When I joined the military in early 2000 it was a time when things seemed mostly okay with the world. I figured that worst case scenario I had a 25% chance of ending up with the nation at war. These things seemed to pop up every few decades. If I was lucky I could serve, and then be done.
When our forces entered Afghanistan to go after Bin Laden I was upset. Not for the bloodshed or the thought that I might go to war, but because I couldn't be there. A few years later I would be on a flight to Kuwait. The invasion of Iraq was happening, and I was going to be a part of it. During my two tours there I wore a lot of hats, did a lot of different and weird jobs. But one of them stands out. It was the day I volunteered to assist with an interrogation.
My knowledge of interrogation was based on Geneva Convention, the law of land warfare. I had a sense of what was allowed and what wasn't. I knew of "enhanced interrogation" techniques of course. They had been in the news a few times. I was opposed to them on a moral and ethical basis. Not that I would ever be asked to carry out an interrogation, so I never paid them any mind. I also knew that the military interrogation manual prohibits "enhanced" anything. You play by the rules with this kind of stuff. I was wrong of course. I just didn't know it yet.
My unit operated out of the remains of an Iraqi airbase in the Al-Anbar province. It was a large place, with a few runways and a smattering of buildings in the moon-dust ridden desert. The buildings had been long abandoned, and left to rot. The wiring was awful, if not criminal for most of them. The open sewers there were homes to rats, big ones, and feral dogs ran in packs. We made it our home. I did most of my work at a building near a motor pool on the edge of the airfield. Across the airfield I could see the reinforced hangars and buildings used by other units, and organizations. The Major who ran the facility approached me after lunch one day. He asked if I'd like to see how prisoners were interrogated, maybe even help. He had made friends with someone in the unit there, and they had made the initial offer. I was one of only a few people in our unit with a very high clearance, so I qualified under the auspices that I could keep my mouth shut. I said yes. When a higher up offers you something like this you didn't turn it down, especially if you wanted a good performance review and a continuing career.
Our group arrived at one of the hangars, not far from a large crater. The crater was from a bomb that had been intended to destroy the runway. It had succeeded in furrowing out a hole 5 feet deep and disabling the runway. Someone had good aim. We were escorted by a couple of guys wearing camouflage pants, and brown undershirts on. We took a tour of their facilities first. They had converted the hangar into a holding facility. They gleefully describer their daily work and showed us the room that they used to coerce better behavior. It was a mechanical room with a metal door. Pipes ran everywhere, though a few had chains wrapped around them. They used the room for stress positions, handcuffing prisoners in strange positions. The metal piping made this easy. They said they often found the exhausted recipients hanging from the pipes. The best part they said was the door; it was thick and no sound escaped the room. It was like a tomb with no lights. Just perfect for what they needed. They also pointed out the dirt piles in the crater. It was a favorite tactic to blindfold prisoners and toss them into the hole, then throw shovels at them, make them dig. They said they never threatened them with death directly, but implied it strongly. Most people broke after this they said. The real treat they said was what was waiting for us in the small building a few dozen yards away.
The interrogation facility was small with a few computers a generator and a handful of staff. There were a few room used to hold people, the foyer and the interrogation room. Here, MI and other agencies plied their craft. We were told that there were three rules.
- No uniforms, no one must be able to be identified
- Don't speak unless spoken two, and most certainly not to the prisoner
- Don't assist unless asked or offered
The last thing they told us wasn't a rule, but a request. If we could not handle what was happening we should leave; quietly. The first rule should have tipped me off as to what would happen, but I was still just a long for the ride.
The prisoner was a slight man in his late 30's maybe early 40's. He was sitting in a chair, hands bound in front of him, facing the door. He was the owner of a small hotel in a town to the north. Someone in the hotel had lobbed grenades at a patrol of dismounted troops from the roof. A young soldier had been shredded by one. The soldier had been well liked, and the unit was taking his death hard. 2 men stood in the corners, stoic, buff; guards. We entered the room and took up position facing the man in the chair. One of the interrogators offered the man a bottle of water, informing him that we were here to decide what would happen to him, and his family. The man nodded that he understood and the interrogator began questioning him about the attacker as he drank from the bottle. The hotel owner indicated that he did not know who had thrown the grenades, that people came in and out of the hotel all the time, not just as guests but to smoke a pipe in the coffee shop. The interrogators did not accept this answer and tried different ways to get him to change his story, getting more upset at each round of questions. After one particularly intense exchange the first interrogator pointed his finger at the hotel owner and warned him to be truthful. The hotel owner began to get agitated, he spoke rapidly but one of the other interrogators stepped in and slapped the man screaming "shut up" in Arabic; knocking the water bottle out of his hands and onto the dirt. Every time the man protested the second interrogator screamed at him finishing every "shut up" with a jab, slap or punch. By this time 2 of my compatriots had left the room. a few more would leave as the interrogation went on. I remained, fighting my own misgivings, remaining a blank slate.
The interrogation never got better. Whenever the hotel owner gave an answer that was not liked he was doused in water from the bottle or smacked until finally the second interrogator had enough. He rocked the hotel owner back in the chair, forcing the dirty bottle of water into the hotel owner's mouth and squeezed the remaining contents out. The hotel owner gurgled and struggled, flailing his bound arms, hitting interrogator number 2 in the head, who dropped the man on the ground. Interrogator number 2 picked the hotel owner up, spun him around, shoved him against the wall face first, and then placed him in a choke hold. The hotel owner struggled, crying, screaming; the two men went to the floor, with the interrogator wrapping his legs around the man. The first interrogator ushered us out of the room at this point.
In the entry the team there was laughing and watching video of the session. They informed me that interrogator number 2 was called "Shaitaan" (Satan) by the prisoners. That he liked to get physical and had a reputation for being mean. I and my remaining compatriots thanked the team for the opportunity to watch them work and got ready to leave. Most had not waited for a ride in the Humvee, they had started walking across the air base to get away as quickly as possible. As we were getting ready to leave I saw the hotel owner dragged out of the room. The guards mostly carried him, as he could hardly walk. It was announced that he would spend the next 36 hours in the stress position room. It was estimated that he might recall something then. Interrogator number 2, Satan, was smiling.
As I drove away from the interrogation facility the sun was setting. The heat of the day didn't even register. The Major sat next to me. I asked if he wanted to go to the DFAC for dinner, he said yes. There was silence for a bit and then he said something to the effect that he regretted the visit to the interrogators, that it wasn't what he had expected. I knew how he felt, but said nothing; what could fill the new emptiness inside? Certainly not talk.