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.

In the summer of 2003, the interrogators threw a detainee against a concrete wall, punched him in the neck and gut, kicked him in the knees, threw him outside, and dragged him back in by his hair. For the entire two-hour ordeal, the prisoner wouldn't talk; Ben later found out he spoke Farsi and couldn't understand the interrogators' English and Arabic. Afterward, Ben hid behind a building and cried for the first time since his dad's death. "It was like a loss of humanity. Like we were trading one dictator in for another. I had to weigh my integrity against my duty. Why couldn't I stand up more? Why was I hesitant?"

Ben told me this as we were sitting in his bedroom back home in Little Rock; by the end of the story he had climbed into bed and pulled blankets up around him and was hugging a pillow. There were tears in his eyes, and he apologized for being so "weird about this stuff." Ben writes poetry, and he's fiercely loyal to his Army buddies. But now, for the briefest moment, I saw rage in his eyes.

War, ben was discovering, is "not like what you see on TV. It's insanely boring and depressing." His trip home at Thanksgiving in 2003 lasted just long enough for him to discover that his girlfriend had a new man. Back at Tiger, he joined a group of grunts watching a Michael Moore dvd. It struck a chord with them. "I was never political before I went to Iraq. But I was already disgruntled and fed up just being in Iraq. The movie made me angrier."

It wasn't Fahrenheit 9/11 that so resonated with the soldiers; it was Roger & Me, a documentary that follows the decline of Flint, Michigan, after the General Motors plants closed down. Ben saw "connections between U.S. policies away and at home, how the administration is willing to sacrifice regular people. They were throwing people out of their homes in Flint just like we were taking people out of their homes in Iraq. We got all misty-eyed. It was emotional and had a lingering effect on us."

Ben began to think about what was behind the abuses he'd seen. Soldiers were sent off to war with the promise that they'd be heroes. They had been trained to kill bad guys, not baby-sit detainees. "You need to think that you're there for a reason, that there is some purpose," Ben says. But now people at home were saying the war was a mistake; body counts were mere blips in the news. When Ben first arrived in Iraq, he played soccer with locals; a few months later Iraqis wouldn't even set foot on the base. More and more, the soldiers turned their anger on the prisoners. They poked them with rifles, called them "towel heads" and "sand niggers." Guards would let other soldiers "snag a guy to fuck with or whatever, as long as it didn't leave a mark."

About a month after Ben left Tiger for good, an insurgency leader detained there, Maj. General Abed Hamed Mowhoush, was suffocated in a sleeping bag—a technique that, like waterboarding, Ben had heard was used but had never seen. The General, as he was known, was one of the 160-plus detainees who have died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan since August 2002, according to aclu attorney Hina Shamsi. Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer, the man accused of murdering Mowhoush, claimed he'd been following orders. In 2006, he was convicted of negligent homicide and dereliction of duty and sentenced to 60 days of barracks confinement, the equivalent of house arrest.

After ben came home in March 2004, he was treated warmly. "I was at Applebee's one night and a guy overheard that I had just come back from Iraq," he recalls, "so he bought me a Jack and Coke." He was offered discounts on cell phones and cars. "I finally felt appreciated after feeling used for so long."

But the welcomes couldn't silence the questions that kept him up at night. Ben loves to debate, perhaps because he usually wins, but now he was endlessly, fruitlessly arguing with himself. "Every human being instinctively knows right from wrong. There is never a justification for torture." But then again, "Is softening people up wrong on some levels? I don't know. It wasn't beneficial to them, but it was presented as necessary." He had seen a side of himself he didn't know existed, and now he had to live with that. "In combat you question your mortality," he told me. "In these prisons you question your morality."

I asked Ben point-blank if he considered himself a torturer. It was a hard question to ask, a harder one to answer. He said he didn't know. He asked me how other soldiers in his situation had responded. Most, I told him, didn't even brook use of the word "torture" instead of "harsh interrogation." He finally said he guessed he didn't want to have to think of himself that way, and that it was time to go meet his girlfriend.

When he first got back from Iraq, Ben had nightmares and couldn't remember things; this was infuriating, since he'd always prided himself on his perfect memory. A psychiatrist diagnosed him with ptsd, but he refused medication. Instead he blew $14,000 on bar tabs his first four months home. "I drank every night. I'd wake up next to a stranger at around 4 p.m. and head off to the strip club again." He traveled some, because "you can reinvent yourself when you're out of town." He also reenlisted; he'll be on active duty until 2013, which means that once a month he has to cut his perfectly messy hair and show up at the local base. He thinks the military needs people like him, "people who can see both sides of things."

When Ben first started speaking out about torture, posting to blogs and testifying for a human rights group, he didn't use his real name. Then, gradually, he grew bolder. Brandon, his high school friend, Army buddy, and now roommate, encouraged him, so long as he wasn't trying to become famous. He got the occasional blog flame—"un-American commie bastard"—but there was none of the reprisal from the Army that he'd feared. Nor, for that matter, any call from the various military investigators looking into human rights abuses. No one seemed to care.

People cared when Specialist Joseph Darby spoke out, though not always in the way he would have wanted them to. Darby is the Army reservist who turned in the Abu Ghraib photos. He hates the term "whistleblower," which is understandable, since it's earned him others like "rat" and "traitor." He's gotten death threats, from phone calls and emails to just whispers around his hometown of Cumberland, Maryland. His sister-in-law's house was vandalized; his wife was verbally harassed and the police refused to help.

I met with Darby at a Starbucks in a strip mall along a busy four-lane route. He is still in a sort of witness-protection program the military put him in after his role in the scandal was revealed. He didn't want me to detail his appearance, which has changed somewhat from the recognizable round face that appeared in magazines and on television. This, he said, was his last interview before he put Abu Ghraib behind him forever.

He said being in hiding wasn't so tough; he'd always kept to himself. His marriage was rocky while he was in Iraq, and seclusion had forced the couple back together. Whenever our conversation got difficult, he fiddled with his wedding ring.

Darby joined the Army Reserves for tuition money when he was 17, but he never did end up going to college. Instead, after returning from a deployment in Bosnia in June 2002, he found construction work off the books. Eight months later, he was called up again to go to Iraq. When his unit was assigned to guard prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Darby asked for a job where he wouldn't have too much contact with the detainees; with his temper, he didn't trust himself around the Iraqis. He became the guy you called to get a mop, garbage bags, or meals brought up to the tiers.

Unlike Ben, Darby didn't witness any abuse; he came across the torture photos by accident. The desert heat had warped his own snapshots, so he asked Corporal Charles Graner for some pictures, hoping for images of camels and tanks. Scrolling through the CD, he laughed when he saw the pyramid of naked Iraqis. Then he got to the simulated-fellatio pictures.

He insists he's not a goody-two-shoes tattletale or a saint by any stretch. "I'm as crooked as the next MP," he explains. "I've bent laws and I've broke laws." Months earlier, Graner (who is now serving a 10-year sentence) had shown him a photo of a prisoner tied up in a stress position and said, "The Christian in me knows this is wrong, but the corrections officer in me can't help but love to make a grown man piss himself." Darby says he was too tired to think much about it.

It took him three weeks of soul-searching to decide whether he should turn in the photos. He finally took them not to his superior officers but to the Army investigation office, where soldiers can report everything from sexual harassment to theft—a breach of the chain of command that many would later hold against him. Four months later, Darby was sitting in the Abu Ghraib mess hall; cnn was on, showing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's congressional testimony on prisoner abuse. Darby had no idea his tip—which military investigators had assured him would remain anonymous—had led to a national scandal. He heard Rumsfeld name various people who'd provided information—"first the soldier, Specialist Joseph Darby, who alerted the appropriate authorities...My thanks and appreciation to him for his courage and his values."

Darby dropped his fork midbite. Oh shit. He felt 400 pairs of eyes on him. Seymour Hersh had already published his name, but as Darby says, "Who reads the damn New Yorker?"

His mom was dying of cancer; now, the compassionate-leave request he had filed a week before was rushed through. When his plane touched down stateside, officers were there with his wife. They escorted the couple to an undisclosed location, where they lived with around-the-clock security for the next six months. He didn't get the formal thank-you he'd expected from the Army, though a personal letter from Rumsfeld arrived at one point—asking him to stop talking about how he'd been outed.

When the Abu Ghraib photos splashed on television sets, people in Cumberland watched, hoping their loved ones weren't involved. Not all were so lucky. Kenneth England saw the pictures of his daughter, Lynndie, as did the welders and machinists who work with him at the csx railroad. They supported him as best they knew how: by not mentioning it. While Pentagon flacks spun the scandal as the work of a few bad apples from Appalachia, people in the area hung yellow ribbons and "hometown hero" posters for the accused MPs. Reservists' wives organized candlelight vigils.

"Everybody needs his time over there to mean or count for something," Sergeant Ken Davis, a teetotaler nicknamed Preacher Man by the other MPs at Abu Ghraib, told me. "It has to be right in the greater scheme of things. But if the U.S. government was truly at the helm, ordering the abuse, then it actually means nothing. And now we live with ghosts and demons that will haunt us for the rest of our lives."

Davis, who has a clean, bleachy smell to him and says "dang" a lot, was in some of the photos, and he says he reported the abuse to his superior. For that, people at the police department near Cumberland where he worked call him a narc. He's become an Abu Ghraib junkie, attending the trials, testifying at some, collecting photos and evidence, corresponding with the accused. It's a way, he says, to get closure. "A lot of soldiers, when we come back, are lost. You don't belong anymore. It's especially true for a unit accused of abuse, when you hear lies about what happened and people deny what you saw." At 37, he's particularly worried about the younger soldiers he served with. "They were put in situations where they had to do things they didn't agree with just to survive," he says. "All they know about being an adult is the military. We've got a lost generation on our hands."

Military recruiters always had it easy in Cumberland. Beyond honor, responsibility, and meaning, they pitched a paycheck and a ticket out. It was on the steps of Cumberland's City Hall that Lyndon B. Johnson first announced his War on Poverty back in 1964, but neither the coal mining industry, the railway, nor a series of short-lived manufacturing booms could win that battle. Of the big factories in the area, only the paper mill is still open. One in five residents live below the poverty line, a third more than the national average. A food bank operates out of a former bread factory. In February 2007, a high school football player shot himself during a game of Russian roulette.

I often asked people in town what they thought about the war, but conversation inevitably turned to jobs. Supporting the troops was akin to union solidarity—a pact among the people doing the country's grunt work. As one ex-Marine told me, "Sometimes you just have to do what you can to get by. And you have to be able to believe in the validity of what you're doing."

People told me the threat against Darby was exaggerated. The university's chaplain had been harassed for hosting an anti-war event, the newspaper's columnist threatened for advocating gun control, but no harm had come to either of them. Colin Engelbach, the commander of the local vfw post—who called Darby a "borderline traitor" on national television—said that by "get him," people just meant they would make Darby's life hell.

Engelbach is a small guy whose eyes had trouble meeting mine. He spent ten years in the National Guard and four on active duty, though he didn't see combat. Now he works double shifts making depleted-uranium munitions at Alliant Tech. For several months after our interview, he called me with "dirt" on Darby; the overall message was that Darby had put himself before his comrades, that he was not a real American.

"People aren't pissed because I turned someone in for abuse," Darby told me. "People are pissed because I turned in an American soldier for abusing an Iraqi. They don't care about right and wrong."

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