Justine Sharrock / Mother Jones – 2008-03-30 22:45:25
BAGHDAD (March 27, 2008) — The prisons in Iraq stink. Ask any guard or interrogator and they’ll tell you it’s a smell they’ll never forget: sweat, fear and rot. On the base where Ben Allbright served from May to September 2003, a small outfit named Tiger in western Iraq, water was especially scarce; Ben would rig a hose to a water bottle in a feeble attempt to shower. He and the other Army reservists tried mopping the floors, but the cheap solvents only added a chemical note to the stench. During the day, when the temperature was in the triple digits, the smell fermented.
It got even hotter in the Conex container, the kind you see on top of 18-wheelers, where Ben kept his prisoners. Not uncommonly the thermometer inside read 135, even 145 degrees. The Conex box was the first stop for all prisoners brought to the base, most of them Iraqis swept up during mass raids. Ben kept them blindfolded, their hands bound behind their backs with plastic zip ties, without food or sleep, for up to 48 hours at a time.
“He made them stand in awkward positions, so that they could not rest their heads against the wall. Sometimes he blared loud music, such as Ozzy or AC/DC, blew air horns, banged on the container, or shouted. “Whatever it took to make sure they’d stay awake,” he explains.
Ben was not a “bad apple,” and he didn’t make up these treatments. He was following standard operating procedure as ordered by military intelligence officers. The MI guys didn’t make up the techniques either; they have a long international history as effective torture methods. Though generally referred to by circumlocutions such as “harsh techniques,” “softening up,” and “enhanced interrogation,” they have been medically shown to have the same effects as other forms of torture. Forced standing, for example, causes ankles to swell to twice their size within 24 hours, making walking excruciating and potentially causing kidney failure.
Ben says he never saw anything like that. The detainees didn’t faint or go insane, as people have been known to do under similar conditions, but they also “weren’t exactly lucid.” And, he notes, “I was hardly getting any sleep myself.”
When I first set off to interview the rank-and-file guards and interrogators tasked with implementing the administration’s torture guidelines, I thought they’d never talk openly. They would be embarrassed, wracked by guilt, living in silent shame in communities that would ostracize them if they knew of their histories. What I found instead were young men hiding their regrets from neighbors who wanted to celebrate them as war heroes. They seemed relieved to talk with me about things no one else wanted to hear — not just about the acts themselves, but also about the guilt, pain and anger they felt along with pride and righteousness about their service. They struggled with these things, wanted to make sense of them — even as the nation seemed determined to dismiss the whole matter and move on.
This, perhaps, is the real scandal of Abu Ghraib: In survey after survey, as many as two-thirds of Americans say torture is justified when it’s used to get information from terrorists. In an ABC/Washington Post poll in the wake of the 2004 scandal, 60 percent of respondents classified what happened at Abu Ghraib as mere abuse, not torture. And as recently as last year, 68 percent of Americans told Pew Research pollsters that they consider torture an acceptable option when dealing with terrorists.
Critics of the administration’s interrogation policies warn that the ramifications will be felt across the globe, including by Americans unlucky enough to be imprisoned abroad. Foreign policy scholars fear the fallout from Abu Ghraib has already weakened the U.S. military’s anti-terrorism capabilities. Lawyers warn about war crime tribunals. But hardly anyone is discussing the repercussions already being felt here at home. It’s the soldiers tying the sandbags around Iraqis’ necks and blaring the foghorns through the night who are experiencing the effects most acutely. And the communities they’re returning to are reeling as a result.
When I went to visit Ben in Little Rock, Ark., I wanted to know why this charming, intelligent, and overly polite 27-year-old had done what he’d done. For 10 days we rode around in his beat-up maroon 1970s Mercedes — running errands, picking up job applications, meeting his girlfriend for lunch. Ben wore pink shirts, hipster blazers and color-coordinated Campers; he used hair products, which to his friends meant being a metrosexual; he listened to indie rock, watched “The Daily Show” and wrote attitude-filled blogs on veterans’ rights, which meant being a liberal. He refereed football games, worshipped novelist Dave Eggers and placed special orders at McDonald’s so his meals would be fresh.
He was unemployed, fired from his latest job as a bank teller the day before I arrived. Ben had worked there for four months — the longest he’d held down a full-time job since coming home from Iraq. He’d tried tutoring high schoolers, bagging groceries and doing IT support for Best Buy. Part of the problem, he said, was the lack of good jobs in the area, part of it his own “flailing and procrastinating.” He had toyed with the idea of law school and scored a near-perfect 178 on the LSAT entrance test, but then turned down offers from schools such as NYU. While I was in town he picked up an application for a job at his corner liquor store. In high school he was one of two students voted most likely to become famous. “The other kid became a doctor,” Ben confessed, “and I, well, yeah …”
As a kid, Ben was a sort of Doogie Howser, blowing through school, asking teachers for more work, until his mom, fearing the classes weren’t challenging enough, pulled him out in the fourth grade in order to home-school him. His parents finally bought a TV set when Ben was in eighth grade. Ben says his dad was an original member of Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. He was an executive for American Airlines, a job that moved the family around a lot: St. Louis, Kansas City, Nashville. After they lost their nest egg in the 1987 stock market crash, the family moved from Chicago’s lakeshore suburbs to the South Side. Finally, when Ben was a teenager, they settled in Lonoke, outside Little Rock.
Ben took me to the town, 4,300 people and 22 churches. Tractors dotted the fields that hadn’t yet been grabbed by developers. He noted a “Free Greens” sign advertising leftovers from someone’s garden and the customary wave from passing cars. His condescension about the “bumblefuck” town cracked when he showed me a plot of land near one that his buddy had just bought that he saw as a potential home for a future family.
Ben pointed out the Grace Baptist Church, which he attends because he’s friends with the pastor and his son, “not because I agree with their fundamentalist views.” As an undergraduate at the University of Arkansas, Ben explored Buddhism and Taoism, but he returned to Christianity as a way to make sense of the world, even though sometimes it’s “awkward reconciling my religion and military profession.”
Ben was still in high school when he enlisted as a reservist; his friend Brandon had asked Ben to accompany him to the recruiter’s office as a “bullshit detector.” In the end, he enrolled along with Brandon, applying twice before he finally bulked up enough to meet the weight requirement. He saw it as a chance to get out from under his parents’ thumb and learn about computers. But mainly it was his idealistic sense of duty — right out of Starship Troopers, the 1959 Robert Heinlein novel that is now a cult hit in military circles. “Like in the book, there’s the idea that to be a full citizen you have to contribute.”
Ben was called up to go to Iraq in February 2003. His father told him the invasion seemed like a mistake, but they didn’t have time to discuss the subject much; he died of cancer a month later. Half an hour after the funeral, Ben was on his way to Kuwait.
In Iraq, Ben was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division; since there was no computer work for him to do, he was made a prison guard.
Things on the Tiger base were pretty “ad hoc,” Ben recalls. Some orders, like the mandate that the heavy Kevlar helmets be fastened at the chin at all times, were clearly posted on the wall. Others were left to word of mouth, including instructions about detainee handling. Military intelligence officers issued various orders; then there were the anonymous OGAs, aka other government agencies, code for either private contractors or CIA oficers with civilian clothes, long beards and fake names like Joe Stallone and Frank Norris. The chain of command was chaotic.
Ben was soon promoted to warden and made small changes on his shift: Guards had to limit stress positions, and detainee rations were increased from crackers and peanut butter to whole Meals Ready to Eat, which were served three times, not two times, a day. He enforced a ban on cameras to discourage the degrading treatment that usually came when soldiers posed with prisoners for trophy photos. “But I could only do so much,” he admits.
When he was first ordered to soften up detainees, “it didn’t seem so weird,” Ben says; nothing in the war zone was normal. “You don’t think about what you’re doing until later.” He was asked to stand in on dozens of interrogations to help intimidate the subject: one more body, one more gun. The small room was usually crowded with guards, military intelligence officers, and OGAs. They were told to wear T-shirts, not uniforms that would signal their rank. Under the single bulb, the interrogator would loom above a prisoner seated in a child-size chair. Sometimes the room suddenly went dark and strobe lights flashed on. Other times the soldiers would bang pots and pans in the detainee’s face, blare loud music, blast air horns and sirens. The sounds were meant to disorient, but also to mask the screams. More than half the time, even if they were cooperative, the detainees were beaten, kicked out of their chairs, punched in the windpipe or gut, pulled by the ears — blows that wouldn’t leave lasting marks. Occasionally things got out of hand, but with their medical training, the military intelligence officers could stitch up or bandage injuries, avoiding a call to the medics and an entry in the logbooks that the Red Cross could read.
The first time Ben saw a detainee get beaten, he took the lead interrogator aside afterward to ask, “Was this stuff really allowed? Didn’t it violate the Geneva Conventions?”
“These aren’t POWs; they’re detainees,” he was told. “Those rules are antiquated and don’t apply. You can’t get any information without breaking that stuff.” Ben asked other officers, but “it was basically like, ‘Dude, you’re actually worried about how we’re treating them? They wouldn’t afford you the same respect.'”
If there is anything Ben hates, it’s not having all the information. Like most, he hadn’t listened when the Geneva Conventions were covered in basic training. But as it happened, when first arriving in the country, he’d asked a military lawyer for a CD-ROM of various documents, just to have on hand. Now, scrolling through the text on his laptop, Ben saw what anyone could: All prisoners — civilians and combatants — are protected against violence. There is no separate category for unlawful combatants. “Outrages upon personal dignity” and “humiliating and degrading treatment” are prohibited. Abuses like those at the Tiger base were “grave breaches.” War crimes.
Ben made a verbal complaint to his platoon leader and later to his platoon leader’s boss, asking for an investigation. The officers seemed surprised. “They said they’d look into it and tell their superiors,” Ben recalls. “But it didn’t seem like a priority.” Nothing happened.
“I’m not one of those hardcore ‘Duty! Honor! Country!’ guys,” explains Ben. “But I had signed a contract with rules and obligations. I figured that I did the responsible thing by notifying people. I felt helpless not being able to do more. But at least I’d covered my end.” He tried quizzing the guards under him about the Geneva Conventions, but they “just wanted to fuck with people.” He developed a reputation as a softy.
In the summer of 2003, the interrogators threw a detainee against a concrete wall, punched him in the neck and gut, kicked him in the knees, threw him outside and dragged him back in by his hair. For the entire two-hour ordeal, the prisoner wouldn’t talk; Ben later found out he spoke Farsi and couldn’t understand the interrogators’ English and Arabic. Afterward, Ben hid behind a building and cried for the first time since his dad’s death. “It was like a loss of humanity. Like we were trading one dictator in for another. I had to weigh my integrity against my duty. Why couldn’t I stand up more? Why was I hesitant?”
Ben told me this as we were sitting in his bedroom back home in Little Rock; by the end of the story, he had climbed into bed and pulled blankets up around him and was hugging a pillow. There were tears in his eyes, and he apologized for being so “weird about this stuff.” Ben writes poetry, and he’s fiercely loyal to his Army buddies. But now, for the briefest moment, I saw rage in his eyes.
War, Ben was discovering, is “not like what you see on TV. It’s insanely boring and depressing.” His trip home at Thanksgiving in 2003 lasted just long enough for him to discover that his girlfriend had a new man. Back at Tiger, he joined a group of grunts watching a Michael Moore DVD. It struck a chord with them. “I was never political before I went to Iraq. But I was already disgruntled and fed up just being in Iraq. The movie made me angrier.”
It wasn’t Fahrenheit 9/11 that so resonated with the soldiers; it was Roger & Me, a documentary that follows the decline of Flint, Mich., after the General Motors plants closed down. Ben saw “connections between U.S. policies away and at home, how the administration is willing to sacrifice regular people. They were throwing people out of their homes in Flint just like we were taking people out of their homes in Iraq. We got all misty-eyed. It was emotional and had a lingering effect on us.”
Ben began to think about what was behind the abuses he’d seen. Soldiers were sent off to war with the promise that they’d be heroes. They had been trained to kill bad guys, not baby-sit detainees. “You need to think that you’re there for a reason, that there is some purpose,” Ben says. But now people at home were saying the war was a mistake; body counts were mere blips in the news. When Ben first arrived in Iraq, he played soccer with locals; a few months later Iraqis wouldn’t even set foot on the base. More and more, the soldiers turned their anger on the prisoners. They poked them with rifles, called them “towel heads” and “sand niggers.” Guards would let other soldiers “snag a guy to fuck with or whatever, as long as it didn’t leave a mark.”
About a month after Ben left Tiger for good, an insurgency leader detained there, Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush, was suffocated in a sleeping bag — a technique that, like waterboarding, Ben had heard was used but had never seen. The General, as he was known, was one of the 160-plus detainees who have died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan since August 2002, according to ACLU attorney Hina Shamsi. Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer, the man accused of murdering Mowhoush, claimed he’d been following orders. In 2006, he was convicted of negligent homicide and dereliction of duty and sentenced to 60 days of barracks confinement, the equivalent of house arrest.
After Ben came home in March 2004, he was treated warmly. “I was at Applebee’s one night and a guy overheard that I had just come back from Iraq,” he recalls, “so he bought me a Jack and Coke.” He was offered discounts on cell phones and cars. “I finally felt appreciated after feeling used for so long.”
But the welcomes couldn’t silence the questions that kept him up at night. Ben loves to debate, perhaps because he usually wins, but now he was endlessly, fruitlessly arguing with himself. “Every human being instinctively knows right from wrong. There is never a justification for torture.” But then again, “Is softening people up wrong on some levels? I don’t know. It wasn’t beneficial to them, but it was presented as necessary.” He had seen a side of himself he didn’t know existed, and now he had to live with that. “In combat you question your mortality,” he told me. “In these prisons you question your morality.”
I asked Ben point-blank if he considered himself a torturer. It was a hard question to ask, a harder one to answer. He said he didn’t know. He asked me how other soldiers in his situation had responded. Most, I told him, didn’t even brook use of the word “torture” instead of “harsh interrogation.” He finally said he guessed he didn’t want to have to think of himself that way, and that it was time to go meet his girlfriend.
When he first got back from Iraq, Ben had nightmares and couldn’t remember things; this was infuriating, since he’d always prided himself on his perfect memory. A psychiatrist diagnosed him with PTSD, but he refused medication. Instead he blew $14,000 on bar tabs his first four months home. “I drank every night. I’d wake up next to a stranger at around 4 p.m. and head off to the strip club again.” He traveled some, because “you can reinvent yourself when you’re out of town.” He also re-enlisted; he’ll be on active duty until 2013, which means that once a month he has to cut his perfectly messy hair and show up at the local base. He thinks the military needs people like him, “people who can see both sides of things.”
When Ben first started speaking out about torture, posting to blogs and testifying for a human rights group, he didn’t use his real name. Then, gradually, he grew bolder. Brandon, his high school friend, Army buddy, and now roommate, encouraged him, so long as he wasn’t trying to become famous. He got the occasional blog flame — “un-American commie bastard” — but there was none of the reprisal from the Army that he’d feared. Nor, for that matter, any call from the various military investigators looking into human rights abuses. No one seemed to care.
People cared when Spc. Joseph Darby spoke out, though not always in the way he would have wanted them to. Darby is the Army reservist who turned in the Abu Ghraib photos. He hates the term “whistleblower,” which is understandable, since it’s earned him others like “rat” and “traitor.” He’s gotten death threats, from phone calls and emails to just whispers around his hometown of Cumberland, Md. His sister-in-law’s house was vandalized; his wife was verbally harassed and the police refused to help.
I met with Darby at a Starbucks in a strip mall along a busy four-lane route. He is still in a sort of witness protection program the military put him in after his role in the scandal was revealed. He didn’t want me to detail his appearance, which has changed somewhat from the recognizable round face that appeared in magazines and on television. This, he said, was his last interview before he put Abu Ghraib behind him forever.
He said being in hiding wasn’t so tough; he’d always kept to himself. His marriage was rocky while he was in Iraq, and seclusion had forced the couple back together. Whenever our conversation got difficult, he fiddled with his wedding ring.
Darby joined the Army Reserves for tuition money when he was 17, but he never did end up going to college. Instead, after returning from a deployment in Bosnia in June 2002, he found construction work off the books. Eight months later, he was called up again to go to Iraq. When his unit was assigned to guard prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Darby asked for a job where he wouldn’t have too much contact with the detainees; with his temper, he didn’t trust himself around the Iraqis. He became the guy you called to get a mop, garbage bags or meals brought up to the tiers.
Unlike Ben, Darby didn’t witness any abuse; he came across the torture photos by accident. The desert heat had warped his own snapshots, so he asked Cpl. Charles Graner for some pictures, hoping for images of camels and tanks. Scrolling through the CD, he laughed when he saw the pyramid of naked Iraqis. Then he got to the simulated-fellatio pictures.
He insists he’s not a goody-two-shoes tattletale or a saint by any stretch. “I’m as crooked as the next MP,” he explains. “I’ve bent laws and I’ve broke laws.” Months earlier, Graner (who is now serving a 10-year sentence) had shown him a photo of a prisoner tied up in a stress position and said, “The Christian in me knows this is wrong, but the corrections officer in me can’t help but love to make a grown man piss himself.” Darby says he was too tired to think much about it.
It took him three weeks of soul-searching to decide whether he should turn in the photos. He finally took them not to his superior officers but to the Army investigation office, where soldiers can report everything from sexual harassment to theft — a breach of the chain of command that many would later hold against him. Four months later, Darby was sitting in the Abu Ghraib mess hall; CNN was on, showing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s congressional testimony on prisoner abuse. Darby had no idea his tip — which military investigators had assured him would remain anonymous — had led to a national scandal. He heard Rumsfeld name various people who’d provided information — “first the soldier, Spc. Joseph Darby, who alerted the appropriate authorities … My thanks and appreciation to him for his courage and his values.”
Darby dropped his fork midbite. Oh shit. He felt 400 pairs of eyes on him. Seymour Hersh had already published his name, but as Darby says, “Who reads the damn New Yorker?”
His mom was dying of cancer; now, the compassionate-leave request he had filed a week before was rushed through. When his plane touched down stateside, officers were there with his wife. They escorted the couple to an undisclosed location where they lived with around-the-clock security for the next six months. He didn’t get the formal thank you he’d expected from the Army, though a personal letter from Rumsfeld arrived at one point — asking him to stop talking about how he’d been outed.
When the Abu Ghraib photos splashed on television sets, people in Cumberland watched, hoping their loved ones weren’t involved. Not all were so lucky. Kenneth England saw the pictures of his daughter, Lynndie, as did the welders and machinists who work with him at the CSX railroad. They supported him as best they knew how: by not mentioning it. While Pentagon flacks spun the scandal as the work of a few bad apples from Appalachia, people in the area hung yellow ribbons and “Hometown Hero” posters for the accused MPs. Reservists’ wives organized candlelight vigils.
“Everybody needs his time over there to mean or count for something,” Sgt. Ken Davis, a teetotaler nicknamed Preacher Man by the other MPs at Abu Ghraib, told me. “It has to be right in the greater scheme of things. But if the U.S. government was truly at the helm, ordering the abuse, then it actually means nothing. And now we live with ghosts and demons that will haunt us for the rest of our lives.”
Davis, who has a clean, bleachy smell to him and says “dang” a lot, was in some of the photos, and he says he reported the abuse to his superior. For that, people at the police department near Cumberland, where he worked, call him a narc. He’s become an Abu Ghraib junkie, attending the trials, testifying at some, collecting photos and evidence, corresponding with the accused. It’s a way, he says, to get closure. “A lot of soldiers, when we come back, are lost. You don’t belong anymore. It’s especially true for a unit accused of abuse, when you hear lies about what happened and people deny what you saw.” At 37, he’s particularly worried about the younger soldiers he served with. “They were put in situations where they had to do things they didn’t agree with just to survive,” he says. “All they know about being an adult is the military. We’ve got a lost generation on our hands.”
Military recruiters always had it easy in Cumberland. Beyond honor, responsibility and meaning, they pitched a paycheck and a ticket out. It was on the steps of Cumberland’s City Hall that Lyndon B. Johnson first announced his War on Poverty back in 1964, but neither the coal mining industry, the railway nor a series of short-lived manufacturing booms could win that battle. Of the big factories in the area, only the paper mill is still open. One in five residents live below the poverty line, a third more than the national average. A food bank operates out of a former bread factory. In February 2007, a high school football player shot himself during a game of Russian roulette.
I often asked people in town what they thought about the war, but conversation inevitably turned to jobs. Supporting the troops was akin to union solidarity — a pact among the people doing the country’s grunt work. As one ex-Marine told me, “Sometimes you just have to do what you can to get by. And you have to be able to believe in the validity of what you’re doing.”
People told me the threat against Darby was exaggerated. The university’s chaplain had been harassed for hosting an anti-war event, the newspaper’s columnist threatened for advocating gun control, but no harm had come to either of them. Colin Engelbach, the commander of the local VFW post–who called Darby a “borderline traitor” on national television — said that by “get him,” people just meant they would make Darby’s life hell.
Engelbach is a small guy whose eyes had trouble meeting mine. He spent ten years in the National Guard and four on active duty, though he didn’t see combat. Now he works double shifts making depleted uranium munitions at Alliant Tech. For several months after our interview, he called me with “dirt” on Darby; the overall message was that Darby had put himself before his comrades, that he was not a real American.
“People aren’t pissed because I turned someone in for abuse,” Darby told me. “People are pissed because I turned in an American soldier for abusing an Iraqi. They don’t care about right and wrong.”
Five miles down from Cumberland, Cresaptown, home to the 372nd Military Police Company’s headquarters, is little more than the junction of U.S. Highway 220 and Route 53. There’s no town hall, the civic improvement center is shuttered and old toys sit forgotten on the front porches of houses behind low wire fences. It’s only a few steps from Pete’s Tavern to the Big Claw bar and the Eagles Club, which a few years back launched a minor scandal by admitting a black man. (“He may be a nigger, but he’s also a cop,” one Pete’s regular told me, “so they had to let him in.”)
Driving down the hill into Cresaptown, the first thing you notice is the sweeping expanse of glimmering barbed wire and corrugated metal buildings that house the roughly 1,700 inmates and 500 employees of the Western Correctional Institution. The 161-acre property used to be the Celanese factory, where you could swim in the public pool for a quarter. Next door is the brand new $24.8 million prison, built by out-of-state contractors and lauded as a state-of-the-art maximum-security facility. The 372nd’s inconspicuous brick building is down the road, past the Liberty Christian Fellowship, the technical high school (whose sign declares “teamwork” the word of the month) and the Boy Scout building.
On most afternoons you’ll find John Kershner, a sergeant with the 372nd, sitting at the Big Claw smoking his USA brand menthols with his change lined up on the bar, ready for his next dollar-fifty Miller Lite. The night I was there “Sarge” was talking more than he had in a while, he admitted. He was polite in an old-time kind of way, making a point of taking off his well-worn Eagles Club hat indoors, revealing a balding, shaved head. His light blue eyes were shielded behind his thick glasses. Sarge knows Darby well; he was the guy who hired him to work off the books at his self-storage construction company after the two served together in Bosnia — though it was Darby who told me about this later, not Kershner. “People here feel more hurt by this whole thing than anything,” Sarge whispered into my ear. “I just wish Darby would shut his mouth and let the rest of us move on.”
Sarge had to sell his construction business when he deployed to Iraq. Now employers tell him he’s either overqualified or, at a war-weathered 56, too old. He’s been filing for his veteran’s benefits for two years now but continues to get the runaround. He knows what most everyone in the bar does for a living — he’s a roofer, he’s a pharmacist, she’s a beautician. “I’m not saying that the photos were correct,” one of the other patrons, his work boots still muddy, told me. “But our people had their heads cut off.”
“Other countries can torture our men to death and it’s OK, but if we drop one decimal dip below our standards, you have guys paying the price,” Sarge said. “Now you need permission to even shoot back when you’re under attack. You let them win there, and we’ll be fighting here next.”
There is a peace group in Cumberland. It’s spearheaded by Larry Neumark, the Protestant chaplain at local Frostburg State University whose cardigan sweaters and soft voice conjure up Mr. Rogers. Early on in the war, the group — mostly composed of faculty from Frostburg and nearby community colleges, who clung to each other as a “lifeline” — struggled for attention. “You’ll be accused of being unpatriotic and un-American if you speak up,” said Neumark. A local college has rejected courses with “peace” in the title as unpatriotic. “But in the last six to seven months people have been more willing to talk.”
When I first visited Cumberland in December 2006, Neumark told me that he had caught hell for inviting Ray McGovern, a retired CIA officer, to speak on campus against the war. By last spring, he was having a hard time filling the pro-war slot on a panel discussion he was setting up. Torture, though, was another story. Neumark had proposed a discussion about the topic, but people were “very on edge” about it, as Daniel Hull, a member of the group, told me. Even the activists were split on whether they should “go in that direction.”
Eventually Neumark did pull together his panel, featuring a man who had been tortured in the Philippines during the Marcos regime. About 100 students, many of them earning class credits, listened to him recall mock executions and solitary confinement. One student argued that the Geneva Conventions were outdated. “Has fear been used to effectively deaden our critical senses?” Neumark asked. An audience member stomped out. In the back someone snoozed. “Torture is a form of terrorism,” offered Neumark. “Why do you think people aren’t speaking out about this?” No one had an answer.
In Ben’s two-bedroom apartment in a suburban complex, the shades are always down and the lights are dimmed. An Ikea rug covers the cheap wall-to-wall carpeting, Yellow Tail wine bottles line the mantle, Aristotle and Dostoevsky serve as toilet reading and a large-screen TV with a PlayStation 2 dominates the living room. Ben shares the place with Brandon, who circumvented the post-war job problem by taking a civilian job at the nearby Army base. He seems more stereotypically military than Ben, with wide biceps, close-cropped hair, and a closetful of Army T-shirts. But he writes poetry and acoustic songs about things such as post-traumatic stress and how he almost reflexively hit his girlfriend one day and never regained her trust.
One afternoon, with a sitcom on TV and his dog skidding around the sofa, I grilled Ben about torture. After returning from Iraq, he studied the philosophical theories surrounding the issue to prepare for just these kinds of conversations — particularly in case he ever got to talk to Sen. John McCain, to whom he’d written during the drafting of the Detainee Treatment Act. We discussed the ticking-time-bomb argument — the hypothetical challenge arguing the morality of torturing someone who knows where a bomb is hidden — which Ben called “total bullshit” since “we aren’t living in some fantasy 24 kind of world where those sorts of situations occur.” Besides, he said, torture will induce false confessions. And most of the detainees at Tiger didn’t even have anything to confess; like 70 to 90 percent of those jailed across Iraq, according to a 2004 Red Cross report, they’d been arrested by mistake.
When the Abu Ghraib photos came out, Ben was on a trip around Europe. He pretended to be Canadian, and the whole thing pained him — because he’s a patriot and because the images brought back memories. “It was like a bad nostalgia,” he said. “But it was also embarrassing. I just didn’t want to be associated with it.”
When I asked Ben if Brandon judged him for what he did in Iraq, he said they don’t really talk about it. “It’s two separate parts of our lives, and we keep it that way,” Ben explained. “It’s like, ‘Iraq sucked. Now get on with it.'” He said he doesn’t talk about it to anyone close to him — he’d tell his mom, he said, but she has never asked and he doesn’t want to bother her.
His girlfriend, Gretchen, flat out doesn’t want to know. Gretchen trained Ben as a teller at the bank. She’s gorgeous, with long dark hair and tall leather boots. Within a week, they were making out; six months later, she’s sure he’s the one. They seemed too young to be talking about marriage until I saw their friends with kids, mortgages and ex-spouses.
I asked Gretchen if we could have coffee. “It’s not like I know anything about what happened over there,” she said. “I probably should, but he doesn’t talk about it, and I don’t want to think about it.” Gretchen blushed when she asked me what Abu Ghraib was. (“She doesn’t know much about politics,” commented Ben, “and that’s to put it nicely.”) “I realize I’m naive,” she said. “I get upset about stuff that’s sad on TV.” She didn’t have a “real opinion about the war. I figure the people in charge know more, so I trust them.”
But Gretchen did know how Ben would “tear up” sometimes, like when he was fired from the bank, even though he said it was no big deal, or how he only stayed for five minutes when he visited his dad’s grave, or how he used to wake up in the middle of the night shouting. She thought Ben liked her not being political because she didn’t argue with him. I thought he liked the escape.
When I was in Little Rock in January 2007, Ben was chastising himself for not having spoken out more about the war. He had just bought a new Web domain, WaitingToPanic.net, to consolidate his blogs and had big plans for building his veterans site, Operation Comeback, into a full-on grassroots movement. Human Rights Watch had encouraged him to work for them, and he thought that was a great idea. But he was also excited about cheap properties in the area, and when he got upset by our conversations about Iraq, he told me he’d been trying to “block it out a little bit.”
A year later, when I checked in with him again, he had bought a brand-new three-bedroom house in Lonoke, the town where he’d grown up. Gretchen had moved in with him. He was working with the military as a communications expert — the “resident computer geek,” as he put it — at the local base. He was up for a promotion to warrant officer candidate. His new website was blank, and he hadn’t posted on his blogs in months. And Sen. McCain had never called.
“I’m told that I’m courageous for speaking out,” he said. “But I wonder if I get blamed enough for the bad things I’ve done. Did I stand up enough? Using a situation to justify it, like I did, doesn’t make it right. It’s the sense of being helpless that still weighs heavily on my soul.”
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