Surprise — The Very Dark Side of U.S. History
Many Americans view their country and its soldiers as the “good guys” spreading “democracy” and “liberty” around the world. It just ain’t so.
Editor’s Note: Many Americans view their country and its soldiers as the “good guys” spreading “democracy” and “liberty” around the world. When the United States inflicts unnecessary death and destruction, it’s viewed as a mistake or an aberration.
In the following article Peter Dale Scott and Robert Parry examine the long history of these acts of brutality, a record that suggests they are neither a “mistake” nor an “aberration” but rather conscious counterinsurgency doctrine on the “dark side.”
There is a dark — seldom acknowledged — thread that runs through U.S. military doctrine, dating back to the early days of the Republic.
This military tradition has explicitly defended the selective use of terror, whether in suppressing Native American resistance on the frontiers in the 19th Century or in protecting U.S. interests abroad in the 20th Century or fighting the “war on terror” over the last decade.
The American people are largely oblivious to this hidden tradition because most of the literature advocating state-sponsored terror is carefully confined to national security circles and rarely spills out into the public debate, which is instead dominated by feel-good messages about well-intentioned U.S. interventions abroad.
Over the decades, congressional and journalistic investigations have exposed some of these abuses. But when that does happen, the cases are usually deemed anomalies or excesses by out-of-control soldiers.
But the historical record shows that terror tactics have long been a dark side of U.S. military doctrine. The theories survive today in textbooks on counterinsurgency warfare, “low-intensity” conflict and “counter-terrorism.”
Some historians trace the formal acceptance of those brutal tenets to the 1860s when the U.S. Army was facing challenge from a rebellious South and resistance from Native Americans in the West. Out of those crises emerged the modern military concept of “total war” — which considers attacks on civilians and their economic infrastructure an integral part of a victorious strategy.
In 1864, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman cut a swath of destruction through civilian territory in Georgia and the Carolinas. His plan was to destroy the South’s will to fight and its ability to sustain a large army in the field. The devastation left plantations in flames and brought widespread Confederate complaints of rape and murder of civilians.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, Col. John M. Chivington and the Third Colorado Cavalry were employing their own terror tactics to pacify Cheyennes. A scout named John Smith later described the attack at Sand Creek, Colorado, on unsuspecting Indians at a peaceful encampment:
“They were scalped; their brains knocked out; the men used their knives, ripped open women, clubbed little children, knocked them in the head with their guns, beat their brains out, mutilated their bodies in every sense of the word.” [U.S. Cong., Senate, 39 Cong., 2nd Sess., "The Chivington Massacre," Reports of the Committees.]
Though Smith’s objectivity was challenged at the time, today even defenders of the Sand Creek raid concede that most women and children there were killed and mutilated. [See Lt. Col. William R. Dunn, I Stand by Sand Creek.]
Yet, in the 1860s, many whites in Colorado saw the slaughter as the only realistic way to bring peace, just as Sherman viewed his “march to the sea” as necessary to force the South’s surrender.
The brutal tactics in the West also helped clear the way for the transcontinental railroad, built fortunes for favored businessmen and consolidated Republican political power for more than six decades, until the Great Depression of the 1930s. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Indian Genocide and Republican Power."]
Four years after the Civil War, Sherman became commanding general of the Army and incorporated the Indian pacification strategies — as well as his own tactics — into U.S. military doctrine. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, who had led Indian wars in the Missouri territory, succeeded Sherman in 1883 and further entrenched those strategies as policy. [See Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide.]
By the end of the 19th Century, the Native American warriors had been vanquished, but the Army’s winning strategies lived on.
When the United States claimed the Philippines as a prize in the Spanish-American War, Filipino insurgents resisted. In 1900, the U.S. commander, Gen. J. Franklin Bell, consciously modeled his brutal counterinsurgency campaign after the Indian wars and Sherman’s “march to the sea.”
Bell believed that by punishing the wealthier Filipinos through destruction of their homes — much as Sherman had done in the South — they would be coerced into helping convince their countrymen to submit.
Learning from the Indian wars, he also isolated the guerrillas by forcing Filipinos into tightly controlled zones where schools were built and other social amenities were provided.
“The entire population outside of the major cities in Batangas was herded into concentration camps,” wrote historian Stuart Creighton Miller. “Bell’s main target was the wealthier and better-educated classes. … Adding insult to injury, Bell made these people carry the petrol used to burn their own country homes.” [See Miller's "Benevolent Assimilation."]
For those outside the protected areas, there was terror. A supportive news correspondent described one scene in which American soldiers killed “men, women, children … from lads of 10 and up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino, as such, was little better than a dog. …
“Our soldiers have pumped salt water into men to ‘make them talk,’ have taken prisoner people who held up their hands and peacefully surrendered, and an hour later, without an atom of evidence to show they were even insurrectos, stood them on a bridge and shot them down one by one, to drop into the water below and float down as an example to those who found their bullet-riddled corpses.”
Defending the tactics, the correspondent noted that “it is not civilized warfare, but we are not dealing with a civilized people. The only thing they know and fear is force, violence, and brutality.” [Philadelphia Ledger, Nov. 19, 1900]
In 1901, anti-imperialists in Congress exposed and denounced Bell’s brutal tactics. Nevertheless, Bell’s strategies won military acclaim as a refined method of pacification.
In a 1973 book, one pro-Bell military historian, John Morgan Gates, termed reports of U.S. atrocities “exaggerated” and hailed Bell’s “excellent understanding of the role of benevolence in pacification.”
Gates recalled that Bell’s campaign in Batanga was regarded by military strategists as “pacification in its most perfected form.” [See Gates's Schoolbooks and Krags: The United States Army in the Philippines, 1898-1902.]
Spreading the Word
At the turn of the century, the methodology of pacification was a hot topic among the European colonial powers, too. From Namibia to Indochina, Europeans struggled to subdue local populations.
Often outright slaughter proved effective, as the Germans demonstrated with massacres of the Herrero tribe in Namibia from 1904-1907. But military strategists often compared notes about more subtle techniques of targeted terror mixed with demonstrations of benevolence.
Counterinsurgency strategies were back in vogue after World War II as many subjugated people demanded independence from colonial rule and Washington worried about the expansion of communism. In the 1950s, the Huk rebellion against U.S. dominance made the Philippines again the laboratory, with Bell’s earlier lessons clearly remembered.
“The campaign against the Huk movement in the Philippines … greatly resembled the American campaign of almost 50 years earlier,” historian Gates observed. “The American approach to the problem of pacification had been a studied one.”
But the war against the Huks had some new wrinkles, particularly the modern concept of psychological warfare or psy-war.
Under the pioneering strategies of the CIA’s Maj. Gen. Edward G. Lansdale, psy-war was a new spin to the old game of breaking the will of a target population. The idea was to analyze the psychological weaknesses of a people and develop “themes” that could induce actions favorable to those carrying out the operation.
While psy-war included propaganda and disinformation, it also relied on terror tactics of a demonstrative nature. An Army psy-war pamphlet, drawing on Lansdale’s experience in the Philippines, advocated “exemplary criminal violence — the murder and mutilation of captives and the display of their bodies,” according to Michael McClintock’s Instruments of Statecraft.
In his memoirs, Lansdale boasted of one legendary psy-war trick used against the Huks who were considered superstitious and fearful of a vampire-like creature called an asuang.
“The psy-war squad set up an ambush along a trail used by the Huks,” Lansdale wrote. “When a Huk patrol came along the trail, the ambushers silently snatched the last man on the patrol, their move unseen in the dark night. They punctured his neck with two holes, vampire-fashion, held the body up by the heels, drained it of blood, and put the corpse back on the trail.
“When the Huks returned to look for the missing man and found their bloodless comrade, every member of the patrol believed the asuang had got him.” [See Lansdale's In the Midst of Wars.]
The Huk rebellion also saw the refinement of free-fire zones, a technique used effectively by Bell’s forces a half-century earlier. In the 1950s, special squadrons were assigned to do the dirty work.
“The special tactic of these squadrons was to cordon off areas; anyone they caught inside the cordon was considered an enemy,” explained one pro-U.S. Filipino colonel. “Almost daily you could find bodies floating in the river, many of them victims of [Major Napoleon] Valeriano’s Nenita Unit. [See Benedict J. Kerkvliet, The Huk Rebellion: A Study of Peasant Revolt in the Philippines.]
On to Vietnam
The successful suppression of the Huks led the war’s architects to share their lessons elsewhere in Asia and beyond. Valeriano went on to co-author an important American textbook on counterinsurgency and to serve as part of the American pacification effort in Vietnam with Lansdale.
Following the Philippine model, Vietnamese were crowded into “strategic hamlets”; “free-fire zones” were declared with homes and crops destroyed; and the Phoenix program eliminated thousands of suspected Viet Cong cadre.
The ruthless strategies were absorbed and accepted even by widely respected military figures, such as Gen. Colin Powell who served two tours in Vietnam and endorsed the routine practice of murdering Vietnamese males as a necessary part of the counterinsurgency effort.
“I recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male,” Powell wrote in his much-lauded memoir, My American Journey. “If a helo [a U.S. helicopter] spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked remotely suspicious, a possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in front of him. If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next burst was not in front, but at him.
“Brutal? Maybe so. But an able battalion commander with whom I had served at Gelnhausen [West Germany], Lt. Col. Walter Pritchard, was killed by enemy sniper fire while observing MAMs from a helicopter. And Pritchard was only one of many. The kill-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine perceptions of right and wrong.”
In 1965, the U.S. intelligence community formalized its hard-learned counterinsurgency lessons by commissioning a top-secret program called Project X. Based at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School at Fort Holabird, Maryland, the project drew from field experience and developed teaching plans to “provide intelligence training to friendly foreign countries,” according to a Pentagon history prepared in 1991 and released in 1997.
Called “a guide for the conduct of clandestine operations,” Project X “was first used by the U.S. Intelligence School on Okinawa to train Vietnamese and, presumably, other foreign nationals,” the history stated.
Linda Matthews of the Pentagon’s Counterintelligence Division recalled that in 1967-68, some of the Project X training material was prepared by officers connected to the Phoenix program. “She suggested the possibility that some offending material from the Phoenix program may have found its way into the Project X materials at that time,” the Pentagon report said.
In the 1970s, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School moved to Fort Huachuca in Arizona and began exporting Project X material to U.S. military assistance groups working with “friendly foreign countries.” By the mid-1970s, the Project X material was going to armies all over the world.
In its 1992 review, the Pentagon acknowledged that Project X was the source for some of the “objectionable” lessons at the School of the Americas where Latin American officers were trained in blackmail, kidnapping, murder and spying on non-violent political opponents.
But disclosure of the full story was blocked near the end of the first Bush administration when senior Pentagon officials working for then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney ordered the destruction of most Project X records. [See Robert Parry's Lost History.]
By the mid-1960s, some of the U.S. counterinsurgency lessons had reached Indonesia, too. The U.S. military training was surreptitious because Washington viewed the country’s neutralist leader Sukarno as politically suspect. The training was permitted only to give the United States influence within the Indonesian military which was considered more reliable.
The covert U.S. aid and training was mostly innocuous-sounding “civic action,” which is generally thought to mean building roads, staffing health clinics and performing other “hearts-and-minds” activities with civilians. But “civic action” also provided cover in Indonesia, as in the Philippines and Vietnam, for psy-war.
The secret U.S.-Indonesian military connections paid off for Washington when a political crisis erupted, threatening Sukarno’s government.
To counter Indonesia’s powerful Communist Party, known as the PKI, the army’s Red Berets organized the slaughter of tens of thousands of men, women and children. So many bodies were dumped into the rivers of East Java that they ran red with blood.
In a classic psy-war tactic, the bloated carcasses also served as a political warning to villages down river.
“To make sure they didn’t sink, the carcasses were deliberately tied to, or impaled on, bamboo stakes,” wrote eyewitness Pipit Rochijat. “And the departure of corpses from the Kediri region down the Brantas achieved its golden age when bodies were stacked on rafts over which the PKI banner proudly flew.” [See Rochijat's "Am I PKI or Non-PKI?" Indonesia, Oct. 1985.]
Some historians have attributed the grotesque violence to a crazed army which engaged in “unplanned brutality” or “mass hysteria” leading ultimately to the slaughter of some half million Indonesians, many of Chinese descent.
But the recurring tactic of putting bodies on gruesome display fits as well with the military doctrines of psy-war, a word that one of the leading military killers used in un-translated form in one order demanding elimination of the PKI.
Sarwo Edhie, chief of the political para-commando battalion known as the Red Berets, warned that the communist opposition “should be given no opportunity to concentrate/consolidate. It should be pushed back systematically by all means, including psy-war.” [See The Revolt of the G30S/PKI and Its Suppression, translated by Robert Cribb in The Indonesian Killings.]
Sarwo Edhie had been identified as a CIA contact when he served at the Indonesian Embassy in Australia. [See Pacific, May-June 1968.]
US Media Sympathy
Elite U.S. reaction to the horrific slaughter was muted and has remained ambivalent ever since. The Johnson administration denied any responsibility for the massacres, but New York Times columnist James Reston spoke for many opinion leaders when he approvingly termed the bloody developments in Indonesia “a gleam of light in Asia.”
The American denials of involvement held until 1990 when U.S. diplomats admitted to a reporter that they had aided the Indonesian army by supplying lists of suspected communists.
“It really was a big help to the army,” embassy officer Robert Martens told Kathy Kadane of States News Service. “I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad. There’s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment.” Martens had headed the U.S. team that compiled the death lists.
Kadane’s story provoked a telling response from Washington Post senior editorial writer Stephen S. Rosenfeld. He accepted the fact that American officials had assisted “this fearsome slaughter,” but then justified the killings.
Rosenfeld argued that the massacre “was and still is widely regarded as the grim but earned fate of a conspiratorial revolutionary party that represented the same communist juggernaut that was on the march in Vietnam.”
In a column entitled, “Indonesia 1965: The Year of Living Cynically?” Rosenfeld reasoned that “either the army would get the communists or the communists would get the army, it was thought: Indonesia was a domino, and the PKI’s demise kept it [Indonesia] standing in the free world. …
“Though the means were grievously tainted, we — the fastidious among us as well as the hard-headed and cynical — can be said to have enjoyed the fruits in the geopolitical stability of that important part of Asia, in the revolution that never happened.” [Washington Post, July 13, 1990]
The fruit tasted far more bitter to the peoples of the Indonesian archipelago, however. In 1975, the army of Indonesia’s new dictator, Gen. Suharto, invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. When the East Timorese resisted, the Indonesian army returned to its gruesome bag of tricks, engaging in virtual genocide against the population.
A Catholic missionary provided an eyewitness account of one search-and-destroy mission in East Timor in 1981.
“We saw with our own eyes the massacre of the people who were surrendering: all dead, even women and children, even the littlest ones. … Not even pregnant women were spared: they were cut open. …. They did what they had done to small children the previous year, grabbing them by the legs and smashing their heads against rocks. …
“The comments of Indonesian officers reveal the moral character of this army: ‘We did the same thing [in 1965] in Java, in Borneo, in the Celebes, in Irian Jaya, and it worked.” [See A. Barbedo de Magalhaes, East Timor: Land of Hope.]
The references to the success of the 1965 slaughter were not unusual. In Timor: A People Betrayed, author James Dunn noted that “on the Indonesian side, there have been many reports that many soldiers viewed their operation as a further phase in the ongoing campaign to suppress communism that had followed the events of September 1965.”
Classic psy-war and pacification strategies were followed to the hilt in East Timor. The Indonesians put on display corpses and the heads of their victims. Timorese also were herded into government-controlled camps before permanent relocation in “resettlement villages” far from their original homes.
“The problem is that people are forced to live in the settlements and are not allowed to travel outside,” said Msgr. Costa Lopes, apostolic administrator of Dili. “This is the main reason why people cannot grow enough food.” [See John G. Taylor, Indonesia's Forgotten War: The Hidden History of East Timor.]
Through television in the 1960-70s, the Vietnam War finally brought the horrors of counterinsurgency home to millions of Americans. They watched as U.S. troops torched villages and forced distraught old women to leave ancestral homes.
Camera crews caught on film brutal interrogation of Viet Cong suspects, the execution of one young VC officer, and the bombing of children with napalm.
In effect, the Vietnam War was the first time Americans got to witness the pacification strategies that had evolved secretly as national security policy since the 19th Century. As a result, millions of Americans protested the war’s conduct and Congress belatedly compelled an end to U.S. participation in 1974.
But the psy-war doctrinal debates were not resolved by the Vietnam War. Counterinsurgency advocates regrouped in the 1980s behind President Ronald Reagan, who mounted a spirited defense of the Vietnamese intervention and reaffirmed U.S. resolve to employ similar tactics against leftist forces especially in Central America. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Guatemala: A Test Tube for Repression."]
Reagan also added an important new component to the mix. Recognizing how graphic images and honest reporting from the war zone had undercut public support for the counterinsurgency in Vietnam, Reagan authorized an aggressive domestic “public diplomacy” operation which practiced what was called “perception management” — in effect, intimidating journalists to ensure that only sanitized information would reach the American people.
Reporters who disclosed atrocities by U.S.-trained forces, such as the El Mozote massacre by El Salvador’s Atlacatl battalion in 1981, came under harsh criticism and saw their careers damaged.
Some Reagan operatives were not shy about their defense of political terror as a necessity of the Cold War. Neil Livingstone, a counter-terrorism consultant to the National Security Council, called death squads “an extremely effective tool, however odious, in combatting terrorism and revolutionary challenges.” [See McClintock's Instruments of Statecraft.]
When Democrats in Congress objected to excesses of Reagan’s interventions in Central America, the administration responded with more public relations and political pressure, questioning the patriotism of the critics. For instance, Reagan’s United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick accused anyone who took note of U.S.-backed war crimes of “blaming America first.”
Many Democrats in Congress and journalists in the Washington press corps buckled under the attacks, giving the Reagan administration much freer rein to carry out brutal “death squad” strategies in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
What is clear from these experiences in Indonesia, Vietnam, Central America and elsewhere is that the United States, for generations, has sustained two parallel but opposed states of mind about military atrocities and human rights: one of U.S. benevolence, generally held by the public, and the other of ends-justify-the-means brutality embraced by counterinsurgency specialists.
Normally the specialists carry out their actions in remote locations with little notice in the national press. But sometimes the two competing visions – of a just America and a ruthless one – clash in the open, as they did in Vietnam.
Or the dark side of U.S. security policy is thrown into the light by unauthorized leaks, such as the photos of abused detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or by revelations about waterboarding and other torture authorized by George W. Bush’s White House as part of the “war on terror.”
Only then does the public get a glimpse of the grim reality, the bloody and brutal tactics that have been deemed “necessary” for more than two centuries in the defense of the purported “national interests.”