Swans Commentary » swans.com August 29, 2005  





by Milo Clark





(Swans - August 29, 2005)  How do I write about torture?

Inflicting pain beyond description to elicit information or compliance or to amuse those who torture appears to be ageless. Read the Old Testament for examples. However, we don't need fiction to understand torture. We ignore it.

Today, us nice American folks sit by while our extensions torture ragheads, inmates, or others in a number of places around the country and around the world. So, what else is new? Not much, in actuality.

Denial and diversion, expertly contrived, keep most of us glued to our couches or perhaps running for another beer or diet drink before thumbing in the propaganda passed off as "news." "Serves 'em right, the bastards!"

Elaine Scarry, a professor of English then at the University of Pennsylvania, published in 1985 a signal book, The Body in Pain, The Making and Unmaking of the World. She anchors her model within three concentric circles encompassing all of us. "First, the difficulty of expressing physical pain; second, the political and perceptual complications that arise as a result of that difficulty; and third, the nature of both material and verbal expressibility or, more simply, the nature of human creation." (p. 3)

Scarry -- I wonder how she pronounces her name -- meditates upon the processes, torture, through which pain is translated into power. By careful examination calling in myriad references and examples rendered in languages all incapable of approaching the experiences, she leaves me breathless, lifeless, and exhausted.

Is there a less powerful, more powerless position than being tortured?

Lest we forget: Torture was very much a reality during the Vietnam Conflict. To a degree, I can imagine that the current breed of torturers supplied and trained by Americans are, in actuality, amazed at the Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, and other stories emerging faintly from the War on Terror. Worse was common in Vietnam.

In 1975, Amnesty International published the US version of "Report on Torture," one of what is now a series. Beginning on page 160, Vietnam is discussed. Regarding treatment of American prisoners in the north, "Amnesty International believes there is sufficient evidence to indicate that systematic torture was an administrative policy." (p. 163)

Turning to South Vietnam: ". . . Torture appears to have been commonest in the many interrogation centers throughout the country."

In reference to the diabolical Phoenix Program, ". . . According to an official US estimate, more than 20,000 suspected members of the National Liberation Front were killed. . . . Several ex-US Army intelligence operators have testified to the extensive use of torture and murder of suspects under the Program."

Con Son Island prison was almost beyond comprehension. The Tiger Cages there, and elsewhere, held ". . . prisoners. . . shackled . . . so that they emerge with atrophied legs and in an advanced stage of physical and psychological degeneration -- if they emerge at all." Other reports note that lime was dumped on top the Tiger Cages.

"It is clear, moreover, that the brutalizing effects of the Vietnam War have become so entrenched that some of the time the use of torture during interrogation is no longer even motivated by a desire to gather 'intelligence'." (pp. 160-168)

President Ford, during a prime time press conference, in reference to Allende's 1973 overthrow in Chile and the American roles therein, said, "It is a recognized fact that historically as well as presently, such actions are taken in the best interest of the countries involved."(p. 276)

Got it?


The Body in Pain, The Making and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry, Oxford University Press, New York, 1985, ISBN 0-19-503601-8.

"Report on Torture," Amnesty International, Farrar. Straus and Giroux, New York, 1973, 1975, First American Edition, 1975. No ISBN.

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/mgc164.html
Published August 29, 2005