Commentary Magazine


Waterboarding, Elsewhere

My friend Bing West, a former Marine and assistant secretary of defense who currently writes for The Atlantic, makes some important points in the Small Wars Journal regarding the contentious issue of waterboarding.

Much of the debate so far has focused on whether American interrogators should use harsh techniques such as waterboarding on high-level terrorist detainees. Michael Mukasey’s failure to flatly state that such practices are illegal has put his bid to be attorney general in serious jeopardy. Whatever you think of waterboarding and the like, there is another side to this issue which isn’t getting much attention, one that involves the actions of our allies.

West notes that when he was an adviser in South Vietnam in 1966 he saw a village police chief named Thanh using “what is now called waterboarding, rubbing lye soap into a wet cloth and placing it across the face of the prisoner. I never saw a prisoner die or not be able to walk out of that room. But they talked. I reported it and our orders were to keep the Marines in our Combined Action Platoon out of that room.”

Our advisers in Iraq don’t have the same option of turning a blind eye. As West notes: “Today, 40 years later, the order would be for the American adviser to physically stop Thanh and to bring him up on charges.” As West notes, that is a misguided attempt to impose our cultural norms elsewhere—you might even call it “cultural imperialism.”

“Neither our advisers nor our military units are involved in waterboarding or other such techniques, be they labeled ‘torture’, or ‘harsh interrogation’ or whatever the vernacular,” he notes. But we should be more tolerant if our allies, who are fighting for their lives and that of their families, practice a harsher brand of counterinsurgency than we’re comfortable with.