As if it were a force of nature, we're often advised "war is hell," and corporate media spin is designed to hide exactly who puts the hell in war. On a website dedicated to the 1960s television comedy series "Hogan's Heroes," one particular episode was described as follows: "Knowing the Allies won't bomb a POW camp, the Germans stash an experimental rocket-bomb in Stalag 13. London sends an Allied scientist to photograph and sabotage the bomb. To distract Klink, the heroes arrange for him to be named Kommandant of the Year."
"The Allies won't bomb a POW camp."
That statement goes a long way in illustrating the influence of propaganda. (Then again, so does a popular comedy about a Nazi POW camp.) The writers of "Hogan's Heroes" took for granted that no one would challenge the proposition that America and its allies fight fair.
Based on the response to the recent Iraqi prisoner scandal, many today apparently still take that proposition for granted. Why else would the photos shown on "60 Minutes II" remotely surprise anyone? (For example, one need only look at the treatment of the two million behind bars right here in America to grasp how the "good guys" behave under such conditions.)
General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assures us: "It is not systematic. And it's really a shame that just a handful can besmirch, maybe, the reputations of hundreds of thousands of our soldiers and sailors, airmen, and Marines."
President (sic) Bush adds: "I share a deep disgust that those prisoners were treated the way they were treated. Their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people. That's not the way we do things in America."
We (and men like Myers and Bush) are trained to see our (sic) soldiers as heroes (Pat Tillman, anyone?) and when one of those heroes slips up, well, we're also taught that in every military intervention, there will be cases where the good guys are left with no choice but to fight fire with fire. Perhaps the most notorious example was an unnamed U.S. major, quoted by Associated Press on February 8, 1968. Asked about the U.S. assault on the Vietnamese town of Bentre, the major explained, "It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it."
Like the reluctant parent who informs their bare-bottomed offspring that the consequent spanking will hurt them more than the child, the U.S. is sometimes forced to punish those who simply won't roll over in the face of superior force. The propaganda machine tells us: During war, even the U.S. has to sometimes play a little rough and, yes, our heroes might get their hands a little dirty...in the name of freedom, of course. How else can we deal with evil? We didn't want things to get out of hand: the devil made U.S. do it.
The template of dehumanizing enemies and exploiting that subhuman status to commit atrocities has facilitated a policy of unremitting foreign entanglements (along with indigenous extermination and ethnic-based enslavement). Thanks to relentless propaganda, there are now many who readily accept-and will often encourage-iniquitous U.S. behavior in the military theater of operations. General Myers says abuse of prisoners is not systematic. The record tells us otherwise...and even when Americans fight each other, inhumane travesties proliferate. During the Civil War, historian Kenneth C. Davis explains, "prisoner of war camps were among the most tragic and inhumane disgraces of the war." Of the 45,000 prisoners at one particular Confederate camp in Andersonville, Georgia, 13,000 died from summer heat, disease, and inadequate food and medical supplies.
"Hogan's Heroes," it wasn't.
Union soldier Henry Hernbaker was captured at Gettysburg and taken to Andersonville. He wrote of being kept under a "scorching hot sun" without cover. "The whole upper surface of our feet would become blistered and hen would break," Hernbaker reported. "The amputations would average as many as six per day, and I saw not a single instance of recovery from them."
Andersonville was overseen by Henry Wirz, who was heard to claim he killed "more damn Yankees with his treatment" than the army was with "powder and lead." Wirz later became the only Confederate solider executed by the Union after the war.
Conditions in the North were no better. The Union camp in Elmira, New York housed just over 12,000 Confederate prisoners of which nearly 3000 died from inhumane conditions. The camp was nicknamed "Hellmira."
Some 40 years later, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the U.S. fought a brutal war of conquest in the Pacific. By 1900, more than 75,000 American troops-three-quarters of the entire U.S. Army-were sent to the Philippines. In the face of this overwhelming show of force, the Filipinos turned to guerrilla warfare. The February 5, 1901 edition of the New York World shed some light on the U.S. response to guerilla tactics:
"Our soldiers here and there resort to terrible measures with the natives. Captains and lieutenants are sometimes judges, sheriffs, and executioners. 'I don't want any more prisoners sent into Manila' was the verbal order from the Governor-General three months ago. It is now the custom to avenge the death of an American soldier by burning to the ground all the houses, and killing right and left the natives who are only suspects."
In an eerie presaging of Vietnam's hamlets and of more recent efforts in Iraq, Filipino villagers were herded into concentration camps called "reconcentrados."
Captive Filipino soldiers and civilians alike were submitted to the "water cure." According to the Philippine-American War Centennial Initiative, this method consisted of "forcing four or five gallons of water down the throat of the captive whose body becomes an object frightful to contemplate, and then squeezing it by kneeling on his stomach. The process was repeated until the 'amigo' talked or died."
If those amigos struck back, the U.S. was ready to up the ante. When a U.S. platoon was wiped out in an ambush, Brigadier General Jacob W. Smith, a veteran of the Wounded Knee massacre (when the U.S. Army killed an estimated 300 Lakota men, women, and children), issued orders to kill "all persons of 10 years and older."
"I want no prisoners, I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me," Smith declared. "I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States."
A century later, George W. Bush condones war crimes while John Kerry admits he "committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers...committed" in Vietnam.
In other words, this is about a systematic as it gets.
Mickey Z. is the author of two upcoming books: A Gigantic Mistake: Articles and Essays for Your Intellectual Self-Defense (Prime Books) and Seven Deadly Spins: Exposing the Lies Behind War Propaganda (Common Courage Press), from which this essay is adapted from. His most recent book is The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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