Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Former Army Interrogator on Torture

I came across this editorial in the New York Times by Anthony Lagouranis. He doesn't say anything that most people do not already know about American interrogation practices overseas, but the candor with which he does it -- and the fact that he does no grandstanding about the superiority of his conscience -- has something genuinely inspiring about it.

I had always assumed that the soldiers that engaged in the sort of thing at Abu Ghraib were following -- if not orders -- then at least thinly veiled suggestions, and certainly did not bear sole responsibility for what happened. But I also had a feeling that the people chosen for prison duty, like most police officers, were naturally thugs, who had few qualms about what they were doing. I couldn't imagine myself, placed in the same situation, doing any of the things that are in those photographs.

I am not so sure any more; this is the first piece I've read from an army man whom I felt like I was reasonably similar to. There was a time, both after September 11th and on the eve of the war with Iraq, when I could really imagine myself serving in the reconstruction of Iraq or Afghanistan; I could separate it from my general lack of support for the invasions themselves, because it seemed like noble and necessary work -- both things that seem (probably falsely) like they are in short supply over here, away from the gunfire.

At this point, though, I could not imagine having anything to do with the American armed forces. Not because of fear, exactly -- I would have tried to serve in a non-combat capacity anyway, and I would be willing to stand the risk of simply being in Iraq -- but because I cannot imagine my peers being the sort of people at Abu Ghraib, and being commanded by people that either consciously ignored or encouraged such behavior.

Even the advertisements for the Army or Navy, which conscientiously avoid showing anything like an actual war -- or even a shot anywhere from the Middle East, where everyone who signs up will soon go -- seem designed to discourage people like me from even being interested in a military career. They present the life of a soldier as one non-stop rush, a sort of brainless live-action video game. I am not twelve any more; this is no longer my idea of paradise, and I am usually either scared or bored by people who still think it is.

The one or two commercials that imply that being a soldier might require intelligence usually present it as the opportunity to be around fancy gadgetry; the one that I remember has a soldier showing off his knowledge of computers to his starstruck high school buddies. There is not a single exhortation to join the army as a form of service, both to the country and the world, as there has been in every previous war this country has actually cared about. (To be fair, there was one where a boy in high school wrangles up some lunch for a homeless guy, and then grows up to be an army specialist in delivering food to places that need it -- but I have not seen that one in ages, while the others appear to be in heavy rotation.)

All of this made me wonder, why in the world did Lagouranis join? Because if there are really many men like him in the army -- both already there and who continue to join -- then there is hope yet. Maybe enough people will say something and things will start to get cleaned up; maybe they are already getting cleaned up. Things genuinely do seem to be getting better at Abu Ghraib, according to Lagouranis. The administration can keep holding people for no particular reason -- there is nothing a soldier can do about that -- but at least they won't be beaten and suffocated.

Anyway, I found the answer for why Lagouranis joined online, and it was more than a little dispiriting. He did an interview with Frontline about detainee interrogations. The entire interview is worth reading, but here is why he said he joined the army.
So give me a sense, if you can, of your own preparation. … How did you become an interrogator?

Well I joined because I wanted to learn Arabic. I had no interest in interrogation. And this was before 9/11, so I didn't even expect we would go to war. So yeah, after basic training they sent me to Ft. Huachuca, Ariz., where they do MI training. And I went through the interrogation classes and after that I went to Monterey to learn Arabic.

So the fact that this reasonably conscientious and intelligent young man is in the army is a complete accident. And after he voiced concerns about prisoner treatment, he was given an "honorable discharge." So, basically, while kicking out anyone who might run things in a reasonably humane fashion, the army is busy discouraging such men from joining at all. Now that America seems so much more willing to use its army when not actually attacked, on missions whose objectives are much more complicated than defeating an enemy on the battlefield, how exactly are we going to manage with an army run entirely by drones and bureaucrats?

The entire interview should be read, but here is an especially interesting section, on the nature of our military intelligence on the "Arab mind." This is the sort of advice that higher-ups give to interrogators, and this is the sort of obviously illogical information that is accepted without question when all you have, and want, are soldiers who are not expected/capable (it eventually amounts to the same thing) of thinking about anything.
I know that at Guantanamo, at the earliest stages there was this kind of urban myth -- maybe, maybe not -- that Arab men had an inordinate fear of dogs. Did you hear that?

I heard that all the time, but not from Arabs. I mean, that just seems silly. It's like everyone has a fear of a growling German Shepherd when you're tied up and helpless. And it's like when people were saying, "Arabs, they really hate being sexually humiliated." But who doesn't? I mean, who wants to be sexually humiliated? That's not a cultural thing, that's a human thing. So I attribute a lot of those comments to just pure racism. You hear a lot of comments like that, that really don't make sense.

Like what?

Soon as I got to Abu Ghraib, we were given a brief by a psychiatrist, an Army psychiatrist. He didn't know anything about Arabs or Arabic or Islam, but he'd read a few books and told us things like, "Don't expect to ever get a timeline out of an Arab. They can't think like that, they can't think linearly; they have to think associatively." You know, things like that. Or that "Arabs, it's part of their culture to lie," you know. "They just lie all the time and don't even know that they're doing it." It's like ridiculous, you know?

… What was the effect of that kind of information on [people]?

They believed it, and they continued throughout the whole year that we were there with that idea about Arabs, that they're liars and they don't make sense; they're not rational.

And so what happens in an environment … where that becomes the way you feel about the people in your control?

Well, partly that lends to the frustration. Because they're blaming their lack of ability to get intelligence on the fact that a logical argument presented to somebody, or whatever psychological way that you're going to back them into a corner isn't going to work on an Arab. You point out a contradiction to them and they don't care, then they just have a new story and that's it. But I think that's true for anybody who's a prisoner being interrogated. You know, they feel helpless, so their story's going to change. It's going to be very hard to back them into a corner. So yeah, I think it added to the frustration and probably contributed to this culture of abuse.


videogame faq's said...
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Josh Ray said...

I just finished 8 years of Army (completed Korean language training in Monterey and Interrogator school in Ft. Huachuca) and I like to think I'm a fairly intelligent guy. With Abu Gharib, it is important to remember that those committing the actual abuse were National Guard/Reserve Military Police serving as guards. These people received no training in handling detainees (which they definitely should have) and were given a sort of "free reign" that almost always results in terrible things happening.

In my time in Iraq, I saw more than my fair share of idiots that had no business with a gun, much less serving our country in any capacity. However, by and large there are a group of people in the military that keep these people in check. Trust me when I tell you that I had some intense fights/arguments with people who didn't follow my moral compass.

Not everyone that joins the Army expects to serve their country and do the right thing. While I didn't have money when I joined, I was also 18 years old with plenty of family that had taught me over the years what it was like to be a true soldier. Many in my family have served and done well while serving.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of people that join with a different perspective on life. They come from lawless (or nearly lawless) areas of the country, or were general troublemakers who were looking to catch a free ride with an easy monthly paycheck.

I have led many soldiers like that in the past, and giving them the opportunity to act in their normal tendencies is not an option. Some of them I feel are different now and understand a team concept and my sense of right and wrong. Others, I did my best to remove from the Army.

Sorry for the rambling :) I was just looking for interrogator work in police or foreign language work abroad... and just happened to stumble onto this blog!