Torture is Essential to the System

Glen T. Martin

May 2004

The furor about the U.S. use of torture arising from the revelations at Abu Ghraib prison has resulted in continuing revelations of similar forms of abuse in United States prisons, in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and elsewhere.    It has also resulted in excellent articles about “Foolish dreams of American empire” from the Roanoke Times on May 14, 2004 and the May 15 New Yorker article by Seymour M. Hersh trancing the prison torture abuses to the very top of the U.S. power structure.  The Times commentary points out that “empires require cruelty to subdue restive foreign populations.”   This is exactly to the point – the lust for empire and torture are inseparable.  They go together.

What has been slow in emerging from the furor about torture is recognition that the United States has been an intentional global empire at least since World War Two.   The U.S. has acted to place itself at the center of a global empire directed toward controlling the wealth-producing process worldwide and guiding wealth and cheap raw materials into the hands of the world’s dominant corporations.   It has acted to crush popular movements around the world in which people have attempted to take control of their own destinies through unionizing, land reform, defending political rights, or attempting to control the wealth-producing process in their own interests. 

The United States emerged from the war as the world’s superpower, since all its contender industrial powers (Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Japan) had been devastated by the war.   Postwar planners in their then top secret documents sketched out a postwar strategy that included U.S. control of a “grand area” (that included most of the world) that was to be a service area for U.S. investments, resources, and cheap labor.  Noam Chomsky (in books like What Uncle Sam Really Wants) and others have documented this at great length.

Formerly top-secret government papers such as State Department Policy Planning Study number 23 (1948) announced that in order to “maintain the disparity” in wealth in relation to the rest of the world, the U.S. government would have to “cease to talk about vague and…unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization.”   From now on it would have to “deal in straight power concepts.”   The planners understood that “straight power concepts” meant torture, military destruction of peoples who resisted, overthrow of democratic governments, and police repression throughout the “grand area.”

This plan is unquestionably borne out in the factual record.   Already, when the U.S. military entered Korea in 1945, before the Korean war, they forcibly removed the local government and instituted a puppet dictatorship at the cost of murdering about 100,000 people.   Soon the United States CIA and military were engaged in brutally securing the “grand area” of the empire.   They overthrew the democratic government of Iran in 1953 and placed the Shaw of Iran in power who was infamous for his use of torture.   They overthrew the democratic government of Guatemala in 1954 and installed a military junta that tortured and murdered about 200,000 Guatemalans during the next 40 years.

The U.S. installed a merciless dictatorship in South Vietnam and bombed Cambodia and Laos to ribbons during the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. military using torture, massacre, and extermination bombings of defenseless villages routinely in Southeast Asia through its withdrawal in 1975.   Then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stated in a famous speech on U.S. television that “Asian people do not respect human life the way we do.”   This sounds very much like Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush who recently stated that a few bad soldiers do not reflect “the goodness of the American people.”

The U.S. helped engineer a coup in Indonesia in 1965 that brought the brutal dictator Suharto to power at the cost of half a million lives and routine torture of dissidents.  In the U.S. backed coup in Chile in 1973 (that destroyed Chilean democracy), they immediately turned the sports stadium in Santiago de Chile into a torture center with horrible sexual and gruesome forms of torture routinely applied to all prisoners.  Very similar to Abu Ghraib prison.  Amnesty International reports on the systematic use of torture in all these places remain available.

 This pattern continues to the present with the horrendous atrocities of the U.S. directed Contras against the Nicaraguan people in the 1980s and the U.S. military “advisors” and CIA agents supporting the El Salvadorean torturers of their own population during the 1980s that left 80,000 dead, disappeared, or tortured to death.   The U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 was a military invasion of a highly populated urban area to arrest one person: Manuel Noreiga.  It left the neighborhood destroyed and close to 1000 innocent Panamanians dead.  The message in this kind of routine disregard of the lives of innocent third world people (from Panama to Yugoslavia in 1998 to Afghanistan and Iraq today) is not lost the subjugated peoples of the empire.

The U.S. army training of Latin American military at what was called the “School of the Americas” in Fort Benning, Georgia, has produced dozens of horrible torturers and mass murders, while the Army claims it teaches them “human rights.”   In 1992, a training manual was smuggled out of the school which taught people torture and assassination as political tools.  The policy  is not simply reflected at this school, however.   Explicit U.S. foreign policy is built in part on the training of foreign military personnel worldwide in techniques of “counter-insurgency warfare.”   This means, in covert foreign policy terms, techniques of terrorizing and brutalizing their own populations.

It is important to realize that use of torture is not just for just for information.  Its use is integral to the primary necessity of empire – to create terror in subject populations.  The official line of the U.S. military is that torture does not work because the victim will say anything and the information is not “righteous.”  However, the torturers are experts in discerning what is “righteous” from what is not.  

But that is not the main point.  When the tortured just names the names of everyone he or she knows, this is valuable as well.  The U.S. supported dominators – in El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Indonesia, East Timor, South Vietnam, and elsewhere – have routinely arrested, murdered, or brutalized everyone named.  Human rights organizations have estimated that 70 to 90 percent of the inmates at Abu Ghraib prison are innocent of resisting the U.S. invasion of their country.  The target is not just “subversives.” It never has been.  It is necessarily the general population – who are required to live in terror.  

Edward S. Herman in The Real Terror Network describes the “institutionalization” of torture as U.S. foreign policy in the 1960s and 70s.  It became a systematic feature of covert foreign policy.   When tortured and maimed bodies were regularly found by relatives in garbage dumps in El Salvador or Guatemala, when tortured people were released in East Timor to tell their story, when photographs of extreme humiliations were taken in Abu Ghraib prison, this has real political effectiveness in the service of covert foreign policy.   Empires, indeed, require cruelty “to subdue restive foreign populations.”

For a revealing description of the economic side of the empire read David Korton’s When Corporations Rule the World, Michael Chossodovsky’s The Globalization of Poverty, or J.W. Smiths Economic Democracy.  The several billion people living in the “grand area” must be forced into a condition of political apathy and hopelessness in which they do not attempt to make change.   Their constant awareness of the incredible brutality to which they will be subjected if there is even a hint of political activity on their part is essential to keeping them in this condition.           

The purpose of empires is always economic.  The purpose of the U.S. empire is that the poor and wretched of the world should accept U.S. owned sweatshops paying starvation wages, and U.S. corporations extracting the resources and wealth from their pliant countries while they remain in poverty and misery.   Without terror, people would never accept the brutal conditions of death deprivation, misery, hunger, and disease that most of the people in the “grand area” endure for their entire lives.   Today, the top 20 percent of the world’s population owns 83 percent of the world’s wealth.    Each year untold billions of dollars in wealth are transferred from the poorest 50 percent of humanity to the wealthy imperial centers of capital.

If the rights of the poor were respected – political rights and human rights – then they would organize and defeat the empire at will.  They would take steps to use the resources of their countries to benefit their own people.   This is exactly what empire cannot allow.  Formerly secret Washington documents give this as the explicit reason for overthrowing the governments in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, and elsewhere.  Only terror keeps subjugated peoples accepting the horror of their present lives.   Terror and its corollary torture are absolute essential to U.S. foreign policy.   

Economic domination and exploitation by imperial nation-states can only be ended through effective democratic world government granting enforceable economic and political rights to all people on Earth, and making economic exploitation illegal.  Empires cannot be abolished from the Earth without creating a new world order that makes their existence impossible.  The underlying assumptions of the U.N. and the current world order are two: the system of so-called sovereign nation-states and globalized monopoly-capitalism.  A world order based on these premises makes empires inevitable.

The systematic use of terror and torture by the imperial nation states in their defense of empires can only be ended through enforceable democratic world law under non-military world government.   Mere political resistance to the empire from within has been going on for as long as the empire has been going on.  In nearly every case, the empire has won and millions (literally) have lost their lives resisting it.  It won in Vietnam as well: destroying two million lives and creating an economic basket case of a nation, riddled by chemical poisons, birth defects, and high cancer rates.

Resistance and criticism alone are not enough.  The empire’s propaganda machine is immense and will always be able to convince the majority that “these abuses do not reflect the true goodness of the American people.”  We must have a positive vision of a transformed world order.   The Eighth Provisional World Parliament – on behalf of emerging enforceable world law – will be held in Lucknow, India, August 10-14, 2004.   Only together can we can build a decent future for humanity.

(Glen T. Martin is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Radford University and Secretary-General of the World Constitution and Parliament Association.)