Torture Hits Home
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Am I a Torturer?

Ben Allbright watches The Daily Show, worships Dave Eggers—and still wound up "softening up" prisoners in Iraq.

Listen to an interview with the author here.

The prisons in Iraq stink. Ask any guard or interrogator and they'll tell you it's a smell they'll never forget: sweat, fear, and rot. On the base where Ben Allbright served from May to September 2003, a small outfit named Tiger in western Iraq, water was especially scarce; Ben would rig a hose to a water bottle in a feeble attempt to shower. He and the other Army reservists tried mopping the floors, but the cheap solvents only added a chemical note to the stench. During the day, when the temperature was in the triple digits, the smell fermented.

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It got even hotter in the Conex container, the kind you see on top of 18-wheelers, where Ben kept his prisoners. Not uncommonly the thermometer inside read 135, even 145 degrees. The Conex box was the first stop for all prisoners brought to the base, most of them Iraqis swept up during mass raids. Ben kept them blindfolded, their hands bound behind their backs with plastic zip ties, without food or sleep, for up to 48 hours at a time. He made them stand in awkward positions, so that they could not rest their heads against the wall. Sometimes he blared loud music, such as Ozzy or AC/DC, blew air horns, banged on the container, or shouted. "Whatever it took to make sure they'd stay awake," he explains.

Ben was not a "bad apple," and he didn't make up these treatments. He was following standard operating procedure as ordered by military-intelligence officers. The MI guys didn't make up the techniques either; they have a long international history as effective torture methods. Though generally referred to by circumlocutions such as "harsh techniques," "softening up," and "enhanced interrogation," they have been medically shown to have the same effects as other forms of torture. Forced standing, for example, causes ankles to swell to twice their size within 24 hours, making walking excruciating and potentially causing kidney failure.

Ben says he never saw anything like that. The detainees didn't faint or go insane, as people have been known to do under similar conditions, but they also "weren't exactly lucid." And, he notes, "I was hardly getting any sleep myself."

When I first set off to interview the rank-and-file guards and interrogators tasked with implementing the administration's torture guidelines, I thought they'd never talk openly. They would be embarrassed, wracked by guilt, living in silent shame in communities that would ostracize them if they knew of their histories. What I found instead were young men hiding their regrets from neighbors who wanted to celebrate them as war heroes. They seemed relieved to talk with me about things no one else wanted to hear—not just about the acts themselves, but also about the guilt, pain, and anger they felt along with pride and righteousness about their service. They struggled with these things, wanted to make sense of them—even as the nation seemed determined to dismiss the whole matter and move on.

This, perhaps, is the real scandal of Abu Ghraib: In survey after survey, as many as two-thirds of Americans say torture is sometimes justified when it's used to get information from terrorists. In an abc/Washington Post poll in the wake of the 2004 scandal, 60 percent of respondents classified what happened at Abu Ghraib as mere abuse, not torture. And as recently as last year, 68 percent of Americans told Pew Research pollsters that they sometimes consider torture an acceptable option when dealing with terrorists.

Critics of the administration's interrogation policies warn that the ramifications will be felt across the globe, including by Americans unlucky enough to be imprisoned abroad. Foreign-policy scholars fear the fallout from Abu Ghraib has already weakened the U.S. military's anti-terrorism capabilities. Lawyers warn about war-crime tribunals. But hardly anyone is discussing the repercussions already being felt here at home. It's the soldiers tying the sandbags around Iraqis' necks and blaring the foghorns through the night who are experiencing the effects most acutely. And the communities they're returning to are reeling as a result.

When i went to visit Ben in Little Rock, Ark., I wanted to know why this charming, intelligent, and overly polite 27-year-old had done what he'd done. For 10 days we rode around in his beat-up maroon 1970s Mercedes—running errands, picking up job applications, meeting his girlfriend for lunch. Ben wore pink shirts, hipster blazers, and color-coordinated Campers; he used hair products, which to his friends meant being a metrosexual; he listened to indie rock, watched The Daily Show, and wrote attitude-filled blogs on veterans rights, which meant being a liberal. He refereed football games, worshipped novelist Dave Eggers, and placed special orders at McDonald's so his meals would be fresh.

He was unemployed, fired from his latest job as a bank teller the day before I arrived. Ben had worked there for four months—the longest he'd held down a full-time job since coming home from Iraq. He'd tried tutoring high schoolers, bagging groceries, and doing IT support for Best Buy. Part of the problem, he said, was the lack of good jobs in the area, part of it his own "flailing and procrastinating." He had toyed with the idea of law school and scored a near-perfect 178 on the lsat entrance test, but then turned down offers from schools such as nyu. While I was in town he picked up an application for a job at his corner liquor store. In high school he was one of two students voted most likely to become famous. "The other kid became a doctor," Ben confessed, "and I, well, yeah..."

As a kid, Ben was a sort of Doogie Howser, blowing through school, asking teachers for more work, until his mom, fearing the classes weren't challenging enough, pulled him out in the fourth grade in order to home­school him. His parents finally bought a TV set when Ben was in eighth grade. Ben says his dad was an original member of Pat Robertson's 700 Club. He was an executive for American Airlines, a job that moved the family around a lot: St. Louis, Kansas City, Nashville. After they lost their nest egg in the 1987 stock market crash, the family moved from Chicago's lakeshore suburbs to the South Side. Finally, when Ben was a teenager, they settled in Lonoke, outside Little Rock.

Ben took me to the town, 4,300 people and 22 churches. Tractors dotted the fields that hadn't yet been grabbed by developers. He noted a "Free Greens" sign advertising leftovers from someone's garden and the customary wave from passing cars. His condescension about the "bumblefuck" town cracked when he showed me a plot of land, near one that his buddy had just bought, that he saw as a potential home for a future family.

Ben pointed out the Grace Baptist Church, which he attends because he's friends with the pastor and his son, "not because I agree with their fundamentalist views." As an undergraduate at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Ben explored Buddhism and Taoism, but he returned to Christianity as a way to make sense of the world, even though sometimes it's "awkward reconciling my religion and military profession."

Ben was still in high school when he enlisted as a reservist; his friend Brandon had asked Ben to accompany him to the recruiter's office as a "bullshit detector." In the end, he enrolled along with Brandon, applying twice before he finally bulked up enough to meet the weight requirement. He saw it as a chance to get out from under his parents' thumb and learn about computers. But mainly it was his idealistic sense of duty—right out of Starship Troopers, the 1959 Robert Heinlein novel that is now a cult hit in military circles. "Like in the book, there's the idea that to be a full citizen you have to contribute."

Ben was called up to go to Iraq in February 2003. His father told him the invasion seemed like a mistake, but they didn't have time to discuss the subject much; he died of cancer a month later. Half an hour after the funeral, Ben was on his way to Kuwait.

In iraq, ben was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division; since there was no computer work for him to do, he was made a prison guard.

Things on the Tiger base were pretty "ad hoc," Ben recalls. Some orders, like the mandate that the heavy Kevlar helmets be fastened at the chin at all times, were clearly posted on the wall. Others were left to word-of-mouth, including instructions about detainee handling. Military-intelligence officers issued various orders; then there were the anonymous ogas, a.k.a. other government agencies, code for either private contractors or cia officers with civilian clothes, long beards, and fake names like Joe Stallone and Frank Norris. The chain of command was chaotic.

Ben was soon promoted to warden and made small changes on his shift: Guards had to limit stress positions, and detainee rations were increased from crackers and peanut butter to whole Meals Ready to Eat, which were served three times, not two times, a day. He enforced a ban on cameras to discourage the degrading treatment that usually came when soldiers posed with prisoners for trophy photos. "But I could only do so much," he admits.

When he was first ordered to soften up detainees, "it didn't seem so weird," Ben says; nothing in the war zone was normal. "You don't think about what you're doing until later." He was asked to stand in on dozens of interrogations, to help intimidate the subject: one more body, one more gun. The small room was usually crowded with guards, military-intelligence officers, and ogas. They were told to wear T-shirts, not uniforms that would signal their rank. Under the single bulb, the interrogator would loom above a prisoner seated in a child-size chair. Sometimes the room suddenly went dark and strobe lights flashed on. Other times the soldiers would bang pots and pans in the detainee's face, blare loud music, blast air horns and sirens. The sounds were meant to disorient, but also to mask the screams. More than half the time, even if they were cooperative the detainees were beaten, kicked out of their chairs, punched in the windpipe or gut, pulled by the ears—blows that wouldn't leave lasting marks. Occasionally things got out of hand, but with their medical training, the military-intelligence officers could stitch up or bandage injuries, avoiding a call to the medics and an entry in the logbooks that the Red Cross could read.

The first time Ben saw a detainee get beaten, he took the lead interrogator aside afterward to ask, "Was this stuff really allowed? Didn't it violate the Geneva Conventions?"

"These aren't pows; they're detainees," he was told. "Those rules are antiquated and don't apply. You can't get any information without breaking that stuff." Ben asked other officers, but "it was basically like, 'Dude, you're actually worried about how we're treating them? They wouldn't afford you the same respect.'"

If there is anything Ben hates, it's not having all the information. Like most, he hadn't listened when the Geneva Conventions were covered in basic training. But as it happened, when first arriving in country he'd asked a military lawyer for a cd-rom of various documents, just to have on hand. Now, scrolling through the text on his laptop, Ben saw what anyone could: All prisoners—civilians and combatants—are protected against violence. There is no separate category for unlawful combatants. "Outrages upon personal dignity" and "humiliating and degrading treatment" are prohibited. Abuses like those at the Tiger base were "grave breaches." War crimes.

Ben made a verbal complaint to his platoon leader and later to his platoon leader's boss, asking for an investigation. The officers seemed surprised. "They said they'd look into it and tell their superiors," Ben recalls. "But it didn't seem like a priority." Nothing happened.

"I'm not one of those hardcore 'Duty! Honor! Country!' guys," explains Ben. "But I had signed a contract with rules and obligations. I figured that I did the responsible thing by notifying people. I felt helpless not being able to do more. But at least I'd covered my end." He tried quizzing the guards under him about the Geneva Conventions, but they "just wanted to fuck with people." He developed a reputation as a softy.

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