Saturday, September 11, 2010

Torture will out: anguish and ambivalence

(To mark this anniversary of 9/11/01, I begin with our shame.)

Last week the Obama administration won its legal fight to keep secret any government misconduct it wants by declaring the matter a "state secret." The allegations that it was hiding in this instance are already public knowledge, that the Bush administration flew prisoners around the world to be tortured. The tortured men wanted to sue the private company that delivered them to be tormented. Even such a mainstream publication as the New York Times labeled this seizure of unreviewable executive power to muzzle known facts a very bad precedent.

The state secrets doctrine is so blinding and powerful that it should be invoked only when the most grave national security matters are at stake -- nuclear weapons details, for example, or the identity of covert agents. ... All too often in the past, the judges pointed out, secrecy privileges have been used to avoid embarrassing the government, not to protect real secrets. In this case, the embarrassment and the shame to America's reputation are already too well known.

It's true; we do learn more and more about what has been done in our name despite any legal obstacles. Lots of people were involved in the American torture regime, many of them quite ordinary soldiers who "just followed orders." They have told their stories, many privately and a few very publicly. Some are struggling with the moral dissonance they've brought back from their experience, the horror of striving to do right and feeling they've done very wrong.

Justine Sharrock reports the experiences of four such individuals in Tortured: When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things. It's a terrible indictment of what the U.S. military (and our spooks) are doing that Presidents of both political parties have seized the authority to keep such stories out of the courts .

From Sharrock's book, here are some bits of one such story. Brandon Neely who was among the first contingent of soldiers unloading the first set of prisoners at Guantanamo, remembers that day.

That first day, as Brandon was putting an elderly man in his cage, he, as ordered, threw the man down on his knees inside the cage and began to remove his shackles. ...The detainee tensed up and tried get away. Brandon yelled at him to stop, but then as Brandon and his partner unlocked the first handcuff, the man jerked away. Acting on instinct, Brandon threw the detainee to the ground with allof his body weight. Each time the detainee tried to raise his head, Brandon bashed it back down on the cement floor, over and over. ...Brandon had the honor of being the first soldier to get to beat up a terrorist. That night, soldiers kept coming up to him to congratulate him. "Nice job, man, you really got some," they said, patting him on the back. It felt good to be getting so much praise, but Brandon says he was left oddly unsettled.

The memory still haunts him.

"There has not been a day that goes by that I have not relived what I did or saw in Guantanamo or Iraq," he says. "It does not get any easier; it just eats you up inside, day by day."

Chris Arendt was an unlikely and not very willing soldier who found himself at Guantanamo years later. He had joined the National Guard because

...for kids like him living in a trailer in Charlotte, Michigan, it was the only ticket out and a way to go to college like the rich kids. The way he saw it, it was either join the military, sell meth, or gamble on whether he could land a factory job.

He never quite fit, never thought much of the wars, never stopped feeling "a wimp," but found others like him and tried to keep his head down. Then, one day, as Chris was just doing his job ...

they carried the detainee through the final sally-port to the interrogation room, they smashed the prisoner's head into a metal pole. He wasn't knocked unconscious or even bleeding, but it was a sickening blow. ...What Chris did that day may not sound so bad, especially compared to the large-scale atrocities of war. ...

Soldiers operating in combat zones have the understandable excuse that they have to make rash decisions to save lives and survive. Even killing innocent civilians when these people drive too close to checkpoints can be understood when soldiers are being blown up by car bombs. Trigger-happy soldiers who make mistakes are acting on hypervigilance, which is often necessary when sniper fire is imminent. But Chris and those other soldiers didn't even have the justification that they were softening up the detainee to make him talk. They had no defense for hurting prisoners, but they had no other channel for their anger or enthusiasm. Just like other soldiers, they were trained to be killing machines but were robbed of sanctioned opportunities to act out.

...Compared to other incidents of detainee abuse that have been reported, this incident was trivial. But it revealed something to Chris about who he is and what he is capable of. ... Few would see Chris as a torturer -- his worst offense was slamming someone's head into a wall. But for Chris it isn't the individual acts that make a man a torturer, but his role in the larger machine and his mentality toward the detainees. When Chris learned that he was capable of not caring what happened to the detainee, he saw a dark side of himself.

Because Chris Arendt became involved with Iraq Vets Against the War, he took this story of abusing a detainee to the public. This didn't much help him sort out his feelings, but it plunged him into a complicated vortex of recrimination with the guys who had been his soldier friends -- was he condemning all of them? Eventually Moazzam Begg, a released (cleared) prisoner now organizing against torture, invited Arendt to join him in speaking tour in the United Kingdom. Arendt was surprised to find that in speaking with former detainees he felt "a strangely intimate relationship." (The words quoted are Sharrock's language.)

U.S. panic about "security" and our aggressive wars have done strange and evil things over the last nine years. This book is sometimes a little over-preachy;
Sharrock might have been a more convincing story teller if she'd let these former soldiers speak more for themselves in all their anguish and ambivalence. But these interviews and discussions with former soldiers, their families and their disconcerted communities are a huge contribution to understanding who we've become since 9/11.

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