monstering, noun. [Latin monstrum; originally, a divine portent or warning, formed from monere, to warn.] an interrogator stays with a prisoner, following the same sleep and dietary regimen, until one of them breaks. --Chris Mackey and Greg Miller, The Interrogators: Task Force 500 and America's Secret War Against Al Qaeda
The definition above opens Tara McKelvey’s harrowing new book on the roots and actions at the heart of America’s torture policy, and that definition echoes throughout the book as she considers not only the effects of the blot on our national honor and our legal system, but on the individuals encouraged to perpetuate the atrocities by their superiors—and ultimately condoned by the Bush administration.
The author characterizes her book as "more of a work of reporting than analysis," based on interviews conducted over a two-and-a-half-year period with more than 200 people connected with the system, from former prisoners and human rights lawyers to private contractors, Army officers and former administration officials.
What emerges is a nightmare landscape populated by conveniently undertrained, undirected, stressed-out group of inexperienced young soldiers—particularly at the prototypical Abu Ghraib—who were, in the words of the author, "part of a broader, semilawless culture at the prison that may have contributed to the climate of abuse." As one soldier who served there told her flatly: "The army as it is traditionally understood did not exist in that prison."
Lack of supplies, superiors who didn’t respond to inquiries, accounts of wild "robotripping" parties, mysterious personnel who pop up at the prison advising ruthlessness (CIA? Private contractors? Who can tell?), the American female soldiers circled and hounded like prey, computer geek imagery analysts transferred in and given a two-day Power Point presentation on torture techniques—all this and more is laid out in sordid, horrifying detail in a book that is painful, haunting and ultimately necessary to any examination of a world in which Lord of the Flies seemed to meet Fast Times at Ridgemont High to devastating effect.
"The whole place," McKelvey reports one sergeant relaying to her, "had a frenetic, sexually charged atmosphere. Civilian interrogators were players, says Provance, because of their hip clothes, haircuts, and style."
McKelvey’s first-hand interviews flesh out on an individual level the facts of the more impersonal (albeit appalling enough in its own right) Taguba Report. The same sergeant referenced above, Sam Provance, remains bitter today about the whitewashing and passing-the-buck aspect of the feeble inquiries and the front-loading of blame on the individual soldiers unquestionably involved in much of the abuse—particularly Lynndie England. "Those people used the scandal to their advantage to misdirect attention away from the real abuse and the damage," he tells McKelvey. "Generals were shooting at the feet of the interrogators and telling them to dance. But for all eternity, the only thing people are going to say is, 'Oh, it was that one little girl.'"
In addition to giving voice to some of the eyewitnesses at Abu Ghraib, the author traces the evolving legal statements and reasoning of Bush administration advisors through the labyrinth of double-speak and cold-hearted justice at one remove. Various contractors, like linguists, are interviewed, with some of the ridiculousness of the standards of the supplying companies outlined. One translator claimed that at least half of the civilian interpreters he encountered would never have passed a proficiency language test had one been administered (he never took one), and that the lawless and chaotic atmosphere of the prison was the perfect incubator for various inexperienced "linguists" to carry on their own sectarian vendettas against one another—Shia attacking Sunni prisoners, Sunnis abusing Kurds—even though their official roles were supposedly limited to translation duties.
Once the Abu Ghraib photographs went public, a flurry of "investigations" began, and McKelvey points to problem after problem influencing the legitimacy of virtually every resultant report. Evidence is conveniently lost, repeatedly. Former prisoners who were cited as witnesses by abused detainees are released and cannot be found. Not-so-subtle coaching during gathering of statements from American soldiers is reported:
Attorney Scott Horton says Fay's report is "whitewashing." "During the interviews, [Fay] would say, 'Now if anyone saw anything and failed to intervene, they can be charged with a crime. Did anyone see anything and fail to intervene?'" says Horton. "They'd all say, 'No, sir!'"
In particular, McKelvey’s research reveals a reluctance to report on crimes against women, reporting that "government officials have shown a special sensitivity to issues relating to women or sexual behavior at the prison." Physician and human rights expert Steven Miles tells her that pages about female prisoners in resultant reports "tend to be heavily redacted."
[Miles] believes that government officials have withheld documents about the deaths of a woman and a child in U.S. custody for a reason: "There's been a move to depict the prisoners as al-Qaeda," he tells me, "and it's hard to do that if you're talking about women and kids."
Two of the most notorious public faces who took the fall for much of the scandal are interviewed in depth by McKelvey and are treated with a kind of distant sympathy –Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, in charge of Abu Ghraib (and fourteen other facilities, a problem in and of itself), and Lynndie England, the West Virginia reservist court-martialed for her part in the debacle. Both come across as vaguely sympathetic and out of their element for different reasons. Karpinski was charged with overseeing too much and was ordered to stay out of areas of the prison. England was in no way prepared, provincial as she was and under the near-hypnotic sway of fellow reservist Charles Garner, to take noble and heroic stands against authority. She is portrayed as something of a moral blank slate—not mentally deficient as many press profiles have indicated, but more along the lines of a backwoods Valley Girl.
And while it’s tempting to view them both as victims themselves, caught up in an insane historical moment (which they certainly were), giving them a simple free pass denies the complexity of how and why Joe Darby, the original leaker of the Abu Ghraib photographs, found it within himself to blow the whistle. Or how such figures as Sergeant Hydrue Joyner, assigned to the day shift where most of those photos were taken, came to the decision to simply stop complying.
[Joyner] had finally decided that forcing the prisoners to stay awake was not right—and so he stopped doing it. Nothing happened. He was not even reprimanded. It raised the question of whether or not other soldiers were forced into mistreating the detainees—as many of them claimed after they were accused of detainee-related abuse. It is also possible, however, that Joyner was more confident than the other soldiers and felt strong enough to refuse to follow orders when he felt they were wrong.
One suspects there was more at work here than just Joyner’s trust in his own physical strength, but it will probably take legions of psychiatrists years to sort through the mix of who reported abuse and why, who chose straightforward noncompliance, who reluctantly joined in and who joyfully and sadistically led the mayhem—and more importantly in each case for future prevention, why.
McKelvey’s final section explains her own attitudinal adjustment as she researched her topic, reflecting the evolution of the reasoning of many observers who have been following the scandal closely since it first was uncovered:
How could this happen? That is what I wondered in 2004 when I began to study Yoo’s memos, the list of approved interrogation techniques and government documents, as well as to interview people about the subject. It seemed as though the Abu Ghraib scandal could have been so easily avoided. Things at the prison went slightly off course in August and September 2003, and then, by mid-October, turned into a full-blown disaster....
Two years later, my question was different: how could this not have happened?
And, as implied by the definition of "monstering" that opened her book, how are we as a nation going to deal with the reintegration into civil society of those Americans marked by these atrocities—either as perpetrators, witnesses, self-blinded bystanders or whistleblowers—into a peaceful society?
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.