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Workers Vanguard No. 1024

17 May 2013

Vietnam, Central America, Iraq, Guantánamo

U.S. Imperialism’s Machinery of Torture

Correction Appended

Since a mass hunger strike at the U.S. Guantánamo prison camp began in February, the number of detainees participating has grown to at least 100. Their jailers have met this protest against being detained indefinitely in the notorious torture center with what U.S. security forces know best: more brutality. Twice a day, guards take detainees, one by one, from their cells to a separate room and subject them to forced feedings.

In late April, 40 medics were added to the team handling the prisoners, “pulling them into rooms where they are strapped to chairs and have rubber tubes stuck into their noses and snaked down to their stomachs, then pumping in a can’s worth of a liquid nutritional supplement” (“A Hundred Hungry Men at Guantánamo,” New Yorker, 1 May). On May 13, Al Jazeera released official U.S. policy documents detailing the procedures for this sadistic process. The detainees are made to wear masks over their mouths while they sit shackled for as long as two hours until testing confirms the liquid has reached their stomachs.

Eighty-six of the remaining 166 detainees had been cleared for release years ago. The rest, as the New Yorker noted, “are roughly divided between those the Administration says it might bestir itself to bring a case against someday, and those it acknowledges it doesn’t have enough evidence against, but finds somehow unsettling, and so is locking up anyway.” The Guantánamo prisoners, many indiscriminately rounded up by the U.S. military around 2002 or sold to their captors by local forces for bounty, were from the outset physically brutalized and subjected to intense psychological torment and humiliation designed to break them. These desperate men fear they will never get out alive. We demand: Free the detainees now!

With his liberal supporters wringing their hands over the hunger strikes, President Obama briefly rediscovered his old campaign promise to close Guantánamo, citing concerns on April 30 that “it is expensive, it is inefficient, it hurts us in terms of our international standing.” While Obama cynically blames Congress for supposedly tying his hands, his plan to close Guantánamo was never a plan to end the system of indefinite detention, only to relocate it onto American soil. The top Pentagon official for detainee policy recently told the New York Times that, even if Congress dropped its restrictions on transferring the detainees, “I don’t believe the numbers would change radically” (24 April). Indeed, a year before Congress imposed the restrictions, Obama barred repatriations to Yemen, home of the majority of the detainees cleared for release. Meanwhile, the military has spent millions of dollars in recent years on a state-of-the-art courthouse at Guantánamo, housing for lawyers and guards, and other construction. The Pentagon is requesting nearly $200 million more for further upgrades.

But at the same time it’s true that Obama is taking few prisoners, preferring assassinations by drones and special operations forces. Over 3,000 people have been slaughtered in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. These include “signature strikes,” e.g., targeting groups of “military-aged males” in a region under surveillance. Obama has also authorized the expansion of covert operations into countries across the Near East, the Horn of Africa, Central Asia and beyond.

The torture, assassinations and other barbaric practices meted out daily in the name of the “war on terror” have always been features of U.S. imperialism. In fact, many of the torture techniques its forces use today harken back to those employed at the turn of the 20th century to suppress the heroic uprising against the U.S. occupation of the Philippines. Up to half a million Filipinos were slaughtered, and men, women and children were herded into concentration camps.

In the imperialist epoch, the major capitalist powers—which compete with each other in exploiting dependent and economically backward countries—have built up massive military arsenals. At the top of the heap is the American bourgeoisie, the most powerful terrorists on the planet. The U.S. rulers have dropped atomic bombs to incinerate civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, napalmed Vietnamese villages and engineered Central American dirty wars to smash popular uprisings of leftist insurgents. As long as these butchers remain in power, there will be no end to the carnage. Only smashing U.S. imperialism from within through victorious workers revolution can put it out of its bloodthirsty business.

From Saigon to Baghdad: The James Steele Saga

Recently, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Guardian newspaper have highlighted the widespread torture and assassinations by the U.S. at the height of the occupation of Iraq. A BBC documentary released in March, Searching for Steele, recounts the central role of the U.S. in setting up and funding “Special Police Commandos” (SPC) to quell the Sunni insurgency against the occupation. These Commandos developed into Shi’ite-dominated death squads. The country descended into a sectarian civil war that by some accounts has claimed the lives of 100,000 Iraqis.

A slew of recent works of investigative journalism illustrate that the machinery of U.S. state terror is passed relatively seamlessly between Democratic and Republican administrations. In a review of Jeremy Scahill’s new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, his fellow Nation writer Tom Engelhardt describes how imperialist Commanders-in-Chief Bush and Obama “transformed an increasingly militarized CIA, a hush-hush crew called the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and a shiny new ‘perfect weapon’ and high-tech fantasy object, the drone, into the president’s own privatized military” (Nation, 23 April).

The BBC documentary focuses on one James Steele, an army colonel whose career shows in microcosm that, in order to intimidate and quell an entire population, the imperialists must resort to indiscriminate terror. A specialist in the dark arts of counterinsurgency, Steele is a shadowy figure who began his career during the Vietnam War. He then served in the 1980s as an adviser in the U.S. imperialists’ dirty wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama and who knows where else in Central America, overseeing local anti-Communist death squads. For a couple of years starting in 2003, Steele was brought out of retirement to serve as a consultant to the Bush administration and U.S. military tops in Iraq.

At the outset of the occupation in 2003, the U.S. rulers disbanded the Iraqi military and attempted to build a new one from scratch. It became apparent that this was a fiasco as the new recruits began deserting and retreating en masse when confronted by effective insurgent fighters. The most sophisticated and best-organized elements of the diffuse insurgency were Sunni, exemplified by the revolt in Falluja in 2004. To counter this armed resistance, the Iraqi puppet government formed the SPC, initially made up of former members of Hussein’s special forces and Republican Guard. Impressed by the caliber of these fighters, General David Petraeus—whom Obama appointed to head the CIA in April 2011—created a $2 billion fund to provide them arms, ammunition and supplies.

Drawing on his experience in Central America, Steele was called in to advise this force and help run a network of “interrogation centers” across Iraq. Former prisoners at these facilities and war logs turned over to WikiLeaks have recounted some of the methods by which prisoners were interrogated: electric shocks; rape and sexual molestation; amputations; burning with acid; beatings with shovels, cables and chains; stomping on prisoners’ heads; hanging them by their hands until their shoulders were dislocated and pulling their ears with pliers. Steele had lengthy meetings with the leader of the SPC, requested that specific detainees be interrogated, and was regularly present at the main interrogation center where the machinery of torture ground on and on. The U.S. military gave its imprimatur in June 2004 when it directed troops not to investigate acts of torture by Iraqis on Iraqis.

As the insurgency grew, Washington stepped up its divide-and-rule policy, inflaming conflicts between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims. In early 2004, the ban on Shi’ite militias joining the SPC was lifted and commandos were drawn increasingly from militias such as the Badr Brigades, which had scores to settle with the Sunnis going back at least to Hussein’s brutal, decades-long rule. By the spring of 2005, the SPC was 5,000 strong and had established a fearsome reputation on the streets of Iraqi cities. In Samarra, the heart of the Sunni insurgency, the SPC conducted a citywide raid, going door-to-door and packing hundreds of people off to its torture facilities. In September 2005, Steele sent a memo to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stating that the SPC was essentially a Shi’ite militia involved in “death squad activities”—as surely he would know.

Alongside the SPC, the secretive, elite U.S. military force known as Joint Special Operations Command was operating independently inside Iraq. A JSOC team of roughly 1,000 had entered the country before the U.S. invasion in order to hunt down “high-value targets.” As the invasion got underway, the special ops forces in the war zone were given wide latitude, and JSOC engaged in wholesale massacres during the U.S. army’s march to Baghdad.

JSOC ran the most infamous torture facility in Iraq out of a Hussein-era military base near the Baghdad airport called Camp NAMA, an acronym for “Nasty-Ass Military Area.” Prisoners brought to this facility were subjected to severe beatings, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, electric shocks and burns. The SPC and JSOC developed as two prongs of the imperialists’ counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, with JSOC a technologically sophisticated death squad that would become an integral part of Obama’s “war on terror” around the world. Its kill list would grow accordingly.

Dirty Wars Against Communism

In pursuing their “war on terror,” the U.S. imperialists have presented reactionary Islamic fundamentalist forces as the main enemy, as well as secular bourgeois-nationalist strongmen like Hussein. But for decades their overriding concern was to “roll back” Communism. From 1917, the imperialist powers sought to undo the Bolshevik-led October Revolution, which ripped one-sixth of the globe from the capitalists’ grip and established the world’s first workers state. Albeit subsequently degenerated under Stalinist bureaucratic rule, the Soviet Union became a powerful counterweight to the U.S. imperialists and their allies and remained so until its counterrevolutionary destruction in 1991-92.

In the 1960s and early ’70s, the American ruling class waged a brutal war against workers and peasants in Vietnam as a part of its anti-Communist crusade. In that war, the U.S. military was pitted against the army of the North Vietnamese deformed workers state and the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF). The imperialists resorted to the most brutal war crimes in fighting against a social revolution by insurgent workers and peasants. The CIA’s infamous Phoenix program—which relied on special ops forces and counterrevolutionary indigenous militias to assassinate thousands of NLF leaders and supporters—was the godfather of today’s JSOC. Vietnam is where Steele got his start.

At the time, the Socialist Workers Party and other reformist groups built a liberal-pacifist antiwar movement around the slogan: “Bring our boys home.” For us communists, “our boys” were the heroic NLF fighters. We Trotskyists not only called for military victory to the NLF but also demanded: “All Indochina must go communist!” While standing for the unconditional military defense of the deformed workers states, we gave no political support to the repressive, nationalist Stalinist bureaucracies. We put forward the perspective of proletarian political revolutions from Moscow to Beijing, Hanoi and Havana to bring to power leaderships committed to extending workers rule internationally, in particular to advanced industrial countries like the U.S.

U.S. efforts to crush leftist insurgents in Central America in the 1980s were colored by its having been badly mauled in Indochina. At home, the rulers had to deal with the “Vietnam syndrome,” the deep hostility and distrust of the populace toward new military engagements abroad. At the same time, Washington continued to back right-wing regimes around the world. Upon taking office in 1981, Republican Ronald Reagan decreed Central America to be the front line of the new Cold War. By “drawing the line against Communism” in El Salvador, Washington was reasserting its imperialist claim to its own backyard as well as taking aim at the USSR and the Cuban deformed workers state, where capitalism was overturned following the seizure of power by Castro’s forces in 1959.

Reagan’s counterinsurgency campaign in El Salvador drew on the anti-Communist legacy of Democrat John F. Kennedy, who had been dead set against there being any more Cubas in this hemisphere. On Kennedy’s orders, two paramilitary groups were set up: the Salvadoran National Security Agency (ANSESAL) and the Democratic Nationalist Organization (ORDEN). The former was an intelligence agency that would coordinate the country’s security forces and the latter was a rural militia that would engage in surveillance and infiltration of political organizations.

Reagan’s predecessor, Democratic president Jimmy Carter, had already ramped up military aid to the Salvadoran army, which then funneled the money to ANSESAL and ORDEN. By the end of the 1970s, ANSESAL and ORDEN death squads were responsible for as many as 800 political assassinations a month. When Reagan entered the White House, he began sending rifles, grenade launchers and helicopters, as well as dispatching “advisers” to the country. Among them was James Steele, who served in El Salvador from 1984-86 as head of the U.S. special forces’ MilGroup, specializing in what is euphemistically referred to as “human intelligence” and interrogation.

Rising social discontent in El Salvador had exploded in 1980 over the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, seen as an advocate for the poor and oppressed. Opposition groups including peasant organizations, unions, social-democratic parties and parts of the Catholic church united to form the Faribundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which launched a military campaign against government forces. Despite the U.S. support to the ruling junta, the FMLN was able to take control of significant parts of the country by the middle of 1981.

However, the FMLN, embracing a class-collaborationist alliance with a “progressive” wing of the Salvadoran bourgeoisie, sought a “negotiated settlement” with the death-squad regime, a demand that the reformist Workers World Party in the U.S. supported at the time. The leftist insurgents did not fight under the banner of communism, but they were in an armed conflict with U.S.-backed military juntas and counterrevolutionary terrorists. We demanded: Military victory to leftist insurgents! Defense of Cuba and USSR begins in El Salvador! The leftist forces eventually signed a sellout, U.S.-brokered settlement in 1992, an accommodation to the post-Soviet “new world order.”

As the civil war raged in El Salvador, the U.S. imperialists were involved in another dirty war in nearby Nicaragua, this time supplying the opponents of the government. The petty-bourgeois leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) had overthrown the blood-drenched dynasty of Luis Somoza in 1979, shattering the capitalist state and objectively opening the road to a social revolution. They instituted significant social reforms, including nationalizing the property of Somoza and his cronies, which amounted to as much as 40 percent of the economy. But the Sandinistas, who never espoused an anti-capitalist program, formed a coalition government with elements of the bourgeoisie and maintained a “mixed economy,” which meant that the capitalists were never destroyed as a class. Defense of the Nicaraguan revolution required completing it by overthrowing capitalist rule and extending the revolution throughout Latin America and to the U.S. imperialist behemoth.

The U.S. provided massive aid to the right-wing contra insurgents, some of the most vicious reactionaries in the region, to overthrow the Sandinista government. Washington also worked hand in hand with the likes of Guatemala’s General Efraín Ríos Montt, who was recently found guilty of genocide and other crimes against humanity by a court in that country. The 1986 Iran/contra scandal brought to light that U.S. military officials were shipping guns to the Iranian government and using the proceeds to fund the contras, explicitly violating Congressional bans. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, the main Reagan administration figure implicated, was using Ilopango Airport in El Salvador to ship weapons and supplies to the contras. Steele ran operations at this very airport.

With the U.S. bankrolling the contras, the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie was able to reassert control a decade later, defeating the revolution. Today’s Sandinista and FMLN leaders serve as openly bourgeois politicians at the head of their respective capitalist states.

For Workers Revolution in the Belly of the Beast!

The current mindset of the U.S. imperialist overlords was expressed by a JSOC operative who spoke with Jeremy Scahill: “The world is a battlefield and we are at war. Therefore the military can go wherever they please and do whatever it is that they want to do, in order to achieve the national security objectives of whichever administration happens to be in power” (Dirty Wars). Today in Afghanistan, the widespread atrocities committed by the U.S./NATO occupiers have the local population seething. With anger mounting at the routine killing, abduction and torture of Afghans, the American puppet government in Kabul took the extraordinary step of barring U.S. special forces from Wardak province earlier this year. Afghan authorities subsequently issued an arrest warrant on murder and torture charges for an American linked to those operations. With its overwhelming military might, it is a lot easier for the U.S. to bomb its perceived enemies into oblivion than to establish a stable regime to its liking.

The rulers of decaying U.S. capitalist society are plenty dangerous. But they are also dependent on the labor of the working class for their profits. Our task as revolutionaries is to win workers to opposing their “own” rulers who rain terror down on the oppressed masses of neocolonial countries as they ramp up the rate of exploitation and trample on democratic rights at home. At the time of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, we called for the military defense of these countries without giving any political support to the reactionary, woman-hating Taliban cutthroats or the capitalist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

Today, we say that every blow struck against the imperialist occupiers in Afghanistan is in the interests of the world working class. But the blows are often just as likely to be aimed at rival religious communities, nationalities, women and human enlightenment in general. We demand the immediate removal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan and call for class struggle at home against the imperialist mass murderers.

For the liberals, each new atrocity is an aberration or policy mistake that can be fixed by putting the right person in office or tinkering with the massive machinery of death and terror. But no amount of reforms will put an end to imperialist barbarism. The road forward for the liberation of the world’s peoples is smashing U.S. imperialism through victorious workers revolution. This perspective demands the building of a workers party—independent of and opposed to both the Democratic and Republican parties of capital—to lead the struggle for workers power. Only then can the unspeakable crimes of imperialism be redressed and its barbaric practices at long last consigned to the dustbin of history. 


In our article “U.S. Imperialism’s Machinery of Torture” (WV No. 1024, 17 May), we misspelled the name of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) of El Salvador. In the same article, we referred to the overthrow of the “blood-drenched dynasty of Luis Somoza in 1979.” While Luis Somoza Debayle was part of the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua, holding power in the 1950s and ’60s, it was his brother Anastasio Somoza Debayle who was overthrown in 1979. (From WV No. 1025, 31 May 2013.)


Workers Vanguard No. 1024

WV 1024

17 May 2013


Vietnam, Central America, Iraq, Guantánamo

U.S. Imperialism’s Machinery of Torture


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