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Before Hersh and Mayer: Waterboarding Described in a 1946 New Yorker

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Jonathan Taylor writes:

After reading Mark Danner's New York Review of Books revelations and meditations on the Red Cross reports on Guantanamo, and trying to recapture some perspective on "torture"—what the word meant to all of us before it was associated on a daily basis with the United States first and foremost—I put the word into The New Yorker's search engine. The first thing I was reminded of was Lawrence Weschler's 1980 two-parter on the use of torture under the Brazilian military dictatorship, "A Miracle, a Universe" (although these, of course, implicated the U.S., too). There's also a lot on the subject relating to Nazi and Japanese World War II atrocities. Peter Kalischer's 1947 story "Neighbor: Tokyo, 1947" describes an accused war criminal said to have forced "sick men to march up and down the damp stone corridors without their clothes"—the kind of thing that made Rummy chuckle.

But I also found a curious and disturbing story called "Police Duty," by James A. Maxwell, from 1946, that the words of Red Cross report echo across the decades. The narrator describes a British policeman in Tripolitania (in Libya), his attitudes toward "Arabs," and particularly an episode in which he elicits a confession from a suspected murderer.

Captain Westcott went over to the Arab and placed a hand on his shoulder. He asked several more questions in the same soft voice, but no sound came from the prisoner. Suddenly the Captain drove his right fist hard into the Arab's stomach. The man gave a high cry and dropped to the floor, where he writhed, gagged, and gasped for breath. After a few moments, one of the guards jerked him to his feet, but he stood doubled up. My companions at the table looked at him as impersonally as if he were a stranger seated opposite them in a streetcar. Westcott came back to the table, poured a cup of tea for himself, and asked the Arab if he was ready to talk. The man said he knew nothing about the murder.

And, after an episode with a gruesome technique using "what looked like a pair of handcuffs," described with clinical expertise by the narrator, produced no results,

Captain Westcott told one of the guards to get some water. When the policeman returned with two bottles of water, the prisoner was stretched out on the floor, face up, with one guard holding his feet and another on each of his arms. The guard with the water tipped the Arab's head back and began to pour water down his nose. The man thrashed and gagged, and then retched. He was literally drowning. Wetcott told the men to stop. The guards pulled the man to his feet. He nodded his head when the Captain asked if he was ready to confess.

The story has all the chilling detachment of its abstract: "The policy of violence for violence is demonstrated...."

Who was James Maxwell? "Police Duty" and other New Yorker pieces (categorized Fiction) of his were collected in I Never Saw An Arab Like Him, published in 1948. He seems to have been a counterintelligence officer in the Middle East during World War II.

I haven't found much about Maxwell or his book outside pay archives containing initial reviews of it. Commentary ran a review by Anatole Broyard; the free snippet on its site seems to herald a takedown:

As the land of technical genius, America has perfected millions of pleasure-giving, work-saving devices—smooth-riding cars, static-free radios, automatic washing machines, and so on indefinitely. It seems only natural then that Americans should have perfected a style of writing compatible with these mechanical conveniences—a style also mechanical, smooth, without static, full of devices, laundered of all distressing odors and smudges, etc.

Anybody know more about this Maxwell character? (Not to be confused with editor William Maxwell, of course.)


The report from the Nuremberg trials on page 80 of the same issue of The New Yorker is also worth reading.

Thanks, Jeremy, for the tip. I see that immediately previous and subsequent issues have more installments.

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