Soldiers Speak About the Unspeakable

Question: Which stories\r\nfrom your conversations with soldiers stood out?


Nancy Sherman:\r\nTwo stories—two or three really come to mind.  So,\r\n one story is by a guy who I worked with at the Wilson\r\nCenter in Washington D.C., he was a Tech Support and he had just come \r\nback from\r\nIraq and found out I was working on this book, and he said he had wanted\r\n to go\r\nto Afghanistan in the early part of these wars.  He\r\n thought that was a cause he could believe in.  He\r\n had fought in Bosnia and really felt\r\nthat that was an important cause. \r\nHe was called up for Iraq. \r\nHe is part of the Reserves, he’s an older guy, he is now in his\r\nmid-fifties.  He’s called “Pop” by\r\nhis troops, but he couldn’t believe in the war, so he said he felt\r\nsuckered.  And that was a really\r\npotent word for me.  One of those\r\nmoral words, it meant betrayed. \r\nAnd he said for your upper echelon to sucker you in that way is a\r\n hard\r\npill to swallow.  And he has sad\r\neyes, a bit of melancholic appearance. \r\nAnd I thought about it and what he really meant was that he—and \r\nhe\r\nsaid, "I’m patriotic, I would go again, there’s no doubt, you don’t let \r\nyour\r\nother comrades go and you stay back—you go.  And I\r\n would do it again.  And I don’t care if it’s a \r\nDemocrat or a Republican, but to\r\nbe suckered like that.And in his\r\ncase, he was looking for WMD’s or at least part of a war movement, part \r\nof the\r\nforces that were there because of them, and he felt it was a story that \r\nhe\r\ncouldn’t believe.  


And he would say, “I collected body parts.”  That’s what you hear and we don’t see\r\nit on TV much, or we don’t see the images of charred body parts and our \r\nfellow\r\nsoldiers are collecting them and bagging them and smelling it afterward,\r\n and\r\nthe sense that—and he said, “I was almost killed.  My\r\n buddy was killed. \r\nBut I can’t believe in the reason.”  So \r\nthat dis-sync, that dissidence between a cause and the\r\nmost upright conduct, and a sense of betrayal I think was really potent \r\nfor\r\nme. 


Another story is from a different side of the war; \r\nand\r\nthat’s interrogation.  We think of\r\ninterrogation often in terms of torture. \r\nThat’s been a national debate, are we a country that allows our\r\nsoldiers, our military interrogators to torture?  Do\r\n we torture? \r\nAnd not only is it useful, which most people say, no, but is it \r\nmoral,\r\nirrespective of utility? 


I have a student at Georgetown who I learned was in\r\n Abu\r\nGhraib, an interrogator at Abu Ghraib for the Army, in the clean-up act.  And so, I said, did you do anything\r\nthat you felt awkward about, or that you didn’t feel good about.  And I was expecting really quite frank\r\ndiscussion of some things that might have verged on waterboarding, or \r\nmaybe\r\nsome sleep deprivation.  And he\r\ntold me three things that you might say showed a side of his \r\nsensitivity, but\r\nwere things that he really worried about. 


One was, he would turn the screw on one of his \r\ndetainees\r\nwhen he couldn’t get him to talk and remind him of his adulterous \r\ninfidelities,\r\nwhich really made this detainee feel awful.  But \r\nit kind of brought him down to feel like he had to start\r\ntalking because he had sort of been—his guard was off. 


The second case had to do with, he had a Sunni and a\r\n Shiite\r\ndetainee and they were both in solitary for a while and they both were \r\ndying\r\nfor recreation and he put the two of these to men together out in\r\nrecreation.  It was as good as if\r\nthey were still in solitary confinement. 


The third incident was someone, a woman, fell in \r\nlove with\r\nhim, or at least showed signs of falling for him.  And\r\n so there was a sense in this case of, he did everything\r\nthe right way interrogators are supposed to build intimacy, build \r\nrapport in\r\norder to exploit it, and to exploit it and to manipulate it and to use \r\nhis\r\npower so, so rawly, just rubbed him the wrong way afterward where it \r\nleft\r\nresidue, moral residue you might say, or a moral remnant, a remainder.  And he would do it again, and he knows\r\nit was absolutely right as a soldier, or as a military interrogator.  But it’s not something he would ever do\r\nto his friends. 


And so that dis-sync, lack of synchrony between \r\nwhat you do\r\nin uniform and what you would do as a civilian is often the soldiers I \r\nspeak to\r\nand in his case, it wasn’t about fighting for survival or victory, which\r\n is\r\nwhat a ground soldier might explain, but rather in his case, what he was\r\n living\r\nwith was power.  The power trip. And\r\nthat he could reduce someone to a sort of abject servility almost, and \r\nthen\r\nmanipulate them.  That’s a hard\r\nfeeling to live with.  And yet, he\r\ndid what was required, his duty, and honorable conduct in the military, \r\nbut\r\nleaves a residue as a civilian.


Question: Did the soldier\r\nfeel guiltier about psychological torture?


Nancy Sherman:\r\nThat’s right, it wasn’t physical. \r\nIt was all about emotional manipulation.  Good\r\n rapport building is to find the emotional soft spots\r\nand then to just dig, dig, dig and what was fascinating about this \r\nindividual\r\nis that he has a conscience and he didn’t leave his conscience behind.  He didn’t check it out.  He \r\nbrought it to the interrogation\r\ncell.  But, you have to leave it\r\nbehind a tiny bit, so there are moments when he said he would come out \r\nafter\r\neight hours and kind of laugh and say, “I really finally got that guy to\r\n talk.”  One case he showed him pictures of\r\nfamily members who had been killed in an explosion by a rival tribe, and\r\n upon\r\nreflection he thought, that was an awful way to deal with the hardship I\r\ninflicted on him.  Yes, it’s about\r\nemotional suffering, psychological suffering, but even in the case of \r\nextremes\r\nof torture, it’s often about psychological torture, it’s not just about \r\nburning\r\npeople, or pulling off their fingernails, old-fashioned style.

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.

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