Tortured History: Filibustering, Rhetoric, and Walker's War in Nicaragua

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Though William Walker was celebrated for his conquest of Nicaragua in 1855, it was his literary skill, rather than his military or political acumen, that allowed him to contribute the dominant imaginary of Latin America to US culture. Citing key passages from his memoir, The War in Nicaragua, the author analyzes the nexus of Walker's rhetorical strategies and ideological presentations of geopoliticized territory. The formative effect of Walker's geopolitical style emerges most clearly in his celebration of torture as a necessary political act, where his racialist view of individual subaltern behavior is expressed as both nationally representative and threatening to US stability.


When is torture not torture? It turns out the answer depends more on the practitioners than the practices. A recent study from Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy suggests that the language used by the major US newspapers to describe acts of torture shifts to accommodate national practices, rather than remaining consistent with legal, transnational definitions. Specifically, the researchers found that a century-long practice of identifying waterboarding as torture came to an abrupt end in 2004, "once reports of the use of waterboarding by the CIA and other abuses by the U.S. surfaced" (Desai et al. 15). They conclude that simple political pressure from the Bush administration prompted the change, writing: "The status quo ante was that waterboarding is torture, in American law, international law, and in the newspapers' own words. Had the papers not changed their coverage, it would still have been called torture" (15-16). Though presented as an important new development, I would argue that this report merely highlights a longer tradition in US reporting on foreign occupations, originating with the inaugural occupation of a foreign nation by a US citizen--William Walker's 1855-1857 occupation of Nicaragua. Moreover, the recognition of this longer tradition provides an opportunity to observe the reaction of those subject to such practices. The varied responses to Walker's occupation reveal that such actions produce reactions and resistance that cannot be hidden by the deceptive language promoted by partisans and echoed in a national press. Just as with the current US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, Walker employed torture in support of his occupation of Nicaragua; and, just as in the examples cited by the Harvard study, Walker used deceptive rhetoric to justify his use of torture for his domestic reading audience. But just as in these recent examples, Walker's actions produced reactions that exceeded his rhetorical grasp.

More than simply representing a "first" moment in US political history, Walker's occupation of Nicaragua represented both the highpoint and the endpoint of a cultural phenomenon known as "filibustering," a popular extension of nineteenth-century manifest destiny politics beyond the discrete borders of the nation. In the current parlance, the term has come to indicate official political opposition to proposed legislation, but filibusters were once political agents of a far different sort. Adapted from an old Dutch word for pirates--vrijbuiters, or "freebooters"--the term "filibusters" initially referred to groups of US citizen-mercenaries who invaded friendly nations within a perceived US sphere of influence. The term first emerged in popular usage in 1851, following the widely-celebrated (though unsuccessful) attempts by Narciso Lopez to take Cuba for the US (May 3). (1) As a political act with mass appeal, the celebration of filibusterism reflected popular anxieties arising from perceptions of geopolitical weakness on the part of the US government, in the face of European (and especially, British) geopolitical strength.

US filibusters occasionally looked to the north, but the newly postcolonial nations of Latin America to the south were more frequently imagined as the destined targets of US expansion, reflecting a profound underlying Anglo-American racism and a keen sense of political opportunism. …


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