Soldiers Speak About the Unspeakable

From mangled bodies to the twisted psychological world of Abu Ghraib, the stories Middle East veterans tell Nancy Sherman reveal a side of war not shown on TV.
  • Transcript


Question: Which stories from your conversations with soldiers stood out?

Nancy Sherman: Two stories—two or three really come to mind.  So, one story is by a guy who I worked with at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C., he was a Tech Support and he had just come back from Iraq and found out I was working on this book, and he said he had wanted to go to Afghanistan in the early part of these wars.  He thought that was a cause he could believe in.  He had fought in Bosnia and really felt that that was an important cause.  He was called up for Iraq.  He is part of the Reserves, he’s an older guy, he is now in his mid-fifties.  He’s called “Pop” by his troops, but he couldn’t believe in the war, so he said he felt suckered.  And that was a really potent word for me.  One of those moral words, it meant betrayed.  And he said for your upper echelon to sucker you in that way is a hard pill to swallow.  And he has sad eyes, a bit of melancholic appearance.  And I thought about it and what he really meant was that he—and he said, "I’m patriotic, I would go again, there’s no doubt, you don’t let your other comrades go and you stay back—you go.  And I would do it again.  And I don’t care if it’s a Democrat or a Republican, but to be suckered like that.And in his case, he was looking for WMD’s or at least part of a war movement, part of the forces that were there because of them, and he felt it was a story that he couldn’t believe.  

And he would say, “I collected body parts.”  That’s what you hear and we don’t see it on TV much, or we don’t see the images of charred body parts and our fellow soldiers are collecting them and bagging them and smelling it afterward, and the sense that—and he said, “I was almost killed.  My buddy was killed.  But I can’t believe in the reason.”  So that dis-sync, that dissidence between a cause and the most upright conduct, and a sense of betrayal I think was really potent for me. 

Another story is from a different side of the war; and that’s interrogation.  We think of interrogation often in terms of torture.  That’s been a national debate, are we a country that allows our soldiers, our military interrogators to torture?  Do we torture?  And not only is it useful, which most people say, no, but is it moral, irrespective of utility? 

I have a student at Georgetown who I learned was in Abu Ghraib, an interrogator at Abu Ghraib for the Army, in the clean-up act.  And so, I said, did you do anything that you felt awkward about, or that you didn’t feel good about.  And I was expecting really quite frank discussion of some things that might have verged on waterboarding, or maybe some sleep deprivation.  And he told me three things that you might say showed a side of his sensitivity, but were things that he really worried about. 

One was, he would turn the screw on one of his detainees when he couldn’t get him to talk and remind him of his adulterous infidelities, which really made this detainee feel awful.  But it kind of brought him down to feel like he had to start talking because he had sort of been—his guard was off. 

The second case had to do with, he had a Sunni and a Shiite detainee and they were both in solitary for a while and they both were dying for recreation and he put the two of these to men together out in recreation.  It was as good as if they were still in solitary confinement. 

The third incident was someone, a woman, fell in love with him, or at least showed signs of falling for him.  And so there was a sense in this case of, he did everything the right way interrogators are supposed to build intimacy, build rapport in order to exploit it, and to exploit it and to manipulate it and to use his power so, so rawly, just rubbed him the wrong way afterward where it left residue, moral residue you might say, or a moral remnant, a remainder.  And he would do it again, and he knows it was absolutely right as a soldier, or as a military interrogator.  But it’s not something he would ever do to his friends. 

And so that dis-sync, lack of synchrony between what you do in uniform and what you would do as a civilian is often the soldiers I speak to and in his case, it wasn’t about fighting for survival or victory, which is what a ground soldier might explain, but rather in his case, what he was living with was power.  The power trip. And that he could reduce someone to a sort of abject servility almost, and then manipulate them.  That’s a hard feeling to live with.  And yet, he did what was required, his duty, and honorable conduct in the military, but leaves a residue as a civilian.

Question: Did the soldier feel guiltier about psychological torture?

Nancy Sherman: That’s right, it wasn’t physical.  It was all about emotional manipulation.  Good rapport building is to find the emotional soft spots and then to just dig, dig, dig and what was fascinating about this individual is that he has a conscience and he didn’t leave his conscience behind.  He didn’t check it out.  He brought it to the interrogation cell.  But, you have to leave it behind a tiny bit, so there are moments when he said he would come out after eight hours and kind of laugh and say, “I really finally got that guy to talk.”  One case he showed him pictures of family members who had been killed in an explosion by a rival tribe, and upon reflection he thought, that was an awful way to deal with the hardship I inflicted on him.  Yes, it’s about emotional suffering, psychological suffering, but even in the case of extremes of torture, it’s often about psychological torture, it’s not just about burning people, or pulling off their fingernails, old-fashioned style.