Saturday, October 1, 2005

Torture in the Bush Gulag: The new Human Rights Watch report (1)

"I wouldn't join the International Criminal Court. It's a body based in The Hague where unaccountable judges and prosecutors can pull our troops or diplomats up for trial.

"And I wouldn't join it. And I understand that in certain capitals around the world that that wasn't a popular move. But it's the right move not to join a foreign court that could -- where our people could be prosecuted." - George W. Bush 09/30/04

"Men without conscience are capable of any cruelty the human mind can imagine." - Dick Cheney 01/26/05

This story has been widely reported by the mainstream media the last few days.  Here is the Human Right Watch report itself: Leadership Failure: Firsthand Accounts of Torture of Iraqi Detainees by the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division Sept 2005.

I haven't written much lately on the torture scandal.  For one thing, it's inherently a grim subject. And some of the specific reports are pretty sickening.

But the issue is not going away.  And it's an extremely important one.  One of the things the current HWR report highlights is the way in which the institutionalization of torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo undermines the rules and discipline within the services.  That is going to be one of the elements of lasting damage to the Army especially resulting from the Iraq War and Bush's military policies generally.

Especially with a topic like this, it's necessary to remember that understanding is not the same as sympathizing, and explaining is not the same as defending.  One of the valuable things about the HRW report is that it gives a glimpse of the ways an environment can become what Robert Jay Lifton calls an "atrocity-producing" one.  The individualperpetrators of crimes are responsible for their actions.  But there is also a larger question of responsibility for the "atrocity-producing" environment.

Eyewitness accounts

The report includes long quotations from three witnesses, two sergeants and an officer, all from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, telling about the torture they had witnessed in Afghanistan.  The officer has subsequently been identified as most likely being Captain Ian Fishback, although I'm not sure he has publicly affirmed that himself.

It feels like I'm writing a disclaimer paragraph introducing an off-color TV show, but I should mention that some of the soldiers' descriptions are pretty blunt. I won't be quoting the most graphic parts here.

"Sergeant A" defines a couple of terms used to describe two different broad types of torture.  One is labelled with the f-word, which out of consideration for the AOL Terms of Service I normally write here as [Cheney], in memory of Dick Cheney's famous crack to Democratic Senator Pat Leahy on the Senate floor: "Go [Cheney] yourself."

Sgt. A helpfully defines the two categories for us. A captured Iraqis were known as a "PUC" (pronounced like "puck"), or Prson Uder Cnfinement.

To “[Cheney]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.  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. (my emphasis)

The observation that soldiers were doing this just "for amusement" is a sign of how badly this kind of thing can corrode discipline in the armed forces.  Bad enough that they thought they were doing it in following an order.  That they felt free to do thisfor entertainment, and in that particular environment it was generally accepted to do so, is even more disturbing.

Sgt. A gives a vivid, first-hand description ofhow the general atmospherecontributed to the lawless and sadistic behavior:

None of this happened in Afghanistan.  We had MPs [military police] attached to us in Afghanistan so we didn’t deal with prisoners.  We had no MPs in Iraq.  We had to secure prisoners.  [Military intelligence] wants to interrogate them and they had to provide guards so we would be the guards.  I did missions every day and always came back with 10-15 prisoners.  We were told by intel that these guys were bad, but they could be wrong, sometimes they were wrong.  I would be told, “These guys were IED trigger men last week.”  So we would [Cheney] them up.  [Cheney] them up bad.  If I was told the guy was caught with a 9mm [handgun] in his car we wouldn’t [Cheney] them up too bad – just a little.  If we were on patrol and catch a guy that killed my captain or my buddy last week – man, it is human nature.  So we [Cheney]ed them up bad.  At the same time we should be held to a higher standard.  I know that now.  It was wrong.  There are a set of standards.  But you gotta understand, this was the norm.  Everyone would just sweep it under the rug.

What you allowed to happen happened.  Trends were accepted.  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 [stuff].  If a leg was broken you call the PA – the physician’s assistant – and told him the PUC got hurt when he was taken.  He would get Motrin [a pain reliever] and maybe a sling, but no cast or medical treatment.

In Afghanistan we were attached to Special Forces and saw OGA ["other governmental agencies," presumed to be CIA here].  We never interacted with them but they would stress guys.  We learned how to do it.  We saw it when we would guard an interrogation.

I was an Infantry Fire Team Leader.  The majority of the time I was out on mission.  When not on mission I was riding the PUCs.  We should have had MPs.  We should have taken them to Abu Ghraib [which] was only 15 [Cheney]ing minutes drive.  But there was no one to talk to in the chain – itjust got killed.  We would talk among ourselves, say, “This is bad.”  But no one listened.  We should never have been allowed towatch guys we had fought. (my emphasis)

Sgt. B's is quoted more briefly.  But he also conveys a sense of the atmosphere around FOB Mercury as it related to torturing prisoners.  Excerpts:

As far as abuse goes I saw hard hitting.  I heard a lot of stories, but if it ain’t me I wouldn’t care.  I was busy leading my men.  I did hear about [a sergeant] breaking PUC bones.  Stories came out on mission.  Guys were always talking about what they did to the PUCs.  Guys mentioned stuff but I couldn’t care less what happened at the PUC tent a week ago.  Putting guys with frustration in charge of prisoners was the worst thing to do. ...

In Iraq, from the beginning, we messed up on the treatment soldiers had to endure while guarding prisoners.  There are five “S’s” [Search, Silence, Segregate, Speed (to the rear), Safeguard] and we blew Speed and Security.  Speed was the biggest problem.  Speed means you get them to the rear to process them.  You need to get them away from the troops they are trying to kill. 

The Geneva Conventions is questionable and we didn’t know we were supposed to be following it.  In Afghanistan you were taught to keep your head down and shoot….  You never thought about the Geneva Conventions.  There was an ROE [Rules of Engagement] and it was followed, same in Iraq.  But we were never briefed on the Geneva Conventions.  These guys are not soldiers.  If we were to follow the Geneva Conventions we couldn’t shoot at anyone because they all look like civilians. (my emphasis)

Officer C

Officer C (Ian Fishback?) also talks about the atrocity-producing environment:

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 thedetainee hit with baseball bat; he was suspected of having killed one of our officers.   

[At FOB Mercury] they said that they had pictures that were similar to what happened at Abu Ghraib, and because they were so similar to what happened at Abu Ghraib, the soldiers destroyed the pictures.  They burned them.  The exact quote was, “They [the soldiers at Abu Ghraib] were getting in trouble for the same things we were told to do, so we destroyed the pictures.”

This is also a telling snapshot of the atmosphere, when the attitude was not, "We've got to stop doing this," but, "We've got to cover up better."  It's always a critical task for commanders who are requiring their soldiers to fight and kill the enemy to make sure that the process doesn't degenerate into random killing and banditry.  This is almost certainly the tip of a much bigger iceberg, i.e., discipline is probably breaking down far more seriously than we're hearing publicly.  That's a speculation, of course.  But a speculation based on some disturbing indicators.

And in the Schlesinger report it even says that when the President made the decision that al-Qaeda wasn’t going to be covered by the Geneva Conventions, there was a clear danger that it was going to undermine the culture in the United States Army that enforces strict adherence to the law of land warfare.

And the President obviously got what he wanted in this case.

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.”

Officer C is speaking from the point of view of an American officer who takes his duty and the honor of the Army seriously.  Unfortunately, leaders like Bush and Rummy and the officers who implemented their criminal torture policy were operating from a very different point of view.  They may blather on about "honoring the soldiers" when what they really mean is, "Cheer our war policies."  But they are operating with the "honor" of gangsters.

Officer C's following description recalls Lifton's observation that almost anyone is capable of atrocities, given situations and an environment that removes the normal social restraints that operate - and even combat situations have their own "normal social restraints," which Bush and Rummy have tried to remove.  That doesn't exonerate the perpetrators of crimes; but it is a powerful reminder of the reasons for laws of war and the principle of command responsibility.

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. (my emphasis)

"They are just amazing men, but they're human."  That's a good one to keep in mind - in the context of torture in the Bush Gulag - the next time you hear some war-worshipping Republican blathering on about people in the armed forces are the finest of the finest or some such thing.  That kind of mindless sentimentalizing of soldiers is one of psychological devices warmongers use to make it easier to send them to be killed.  And to kill.  And in Bush and Rumsfeld's Army, to practice criminal, sadistic torture in what are clearly not just "isolated incidents" by "bad apples".

Again, in the context of Officer C's statement, he is not trying to exonerate them for misconduct.  Rather, he's looking at how officers should make sure that atrocity-producing environments are not created.  So should Presidents, Vice Presidents and Secretaries of Defense.  You're doin' a heckuva job on that, Bush and Rummy.

Officer C also looks at how the larger civilian culture really can affect the mentality of soldiers in the field, as opposed to the phony posturing of Republicans who see war as a sports event where everyone in the home team's bleachers are expected to cheer for that side:

[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.

This is one reason I find it appalling that the junkie bigot Rush Limbaugh is carried on Armed Forces Radio, when he promotes the notion that the criminal, sadistic torture carried on at Abu Ghuraib and other stations in the Bush Gulag is a perfectly fine thing.  In the US, freedom of speech allows Mr. OxyContin to say things like that, and the beneficial result is that anyone with their brain not pickled in drugs or rightwing ideology can see what a white-trash degenerate he is.  But broadcasting his hate propaganda over Armed Forces Radio to soldiers in combat zones is a whole different thing.  That amounts to the Pentagon promoting criminal acts.

And Officer C has a lot to say specifically about the breakdown in the conduct of the officer corps in the case of the torture of which he was aware.  These quotes are only a part of what he has to say:

I witnessed violations of the Geneva Conventions that I knew were violations of the Geneva Conventions when they happened but I was under the impression that that was U.S. policy at the time. And as soon as Abu Ghraib broke and they had hearings in front of Congress, 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. So I called some of my classmates [from West Point], confirmed what I was concerned about and then on thatMonday morning I approached my chain of command. ..

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. ...

The HRW editors inserted this summary, which in the "print" version on the Web unfortunately isn't set apart from the surrounding quotes with brackets, of what happened with Officer C's complaints:

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 na├»ve and would do irreparable harm to his career.

Continuing with Officer C's quotes:

[I didn’t discuss abuse of detainees with my superiors in Iraq because] to me, it was obviously part of the system and the reasons had been laid out about why we’re not following the Geneva Conventions in respect to the detainees.  We did follow them in other aspects and once that was laid out I thought it was pretty clear cut.…  That was just the way I thought we were running things.

Another officer approached me and was like “I’m not sure this is the way you should be treating someone.”  It was almost like an off-hand, kind of like…just a conversation like making a comment.  He said something like “I don’t know if this is right” and my response was “Hey, it’s out in the open and we’ve said that we are doing this.  It’s not like we’re doing it on the sly.”

If I as an officer think we’re not even following the Geneva Conventions, there’s something wrong. If officers witness all these things happening, and don’t take action, there’s something wrong. If another West Pointer tells me he thinks, “Well, hitting somebody might be okay,” there’s something wrong.

What I’m saying is had I thought we were following the Geneva Conventions as an officer I would have investigated what was clearly a very suspicious situation. (my emphasis)

In this part, he also makes it clear that he is not pointing to officer responsibility as an alibi for perpetrators:

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.  (my emphasis)

Continued in Part 2.

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