Confessions of a Torturer

Just pulled this off Metafilter. A St. John’s grad turned interrogator speaks about what he did to innocents in Iraq: Confessions of a Torturer. There goes Martha Nussbaum’s thesis that the study of the liberal arts will cultivate an ethical sensibility, right out the window. That said, Mr. Lagouranis has a lot more to tell us about how you go from studying the classics to torturing people for information you’re quite sure they don’t possess. First there’s the coverups:

A relative of a high-level Baathist complained to Lagouranis that he’d been tortured. “He told me that when he was arrested he was beaten and forced to stand against a wall and kneel for days, and he was kept from sleeping, and they’d come in occasionally and beat him up and kick him…. “I filed an abuse report on this guy. They had like a standard form, like a memo someone had made up internally at Abu Ghraib, and so I asked my superior for that form, and I went in and did a specific interrogation to ask this guy about that abuse. The guy was really reluctant to talk about it, he said to forget it, he just didn’t want any more trouble for himself. But I got it out of him. I wrote the abuse report and gave it to my superior. And that abuse report, as far as I know, has disappeared. It doesn’t exist anymore.”

Then there’s some descriptions of approved tactics, like ‘environmental manipulation’:

“We had three different strobe lights going at once, and the prisoner would be in a stress position, and it was cold, so he’d be freezing.” At times the detainees were exposed directly to the strobe lighting, but at other times they wore goggles that obscured vision but allowed the pulsating light to enter. The music in the shipping container was applied by means of a boom box turned up to maximum volume. “We were supposed to be in there the entire time with the prisoner, but we could walk out and shut the door if we wanted. I would go outside and just sit down, outside the shipping container. I wouldn’t hear it that much. We started out using this heavy metal music that we got from the MPs, but at two in the morning I’d put on James Taylor ’cause I just didn’t want to hear shit like that anymore.”

The idea that the conditions were so uncomfortable that the torturers couldn’t take it any more sort of indicates that you’re probably doing something wrong, don’t you think? But to Lagouranis, it seemed pretty mild:

“We were getting prisoners from the navy SEALs who were using a lot of the same techniques we were using, except they were a little more harsh. They would actually have the detainee stripped nude, laying on the floor, pouring ice water over his body. They were taking his temperature with a rectal thermometer. We had one guy who had been burned by the navy SEALs. He looked like he had a lighter held up to his legs. One guy’s feet were like huge and black and blue, his toes were obviously all broken, he couldn’t walk. And so they got to us and we were playing James Taylor for them—I think they probably weren’t that upset about what we were doing. Not that I’m excusing what I’m doing, but their reaction was not very severe to it.”

In his defense, the marines were apparently using much more recognizably cruel and inhumane tactics. But the argument that my guilt is lessened by the extremity of another’s guilt is so clearly spurious that I’m surprised anyone ever accepts it.

“The marines had a location—they called it the ‘meat factory’—they would bring them there and they would torture them for 24 or 48 hours before they brought them to us, and they were using techniques like water boarding, mock execution, they were beating them up, breaking their bones, whatever…. Every time they went on a raid it didn’t matter who they were bringing back, they would just fuck these guys up. Old men, 15-year-old kids, they all came with bruises and broken bones. One guy came with a blister on the back of his leg. It was big, it was horrible, a burn blister. They’d made him sit on the exhaust pipe of a running truck.”

At the same time, none of this intelligence was doing any good. The results of interrogations were not being shared, and a lot of the intelligence was falsified or misused:

“I would write intelligence reports and someone would mention the name of somebody, a neighbor, with no incriminating information at all. And the analyst would get ahold of that and that person would become a target and I would be talking to that person the next week—and for what? And I would call up the analyst and say, ‘Why am I talking to this guy?’ And he would quote my report out of context and tell me this was why. It just made no sense.”

According to Lagouranis, this sort of self-deception was common place. The resources for interrogation far outstripped the supply of valuable interrogees, so they just made up reasons to bring people in! Of course, the system doesn’t work every well if most everyone is a complete innocent; there’s no reason to comply with the interrogation even if you are an insurgent, since you know so many true innocents who have been treated cruelly for no reason.

Lagouranis says he once interrogated four brothers who’d been arrested during a general search because soldiers had found a pole in their house that they’d argued could be used for sighting targets for mortars. The brothers, interrogated separately by Lagouranis, contended they used it to measure the depth of water in a canal, and there was nothing incriminating in the house. Though he was convinced they were telling the truth, his superiors would not release the men. A man arrested because he had a cell phone and a shovel met a similar fate. The army contended the shovel could be used to plant an IED and the cell phone could be used to help set it off, and though Lagouranis bought his explanation, nothing he said shook that belief. The army wanted to be able to boast about the number of terrorists apprehended, and the four brothers with the striped stick, the two who ran the aid station at the potato factory, and the man with the shovel were close enough.

For all his self-justification, he does provide a good deal of insight into the efficacy of current torture practices:

Another thing that made it easier was that I felt—and I think this is a flawed argument too—that it was all environmental things that were happening to this person. Like it was gravity that was making his knees hurt, it was the fact that it was cold outside that was making him uncomfortable, it wasn’t me, you know what I mean? As I said, those are flawed arguments, but it makes it easier to do it if you think of it that way.

Sickening… but probably sort of appealing for a disaffected scholar stuck half-way across the world hurting people for no good reason. I encourage you to read the whole interview… it’s stunning, but also matter-of-fact. This is what we do. This is why we do it. This is why it doesn’t work. This is me screaming NO NO NO NO NO NO NO. This is business as usual.

Law and War

In the wake of Kendall-Smith’s conviction, it seems as if the question of legality will again go underground. We can reasonably ask, as Antoinette does, “Why should we worry about legality when there’s a political solution available?” Protest politics need not trouble itself with the weak fictions of international law, we might argue, since the moral infraction is clear. In the last fifty years, it has become conventional wisdom that the winners prosecute the losers for their war crimes while ignoring their own. Our behavior at Nagasaki, at Dresden, in the Falklands, at Abu Ghraib, among the Viet-Nam era Tiger Force, these things go unprosecuted because those who have been injured have no authority, and those who have the authority do not have the will.

No matter how damning the eventual loss, there’s no question of war crimes tribunals for the coalition forces. Domestically, the most we can hope for is to punish the Iraq-hawks through politics: vote them out and sideline their legislative agendas. Why, then, should we care whether the war is illegal?

If it weren’t for Kendall-Smith, I’d probably agree. But given the assymetrical influence of the soldiers and junior officers paying the price in this war and the citizens and politicians championing it, I suspect that the breakdown of this conflict must begin in the military’s ranks. In order to preserve our sense of supporting the troops, we will have to be made to believe that our support is best expressed by bringing them home rather than leaving them there. As with any ongoing military campaign, the wear and tear of fatalities and retirements, combined with a considerable compunction at enlisting during active hostilities will degrade our effectiveness. The stop-loss policies in place (otherwise known as the backdoor draft) have already reduced morale and enraged military families.

So what happens when soldiers refuse to fight? If they have no legal recourse, the penalties will become increasingly stringent, and our all-volunteer fighting force will increasingly come to resemble an army of conscripts. If, on the other hand, soldiers can muster out with reference to their own moral judgments, becoming conscientious objectors after the fact, then the military will have to fight with fewer and fewer soldiers, and eventually they’ll either institute a draft (if national security is actually at stake, which it clearly isn’t) or declare strategic victory and a beat a retreat (sorry, an ‘advance-towards-the-rear’.)

In this way, supporting the legal arguments against the war is a way of supporting the troops and hamstringing jingoistic politicians. So, I’ll begin, and y’all can join in when you catch the tune: why is the war illegal? Well, to begin with, a war is illegal if it’s either begun illegally or conducted illegally. Hmmm….

More later.

Kendall-Smith and Kant: Can the Critique of Practical Reason make you ethical?

Ever since Adolf Eichmann pretended that Kant’s theory of ethics could be used to defend his actions, I’ve wondered whether moral philosophers really have any tendency to be better people, or to live better lives. As Arendt put it in Eichmann in Jerusalem, “He did his duty… he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law…. No exceptions–this was the proof that he had always acted against his ‘inclinations,’ whether they were sentimental or inspired by interest…. [Many Germans] must have been tempted not to murder… and not to become accompliced in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.”

Well, it looks like at least one British Royal Air Force officer has actually discerned his moral duty through the haze of propaganda and pathological temptations. Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith, an RAF doctor who wrote a master’s thesis on Kant, has argued that the illegality of Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq required him to refuse an order to deploy to Basra, after serving two tours of duty in Iraq. My favorite line is a direct reversal of the Eichmannian formula: “I am a leader. I am not a mere follower to whom no moral responsibility can be attached.”

Sadly, it would appear that he was not able to make the case for illegal warmaking, as the court martial argued, following Eichmann: “Such crimes cannot be committed by those in relatively junior positions such as that of the defendant.” By stripping him of the responsibility and capacity for judgment that would be necessary to object to illegal orders, the court martial declared that only powerful and important people have the moral authority to understand their legal and moral obligations. In this, they set a precedent for many more incidents likes those at Abu Ghraib.

I applaud Kendall-Smith’s refusal to sacrifice his own judgments for those of his superiors. I applaud his courage to stand for the moral law over the petty instantiation of it we saw in the court marshall. Would that others, on both sides of this conflict, had the same courage.