“Waterboarding” is the latest name for a form of water torture going back to the Middle Ages in Europe, but condemned as illegal and immoral since the 1700s. Banned from Europe, water torture persisted in other parts of the world, including some European colonies, until the mid-20th century.
In the United States, water torture first appears as a means to terrorize slaves. It persists into the 20th century as a routine punishment for African American convict laborers in the Deep South. Most notoriously, it was used by U.S. soldiers on Philippine captives during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). After that war, the technique shows up sporadically in some domestic police departments as a way to force detainees to confess to a crime.1
The “water cure”: Here’s a description by 1st Lt. Grover Flint, 35th U.S. Infantry, of a typical field interrogation in the occupied Philippines:
A man is thrown down on his back and three or four men sit or stand on his arms and legs and hold him down, and either a gun barrel or a rifle barrel or a carbine barrel or a stick … is simply thrust into his jaws … as a gag. In the case of very old men I have seen their teeth fall out — I mean when it was done a little roughly. He is simply held down, and then water is poured onto his face, down his throat and nose …, and that is kept up until the man gives some sign of giving in or becomes unconscious.… A man suffers tremendously; there is no doubt about that. His suffering must be like that of a man who is drowning, but who can not drown.2
Soldiers and officers called this technique “the water cure,” after a type of alternative health care, popular in the 1800s, in which applying cold water to the body was considered therapeutic. By using this term to name an excruciating torture, the soldiers were making what ethicist Jonathan Glover calls a “cold joke” — a humorless witticism that distances the torturer from his own action by making nonsense of the victim’s suffering.
As far as I know, no one has yet uncovered the origin of the term “waterboarding.” But if it was coined by the men who practice it today, it probably also originates in a cold joke — possibly an attempt to call the torture an “extreme sport,” by analogy with snowboarding, sandboarding, dirtboarding, etc. [Update: Why we call it waterboarding] Continue reading “A brief history of waterboarding”