Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, December 05, 2005

Under Control

Harper's Magazine (December 2005)

From accounts of detainee handling in Iraq, by members of the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division, published in a September Human Rights Watch report. The first soldier is an anonymous sergeant; the second is Captain Ian Fishback, who relinquished his anonymity in advance of October's Senate vote on John McCain's amendment that would prohibit "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of persons under custody or control of the United States Government". President Bush has threatened to veto the bill.

In retrospect what we did was wrong, but at the time we did what we had to do. Everything we did was accepted, everyone turned their heads.

We got to the camp in August, and shit started to go bad right away. On my very first guard shift for my first interrogation, I saw a PUC [person under control] 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?

The "Murderous Maniacs" was what they called us at our camp, because they knew if PUCs got detained by us before going to Abu Ghraib then there would be hell to pay. When they came in, it was like a game. You know, how far could you make this guy go before he passes out or just collapses on you. From stress positions to keeping them up two days straight, depriving them of food, water, whatever.

To "fuck 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. To "smoke" someone is to put them in stress positions until they get muscle fatigue and pass out. That happened every day, too.

Some days we would just get bored, so we would have everyone sit in a corner and then make them get in a pyramid. This was before Abu Ghraib but just like it. We did that for amusement.

Guard shifts were four hours. We would stress them at least in excess of twelve hours. When we go off shift, we let the new guy know what he did and to keep fucking him. We made them hold out five-gallon water cans to where they got muscle fatigue and made them do pushups and jumping jacks until they passed out. We would withhold water for whole shifts. And the next guy would, too. 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. Sleep deprivation was a really big thing. Someone from intel told us these guys don't get no sleep. So we had to set the conditions by banging on their cages, crashing them into the cages, kicking them, kicking dirt, yelling. All that shit. We never stripped them down because this is an all-guy base and that is fucked-up shit. 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 were told by intel that these guys were bad, but sometimes they were wrong. I would be told, "These guys were IED triggermen". So we would fuck them up. Fuck them up bad. If I was told the guy was caught with a 9mm in his car, we wouldn't fuck him up too bad - just a little. If we catch a guy that killed my captain or my buddy last week - man, it is human nature - we fucked him up bad.

We should be held to a higher standard. I know that now. It was wrong. But you gotta understand this was the norm. What you allowed to happen happened. Leadership failed to provide clear guidance, so we just developed it. They wanted intel. As long as no PUCs came up dead, it happened. We heard rumors of PUCs dying, so we were careful. We kept it to broken arms and legs and shit. If something was broken, you called the PA - the physician's assistant - and told him the PUC got hurt when he was taken. He would get Motrin and maybe a sling but no cast or medical treatment.

On their days 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. We had guys from all over the base come to guard PUCs so they could fuck them up. In a way it was sport. 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 metal bat. He was the fucking cook. He shouldn't be in with no PUCs.

One night a guy came and broke chem lights open and beat the PUCs with them. That made them glow in the dark, which was real funny, but it burned their eyes and their skin was irritated real bad.

After Abu Ghraib things toned down. We still did it but we were careful. It is still going on now the same way, I am sure. Maybe not as blatant, but it is how we do things.


Last April someone mentioned to me that there was a really bad prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, and I thought, "That is horrible. That is going to be bad PR for the Army", and I thought, "Okay, rogues did something". And then as the week progressed they showed some of the pictures, and a large portion of them were in accordance with what I perceived as US policy. Now, all the stuff with sodomy with the chem light and all that was clearly beyond what I would have allowed to happen 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 - I thought it was in accordance with interrogation procedures.

I witnessed violations of the Geneva Conventions that I knew were violations when they happened, but I was under the impression that that was US policy at the time. During the congressional hearings, 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, and as soon as he said that I knew something was wrong.

I went and talked to the JAG [the Judge Advocate General] and he says, "Well, the Geneva Conventions are a gray area". I 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". 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 and he wasn't under the threat of death, that was in accordance with what I would have expected US policy to be. 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". And he says, "Well, we've had questions about that at times".

If you draw a hard line and you say, "Don't do anything bad to prisoners", then, yeah, that is an easy line to draw, but when you start drawing shades of gray and you start stripping prisoners, or you start making prisoners do humiliating things, and you tell a soldier to draw the line somewhere, then things are going to get out of hand because everyone is going to draw the line at a different place.

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 in combination with the executive branch of government. By trying to claim that it was "rogue elements", we seriously hinder our ability to ensure that this doesn't happen again.

The measure of a person's 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. 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.

Bill Totten


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