Why Waterboarding Won’t Die

In a gripping story about fear and loathing in Amboina, Adam Clulow probes a pivotal event in world history to offer fresh insights about the entanglements of European empires in Asia. Meticulously researched and engagingly told, Amboina, 1623 is that rarest of rare things: a scholarly tour de force that is also a page-turner.

~ Lauren Benton, Vanderbilt University


In his recent book, Amboina, 1623: Fear and Conspiracy on the Edge of Empire, Adam Clulow explores the role of waterboarding in a controversial legal trial that took place on a remote island in Southeast Asia. While the case he discusses concluded in 1623, waterboarding did not disappear as a torture technique. Instead it reappeared prominently in the Bush administration while Candidate Donald Trump flirted publicly with ideas of bringing it back. In this guest post, Clulow reflects on why waterboarding, almost uniquely, continues to exist on the fringes of public debate. 

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The recent publication of James Mattis’ new memoir, Call Sign Chaos, provides an opportunity to assess what he did and, equally important, did not achieve during his time as President Trump’s Secretary of Defense. While opinions vary as to which column outweighs the other, one point that deserves more attention is Mattis’ role in pushing Trump away from his campaign promise to give official sanction to waterboarding, the act of simulated drowning that played such a prominent role in the Bush administration’s immediate response to 9/11. 

Candidate Trump famously promised to “bring back waterboarding”— a position so clearly articulated and so at odds with his own views that Mattis believed it would disqualify him from consideration for the Secretary of Defense position. [1] Instead Mattis seems to have succeeded where so many others have failed, in genuinely pushing Trump away from a campaign promise to a different view. 

Trump was less of an outlier than he might seem. A 2018 poll showed that 36% of US voters believe that waterboarding should be used to interrogate terrorist suspects.

While Mattis’ recruitment and outspoken opposition marks a road not taken, the fact that waterboarding came to feature as a campaign promise in the first place is a reminder of its continued role on the fringes of the national debate. Trump was less of an outlier than he might seem. A 2018 poll showed that 36% of US voters believe that waterboarding should be used to interrogate terrorist suspects. [2] 

All of this raises an obvious question that is seldom considered. Why waterboarding? There are dozens of forms of torture with similar claims to effectiveness and an equally long historical lineage and yet no-one proposes bringing back the rack, the leg screw or any one of their macabre cousins. 

The answer lies in the ways in which waterboarding seems to sit on one side of a false division between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ torture. This found its most famous form in the so-called torture memo, which was written in 2002 as the Bush White House sought to expand the CIA’s suite of interrogation options. For its authors, waterboarding was simply a means of altering perception, that is by stimulating the “fear or panic associated with the feeling of drowning.” Since it did not “inflict actual physical harm,” it was not comparable to more brutal forms of torture and could be readily sanctioned. [3]

All of this raises an obvious question that is seldom considered. Why waterboarding?

This division seemed novel at the time, but it has in fact a very long history. In 1623, officials attached to the Dutch East India Company arrested, waterboarded and, after a short trial, executed a group of English merchants and Japanese mercenaries on suspicion of a plot to seize control of the island of Ambon. In itself there was nothing particularly unusual about the use of torture to produce confessions. What sets the Ambon case apart was the sustained international controversy that it generated. 

Faced by widespread condemnation, the Dutch East India Company sought legal cover from a friendly authority. Coming across the resultant document in the subdued environment of the National Archives in The Hague is a chilling experience for it looks so close to its 2002 counterpart. Just one paragraph, it argues “that the torture with water” is the “most civil” of all possible techniques because “neither the health of the person nor any limb of their body is hurt or mutilated.” [4] In this way, the Company’s defense introduces a familiar distinction between ‘good’ torture which leaves the subject mentally anguished but physically unharmed, and ‘bad’ torture, which results in permanent damage.

Although separated by more than three centuries, both memos share the same basic ambition, to carve out a safe corner in the dark and dangerous terrain of torture, a zone of acceptability in which it becomes possible to reap the benefits of brutality without venturing into darkness. 

While General Mattis was able to close off this avenue, he is long gone and any roadblock he erected may be hurriedly dismantled. If history is any guide, waterboarding will be back, perhaps sooner than we think and the arguments previewed after the Amboina case may return with it. 

[3]Bybee to Alberto Gonzales, August 1, 2002, in Greenberg and Dratel, The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, 172-217
[4]Declaration by the bailiff of Batavia, signed by Jan Pietersen Prins, secretary, 7 October 1625, NL-HaNA, Staten-Generaal, 1.01.02, inv. no 12551.62.1.


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