyone in the village."

It was an order carried out with extreme brutality, as villagers were herded into ditches and machine gunned. One military mother, shocked by the revelation of what had taken place in My Lai, commented that "I gave them a good boy, and they turned him into a murderer."

Less well known--but no less horrific--was the massacres carried out by the elite Army Platoon Tiger Force. Troops not only tortured and executed Vietnamese soldiers who they had taken prisoner, but also routinely went after civilians--in some cases cutting off the ears of corpses. "We killed anything that walked," former Sgt. William Doyle, a platoon team leader, told the Toldeo Blade last year. "It didn't matter if they were civilians. They shouldn't have been there."

As Martin Luther King Jr. once said about the Vietnam War, "We were taking the Black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem." King's conclusion was right--and should be remembered today, as the Bush administration tries to claim that the abuses in Iraq are "un-American."

"I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos," King said, "without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today--my own government."

Tortured in the U.S.

YOUNG DETAINEES beaten, humiliated, subjected to electroshock and other forms of torture. That's what took place in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. And in police interrogation rooms in Chicago for nearly two decades.

The torture techniques that George Bush claims are un-American were used against dozens of young Black suspects on Chicago's South Side by cops under the command of Lt. Jon Burge. Leroy Orange, for example, was slapped, electroshocked and suffocated at Area 2 police headquarters for more than 12 hours in January 1984.

Police held a plastic bag over Leroy's head, punching him so he couldn't hold his breath. They shocked Leroy with a black box after placing electrodes on his arms and in his rectum. Then they used his "confession" to throw him onto death row.

The existence of Burge's torture chambers isn't a secret. In 1993, the city was embarrassed enough to force Burge into retirement, after a confidential internal report surfaced detailing more than 50 cases of "systematic" torture. Today, investigators put the number of Burge's victims at over 100.

Yet many of the men tortured by Burge and his cops remain locked away in prison, still waiting for justice. As columnist Carol Marin wrote in the Chicago Tribune, "When it comes to torture, the message seems pretty clear. Take pictures. Otherwise, those who don't want to believe you won't."

The brutality isn't limited to Chicago, of course. "When I saw Bush's interview on Arab TV stations, I was thinking, had he ever stepped inside a Texas prison when he was governor?" Judy Greene of Justice Strategies, a research and public advocacy group in New York, told Reuters.

If he had stepped inside Texas' Brazoria County jail in 1996, then-Gov. Bush could have witnessed guards staging a drug raid on inmates that was videotaped for "training purposes." The tape showed prisoners forced to strip and lie on the ground. A police dog attacked several, and guards prodded prisoners with stun guns and forced them to crawl along the ground. During much of the time that Bush was governor, Texas prisons functioned under the terms of a federal consent decree because of crowding and violence by guards.

Home page | Back to the top