Surprise -- The Very Dark Side of U.S. History
Surprise -- The Very Dark Side of U.S. History
"good guys" spreading "democracy" and "liberty" around the world. It just ain't
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Sarwo Edhie had been identified as a CIA contact when
he served at the Indonesian Embassy in Australia. [See Pacific,
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
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,
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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