Human Rights Watch has a new report of detainee abuse in Iraq. (It has been covered by various newspapers, including the NYTimes and the Washington Post.) If anyone still believes the 'few bad apples' theory, these reports should test their faith. These are not untrained reservists. They are regular soldiers from the 82nd Airborne. According to HRW and their testimony:
"The soldiers came forward because of what they described as deep frustration with the military chain of command’s failure to view the abuses as symptomatic of broader failures of leadership and respond accordingly. All three are active duty soldiers who wish to continue their military careers. A fax letter, e-mail, and repeated phone calls to the 82nd Airborne Division regarding the major allegations in the report received no response."
One of the soldiers, a captain, spent seventeen months trying to clarify what sort of treatment was permissible, and to report this abuse through the chain of command, without success.
Some excerpts from the account of 'Sergeant A', who gives the clearest picture of the abuse itself (note: PUCs are Persons Under Control, i.e. prisoners):
"We got to the camp in August  and set up. We started to go out on missions right away. We didn’t start taking PUCs until September. Sh*t started to go bad right away. On my very first guard shift for my first interrogation that I observed was the first time I saw a PUC pushed to the brink of a stroke or heart attack. At first I was surprised, like, this is what we are allowed to do? This is what we are allowed to get away with? I think the officers knew about it but didn’t want to hear about it. They didn’t want to know it even existed. But they had to. (...)
The "Murderous Maniacs" was what they called us at our camp because they knew if they got caught by us and got detained by us before they went to Abu Ghraib then it would be hell to pay. They would be just, you know, you couldn’t even imagine. It was sort of like I told you when they came in it was like a game. You know, how far could you make this guy goes before he passes out or just collapses on you. From stress positions to keeping them up f*cking two days straight, whatever. Deprive them of food water, whatever.
To “F*ck a PUC” means to beat him up. We would give them blows to the head, chest, legs, and stomach, pull them down, kick dirt on them. This happened every day. (...)
Guard shifts were four hours. We would stress them at least in excess of twelve hours. When I go off shift and the next guy comes we are already stressing the PUC and we let the new guy know what he did and to keep f*cking him. We put five-gallon water cans and made them hold them out to where they got muscle fatigue then made them do pushups and jumping jacks until they passed out. We would withhold water for whole guard shifts. And the next guy would too. Then you gotta take them to the john if you give them water and that was a pain. And we withheld food, giving them the bare minimum like crackers from MREs [Meals Ready to Eat, the military’s prepackaged food]. And sleep deprivation was a really big thing.
Someone from [Military Intelligence] told us these guys don’t get no sleep. They were directed to get intel [intelligence] from them so we had to set the conditions by banging on their cages, crashing them into the cages, kicking them, kicking dirt, yelling. All that sh*t. We never stripped them down because this is an all-guy base and that is f*cked up sh*t. We poured cold water on them all the time to where they were soaking wet and we would cover them in dirt and sand. We did the jugs of water where they held them out to collapse all the time. The water and other sh*t… start[ed] [m]aybe late September, early October, 2003. This was all at Camp Mercury, close to the MEK base like 10 minutes from Fallujah. We would transport the PUCs from Mercury to Abu Ghraib. (...)
On their day off people would show up all the time. Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent. In a way it was sport. The cooks were all US soldiers. One day a sergeant shows up and tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the guy’s leg with a mini Louisville Slugger that was a metal bat. He was the f*cking cook. He shouldn’t be in with no PUCs. The PA came and said to keep him off the leg. Three days later they transported the PUC to Abu Ghraib. The Louisville Slugger [incident] happened around November 2003, certainly before Christmas.
People would just volunteer just to get their frustrations out. We had guys from all over the base just come to guard PUCs so they could f*ck them up. Broken bones didn’t happen too often, maybe every other week. The PA would overlook it. I am sure they knew.
The interrogator [a sergeant] worked in the [intelligence] office. He was former Special Forces. He would come into the PUC tent and request a guy by number. Everyone was tagged. He would say, "Give me #22." And we would bring him out. He would smoke the guy and f*ck him. He would always say to us, "You didn’t see anything, right?" And we would always say, "No, Sergeant."
One day a soldier came to the PUC tent to get his aggravation out and filled his hands with dirt and hit a PUC in the face. He f*cked him. That was the communications guy.
One night a guy came and broke chem lights open and beat the PUCs with it. That made them glow in the dark which was real funny but it burned their eyes and their skin was irritated real bad."
(Parenthetically, how did we get to the point where people think that beating up prisoners is an acceptable way to deal with stress, but that stripping them, in an all-male camp, would be a bit too close for comfort to the edge of a real taboo?)
The details are awful, but unfortunately not new. I can't think of anything to say about them that I haven't already said. This is just barbaric.
What is new is the account of Officer C, identified in the media as a Captain who graduated from West Point. He writes about this as someone who has been trained in leadership, and who is thinking about what happened in that light. For instance:
"It’s army doctrine that when you take a prisoner, one of the things you do is secure that prisoner and then you speed him to the rear. You get him out of the hands of the unit that took him. Well, we didn’t do that. We’d keep them at out holding facility for I think it was up to seventy-two hours. Then we would place him under the guard of soldiers he had just been trying to kill. The incident with the detainee hit with baseball bat; he was suspected of having killed one of our officers."
Never having been in the army, I hadn't thought about this before, but once I read this it seemed clear: of course you should not leave prisoners with the unit that took them, a unit which is in all likelihood out on the front lines getting shot at, and might well have been shot at by this very prisoner before they took him. Whoever is given charge of the prisoner, it shouldn't be that unit. Officer C later says:
"Look, the guys who did this aren’t dishonorable men. It’s not like they are a bunch of vagabonds. They shown more courage and done more things in the time that I’ve spent with them than I could cover in probably a week of talking to you. They are just amazing men, but they’re human. If you put them in a situation, which is the officer’s responsibility, where they are put in charge of somebody who tried to kill them or maybe killed their friend, bad things are going to happen. It’s the officer’s job to make sure bad things don’t happen."
And he's right: it is the officer's job. This is one of the things that has always bothered me about the torture scandals: not just what we are doing to the Iraqis, but what the people who set these policies in place are doing to the soldiers in their charge. We take kids, strip away some of the inhibitions that keep them from, say, sitting atop buildings with a sniper rifle in normal life, and put them in an incredibly dangerous and stressful position, in which not only their lives but their comrades' lives are constantly at risk. It is absolutely incumbent on their commanders and on the civilian leadership to do whatever they can not just to prevent them from getting killed, but also to keep them from unnecessarily doing something that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Soldiers have to kill people in time of war, obviously, but their commanders and the civilian leadership have an absolute obligation to set up policies that keep them from needless barbarity. Policies like, for instance, getting prisoners quickly out of the hands of the units that captured them. We owe them that, and we did not provide it.
Nor did we provide our soldiers with clear guidance. Officer C seems to have started in Afghanistan, and assumed that the same rules for the treatment of detainees were in effect in Iraq. But then came Abu Ghraib:
"Someone mentioned to me in passing that there was a really bad prisoner abuse scandal and I took note of it and I thought, “that is horrible. That is going to be bad PR [public relations] for the Army” and I thought, "Okay, rogues did something." And then as the week progressed I watched on the news and they showed some of the pictures -- not all of them -- a large portion of the pictures were in accordance with what I perceived as U.S. policy. Now all the stuff with sodomy with the chem light and all that was clearly beyond what I would have allowed to happen on a personal moral level and what I thought policy was. But the other stuff, guys handcuffed naked to cells in uncomfortable positions, guys placed in stress positions on boxes, people stripped naked. All that was…if I would have seen it, I would have thought it was in accordance with interrogation procedures.
I listened to the congressional hearings and when the Secretary of Defense testified that we followed the spirit of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan and the letter of the Geneva Conventions in Iraq… that went against everything that I [understood about US policy]. That’s when I had a problem.
The first concern when this originally happened was loyalty to the Constitution and separation of powers, and combined with that is the honor code: "I will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do." The fact that it was systematic, and that the chain of command knew about it was so obvious to me that [until that point] I didn’t even consider the fact that other factors might be at play, so that’s why I approached my chain of command about it right off the bat and said, "Hey, we’re lying right now. We need to be completely honest."
Congress should have oversight of treatment of prisoners. That is the way; the Army should not take it upon itself to determine what is acceptable for America to do in regards to treatment of prisoners. That’s a value… that’s more than just a military decision, that’s a values decision, and therefore Congress needs to know about it, and therefore the American people need to have an honest representation of what’s going on presented to them so that they can have a say in that."
He tried to get guidance:
"I talked to an officer in the Ranger regiment and his response was, he wouldn’t tell me exactly what he witnessed but he said “I witnessed things that were more intense than what you witnessed,” but it wasn’t anything that exceeded what I had heard about at SERE school.
After that I called the chaplain at West Point who I respected a lot and I talked to him about some things and we were on the same page. Then I had said well, “I’m going to talk to my company commander and then my battalion commander on Monday.”
My company commander said, “I see how you can take it that way, but…” he said something like, “remember the honor of the unit is at stake” or something to that effect and “Don’t expect me to go to bat for you on this issue if you take this up,” something to that effect.
I went and talked to my battalion commander. Again, he clearly thinks he has done the right things and that what I am bringing attention to is within the standards and that he is okay. He didn’t dismiss me. He just said “Go talk to JAG. We’ll work this out.” It wasn’t alarming to him in any way, shape or form that these things had happened.
So I went to JAG and … he says, "Well the Geneva Conventions are a gray area." So I mentioned some things that I had heard about and said, "Is it a violation to chain prisoners to the ground naked for the purpose of interrogations?" and he said, "That’s within the Geneva Conventions." So I said, "Okay. That is within the Geneva Conventions." And then there is the prisoner on the box with the wires attached to him, and to me, as long as electricity didn’t go through the wires, that was in accordance with what I would have expected US policy to be and that he wasn’t under the threat of death. And he said, "Well, that is a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions." And I said, "Okay, but I’m looking for some kind of standard here to be able to tell what I should stop and what I should allow to happen." And he says, "Well, we’ve had questions about that at times."
Then he said, "There was a device that another battalion in the 82nd had come up with that you would put a prisoner in. It was uncomfortable to sit in." And he went to test it out by sitting in it and he decided that it wasn’t torture. I hear this and I am flabbergasted that this is the standard the Army is using to determine whether or not we follow the Geneva Conventions. If I go to JAG and JAG cannot give me clear guidance about what I should stop and what I should allow to happen, how is an NCO or a private expected to act appropriately?"
How indeed? Again: we owe it to our troops, not to mention their prisoners, to give them clear guidance about what they can and cannot do. Asking soldiers in time of war to improvise detention policies is an invitation to abuse and a failure of leadership. It is also one more way in which we are failing our own troops.
"The officer also spoke with multiple experts on the U.S. military Law of Land Warfare, his peers, and his soldiers, all of whom, he said, expressed concern that the Geneva Conventions were not being applied in Iraq. He decided to bring his concerns to the Congress since he felt they were not being adequately addressed by his chain of command. Days before this report was published his brigade commander told him to stop his inquiries; his commanding officer told him that he could not leave the base to visit with staff members of Senators McCain and Warner without approval and that approval was being denied because his commanding officer felt the officer was being naïve and would do irreparable harm to his career."
Here's Officer C's reaction:
"It’s unjust to hold only lower-ranking soldiers accountable for something that is so clearly, at a minimum, an officer corps problem, and probably a combination with the executive branch of government.
It’s almost infuriating to me. It is infuriating to me that officers are not lined up to accept responsibility for what happened. It blows my mind that officers are not. It should’ve started with the chain of command at Abu Ghraib and anybody else that witnessed anything that violated the Geneva Conventions or anything that could be questionable should’ve been standing up saying, "This is what happened. This is why I allowed it to happen. This is my responsibility," for the reasons I mentioned before. That’s basic officership, that’s what you learn at West Point, that’s what you should learn at any commissioning source.
That’s basic Army leadership. If you fail to enforce something, that’s the new standard. So I guess what I’m getting at is the Army officers have overarching responsibility for this. Not privates, not the Sergeant Jones, not Sergeant Smith. The Army officer corps has responsibility for this. And it boggles my mind that there aren’t officers standing up saying, "That’s my fault and here’s why." That’s basic army leadership.
Look, the guys who did this aren’t dishonorable men. It’s not like they are a bunch of vagabonds. They shown more courage and done more things in the time that I’ve spent with them than I could cover in probably a week of talking to you. They are just amazing men, but they’re human. If you put them in a situation, which is the officer’s responsibility, where they are put in charge of somebody who tried to kill them or maybe killed their friend, bad things are going to happen. It’s the officer’s job to make sure bad things don’t happen.
[Another important] thing is making sure this doesn’t happen again…. [We need] to address the fact that it was an officer issue and by trying to claim that it was “rogue elements” we seriously hinder our ability to ensure this doesn’t happen again. And, that has not only moral consequences, but it has practical consequences in our ability to wage the War on Terror. We’re mounting a counter-insurgency campaign, and if we have widespread violations of the Geneva Conventions, that seriously undermines our ability to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.
[I]f America holds something as the moral standard, it should be unacceptable for us as a people to change that moral standard based on fear. The measure of a person or a people’s character is not what they do when everything is comfortable. It’s what they do in an extremely trying and difficult situation, and if we want to claim that these are our ideals and our values then we need to hold to them no matter how dark the situation."
To judge by this account, Officer C is everything we should want in an officer in our armed forces. We want officers who assume that "it’s the officer’s job to make sure bad things don’t happen", and who find it mind-boggling that the officers he serves with have not stood up to accept that responsibility. We want officers who understand leadership, and accept not just its benefits but its duties. This episode should not risk "irreparable harm to his career"; it should make his career, by showing that he has all the traits we should want the people who lead our troops to have.
I like to think that under normal circumstances, the Army probably has politics and career gamesmanship, as any large institution must, but that it also makes room for people like Officer C, who are trying to live up to its highest ideals. And I hate to think that we have created a situation that not only causes so much harm to so many prisoners who may or may not be guilty of anything, but also leads people to say that trying to live up to the army's ideals is a damaging career move.
We already knew that the people responsible for our detention policies are inhumane, callous, and unworthy of the country they claim to serve; and that they have been criminally careless with both the lives and the souls of our soldiers. Now we also know that they are the sorts of "leaders" who crush the ideals of good people, and give them reason to ask: was I just a sucker for believing all that? The answer to that question is always 'no'. Faith in high ideals is never misplaced. Unfortunately, faith in those who ought to uphold them is a different story.