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Nancy Sherman

Nancy Sherman is a Distinguished University Professor in the Philosophy Department of Georgetown University. She received her BA from Bryn Mawr College, her PhD from Harvard, and her MLitt from[…]

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.

Question: Which storiesrnfrom your conversations with soldiers stood out?

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Nancy Sherman:rnTwo stories—two or three really come to mind.  So,rn one story is by a guy who I worked with at the WilsonrnCenter in Washington D.C., he was a Tech Support and he had just come rnback fromrnIraq and found out I was working on this book, and he said he had wantedrn to gornto Afghanistan in the early part of these wars.  Hern thought that was a cause he could believe in.  Hern had fought in Bosnia and really feltrnthat that was an important cause. rnHe was called up for Iraq. rnHe is part of the Reserves, he’s an older guy, he is now in hisrnmid-fifties.  He’s called “Pop” byrnhis troops, but he couldn’t believe in the war, so he said he feltrnsuckered.  And that was a reallyrnpotent word for me.  One of thosernmoral words, it meant betrayed. rnAnd he said for your upper echelon to sucker you in that way is arn hardrnpill to swallow.  And he has sadrneyes, a bit of melancholic appearance. rnAnd I thought about it and what he really meant was that he—and rnhernsaid, "I’m patriotic, I would go again, there’s no doubt, you don’t let rnyourrnother comrades go and you stay back—you go.  And Irn would do it again.  And I don’t care if it’s a rnDemocrat or a Republican, but tornbe suckered like that.And in hisrncase, he was looking for WMD’s or at least part of a war movement, part rnof thernforces that were there because of them, and he felt it was a story that rnherncouldn’t believe.  

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

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Another story is from a different side of the war; rnandrnthat’s interrogation.  We think ofrninterrogation often in terms of torture. rnThat’s been a national debate, are we a country that allows ourrnsoldiers, our military interrogators to torture?  Dorn we torture? rnAnd not only is it useful, which most people say, no, but is it rnmoral,rnirrespective of utility? 

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I have a student at Georgetown who I learned was inrn AburnGhraib, an interrogator at Abu Ghraib for the Army, in the clean-up act.  And so, I said, did you do anythingrnthat you felt awkward about, or that you didn’t feel good about.  And I was expecting really quite frankrndiscussion of some things that might have verged on waterboarding, or rnmaybernsome sleep deprivation.  And herntold me three things that you might say showed a side of his rnsensitivity, butrnwere things that he really worried about. 

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One was, he would turn the screw on one of his rndetaineesrnwhen he couldn’t get him to talk and remind him of his adulterous rninfidelities,rnwhich really made this detainee feel awful.  But rnit kind of brought him down to feel like he had to startrntalking because he had sort of been—his guard was off. 

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The second case had to do with, he had a Sunni and arn Shiiterndetainee and they were both in solitary for a while and they both were rndyingrnfor recreation and he put the two of these to men together out inrnrecreation.  It was as good as ifrnthey were still in solitary confinement. 

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The third incident was someone, a woman, fell in rnlove withrnhim, or at least showed signs of falling for him.  Andrn so there was a sense in this case of, he did everythingrnthe right way interrogators are supposed to build intimacy, build rnrapport inrnorder to exploit it, and to exploit it and to manipulate it and to use rnhisrnpower so, so rawly, just rubbed him the wrong way afterward where it rnleftrnresidue, moral residue you might say, or a moral remnant, a remainder.  And he would do it again, and he knowsrnit was absolutely right as a soldier, or as a military interrogator.  But it’s not something he would ever dornto his friends. 

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And so that dis-sync, lack of synchrony between rnwhat you dornin uniform and what you would do as a civilian is often the soldiers I rnspeak tornand in his case, it wasn’t about fighting for survival or victory, whichrn isrnwhat a ground soldier might explain, but rather in his case, what he wasrn livingrnwith was power.  The power trip. Andrnthat he could reduce someone to a sort of abject servility almost, and rnthenrnmanipulate them.  That’s a hardrnfeeling to live with.  And yet, herndid what was required, his duty, and honorable conduct in the military, rnbutrnleaves a residue as a civilian.

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Question: Did the soldierrnfeel guiltier about psychological torture?

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Nancy Sherman:rnThat’s right, it wasn’t physical. rnIt was all about emotional manipulation.  Goodrn rapport building is to find the emotional soft spotsrnand then to just dig, dig, dig and what was fascinating about this rnindividualrnis that he has a conscience and he didn’t leave his conscience behind.  He didn’t check it out.  He rnbrought it to the interrogationrncell.  But, you have to leave itrnbehind a tiny bit, so there are moments when he said he would come out rnafterrneight hours and kind of laugh and say, “I really finally got that guy torn talk.”  One case he showed him pictures ofrnfamily members who had been killed in an explosion by a rival tribe, andrn uponrnreflection he thought, that was an awful way to deal with the hardship Irninflicted on him.  Yes, it’s aboutrnemotional suffering, psychological suffering, but even in the case of rnextremesrnof torture, it’s often about psychological torture, it’s not just about rnburningrnpeople, or pulling off their fingernails, old-fashioned style.