March 07, 2007

The Personal Factor (III): Becoming Monsters -- and the Truth You Do Not Want to Face

Part I: "Let Us All Become Artists Unto Ourselves"

Part II: You're Either with the Resistance -- or with the Murderers

Let me save many of you some time and trouble: you probably don't want to read this essay. I will be speaking of certain truths that very few of you are willing to face completely. The first and perhaps the most foundational of those truths is this one: with regard to its foreign policy, the United States has committed a series of monstrous acts for well over the last half century. Our foreign policy has not been, and is not today, one grounded in a legitimate conception of self-defense. To the contrary, it is a policy directed toward military domination of the entire globe.

I have been documenting the history, development and justifications offered for this policy in my ongoing series, "Dominion Over the World." As I discuss, this policy, including the goal of global dominance, is one embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike; as I also note, during many periods, Democrats have been much more determined about achieving this goal than Republicans. In this sense, and as profoundly sickening and abominable as Bush and his criminal gang are, they are only making up for lost time, if you will. In terms of the most basic principles involved, the Democrats have been at this particular game for much longer; in fact, it was Woodrow Wilson who was determined to make the United States the key player in international affairs. After being reelected on a peace platform in 1916 ("He kept us out of war"), Wilson reversed course in a matter of months -- and proceeded to drag the U.S. into World War I (by means of an intensive, unrelenting propaganda campaign, among other things), a war that in no way had imperiled our nation's security up to that point. It was precisely because self-defense was not involved that the propaganda campaign was necessary; that campaign involved provoking and feeding the most vicious kind of anti-German sentiment among ordinary, "good" Americans. The consequences of the U.S. entrance into World War I led in significant part to World War II -- and to a century of virtually unending conflict. The results of World War I continue to echo across the world today, and our monstrous invasion and occupation of Iraq is only the most recent manifestation of the earlier calamity.

I repeat that, in its broadest outlines, our foreign policy has not been defensive in any sense that can be legitimately or coherently defended; the major justification to be offered is the concept of the Open Door world, which I discussed here (and I will be analyzing the numerous and notable defects in that doctrine shortly, in an upcoming installment of the Dominion series). Our foreign policy has been aggressive in nature; one of the more obvious means by which we continue and seek to expand our global dominance is by maintaining a global empire of military bases, on a scale never before seen in history.

This kind of foreign policy, based on unending aggression against non-existent threats, is one that we condemn in the strongest terms whenever any other nation engages in similar conduct. But we insist on an exception only for ourselves: we are unique among all nations that have ever existed. Conduct is permitted to us that is denied to everyone else. Whatever we do remains "good," or at least "well-intentioned."

This national narcissism also extends across the political spectrum. Obviously, the Bush Republicans subscribe to this indefensible notion of national superiority in full -- but so does John Kerry, and so do almost all leading Democrats. It is a measure of how deep this view of ourselves goes, and how axiomatically we treat it, that most politicians -- and most Americans -- do not even appear to be conscious of it. Much of the rest of the world is fully aware of the unforgivable arrogance and condescension that we constantly shower upon it -- just as it is aware of our endless interventions (covert and otherwise), and the criminal nature of almost all our actions overseas for the last several decades.

But here is the other part of the truth that you really don't want to face: when a nation's government commits monstrous, criminal acts, and especially when it does so over a period of many decades, those who implement and carry out those acts become monsters, even if they were not monsters in the first instance. This is not to say that they are only monsters; human beings, even those who commit brutal and horrifying acts, are infinitely more complex than that. But to the extent that an individual is carrying out a policy that cannot be justified or defended in any way, and to the extent that policy harms and kills other human beings, he or she is acting in a criminal and monstrous way. To the extent and degree he or she acts in this manner, the person becomes a monster.

You needn't take my word for it: read a lengthy article about one of the U.S.'s torturers in Iraq, Tony Lagouranis. Lagouranis's story is particularly horrifying, because it is so commonplace, and because it began so innocently. The story is made still worse because Lagouranis represents the "best" kind of American in certain ways: he is unusually well-educated, and remarkably well-read. He mastered several classical languages with ease; in large part, it was his desire to learn Arabic, which proved to be more difficult, that led him to enlist in the Army in early 2001. An additional motivation was the "massive" student loan debt he had incurred.

For reasons explained in the article, Lagouranis ended up on the track to become an Army interrogator. He went through basic training, interrogator's school, and spent 15 months learning Arabic. Then, in the summer of 2003, he was sent to Fort Gordon, Georgia, and joined the 513th Military Intelligence Brigade. It was there, from soldiers who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq, that he first heard about the nightmare that would soon engulf him:
He got more training [at Fort Gordon], this time with more realistic scenarios, and he also began hearing stories from the veterans of more abusive approaches—though he figured some were boastful exaggeration.

"They were talking about using sexual humiliation on these guys, or certain stress positions they had used, or in Afghanistan they would make the guy sit in the snow naked for long periods of time. They said that the detainees that they had were not covered by the Geneva Conventions, which I continued to hear in Iraq too."
And then Lagouranis's nightmare began in earnest:
He arrived in Iraq in January 2004 and was stationed at Abu Ghraib, landing there ten days after Specialist Joseph Darby delivered the now infamous photographs of prisoner abuse to army investigators. "When we got there we didn't know what had happened, but the army knew, and they were making sure that things were cleaned up at Abu Ghraib."

Lagouranis says his own interrogations there were just talking, "right out of the army field manual." Some of the older interrogators, however, were still using harsher methods. ... Nevertheless, it seemed to Lagouranis that the administration of Abu Ghraib was getting progressively cleaner. Also, it was common knowledge that the CIA was torturing prisoners, he says, so anything the army did paled by comparison.
It was when Lagouranis was assigned to Mosul "that he began to torture the men he was interrogating":
Having been told that the detainees were not covered by the Geneva Conventions, Lagouranis thought his training in the law was not applicable. "We were in this murky area. ... They always tell you, if you're given an illegal order it's your duty to refuse to follow it, but we were in a place that we didn't know what the legal limit was, so we didn't know what to do." To protect himself, Lagouranis wrote up an interrogation plan for each detainee, had the warrant officer sign it, and put it in the detainee's file.
Now we come to some passages that require very careful consideration. First, we have this:
Though some prisoners complained, Lagouranis thinks others took the ill treatment for granted—"like this is what happens when you're detained. If you think about Iraq and what Iraqis would expect from being arrested under Saddam Hussein or whatever, I think they probably felt they were getting it pretty easy, especially because the treatment they had at our hands was a lot better than they got from the detainee unit. We were getting prisoners who had gotten seriously fucked up. 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."
It should be obvious that we've already entered exceedingly dangerous territory here, for countless reasons. I won't comment further on the "not as bad as Saddam" justification -- except to note that, in conjunction with Lagouranis's remark, "not that I'm excusing what I'm doing," justification is, in fact, part of what is going on. I am not unsympathetic to Lagouranis's plight, but we should never forget that this (including this current post of mine) remains in very large part an American-centric perspective. As an American, I am discussing another American's excruciating dilemma -- but we are barely acknowledging how the Iraqis felt, or what they experienced, except perhaps to confirm that what Americans did "wasn't that bad." We are primarily discussing the perspective of the torturer, by Lagouranis's own admission; we are not so concerned with what happened to those who were tortured. Think about that; I suggest you think about it for quite a while. The "not as bad as Saddam" excuse also indicates the kind of moral nihilism that will soon envelop Lagouranis almost entirely, as he himself is all too painfully aware. Again, keep in mind that Lagouranis represents the best kind of American who was trapped in this nightmare world.

And then there is this:
Lagouranis says the MPs were "willing and enthusiastic participants in all this stuff. A lot of the guys that we worked with were former prison guards or they were reservists who were prison guards in their civilian life. They loved it. They totally wanted to be involved in interrogations. It actually was a problem sometimes. I remember I would be standing guard at three in the morning outside of the shipping container with a prisoner inside and people would come by and they would know what was going on because they could hear the music and maybe see the lights. And they'd want to join in. So I'd have four sergeants standing around me, and I'm a specialist, and they want to go and fuck the guy up, and I would have to control these guys who outrank me and outnumber me and they have weapons and I don't—because I'm guarding a prisoner I don't have a weapon. It got really hairy sometimes and I couldn't call for help because there was nobody around.
I have written about the connections between the U.S. prison system and what has unfolded in Iraq before, in considerable detail: See:

The Denial Spreads -- and the Desire for Control

"They Don't Represent America"? Not Quite, Mr. President

The Deep Rot and Corruption in Our Nation's Soul

The Real Scandal

The Horrors Against Women, and

The Practice of National Self-Deception and Denial

(All these articles are from my lengthy series of essays based on the work of Alice Miller.)

The first of the essays listed above, The Denial Spreads -- and the Desire for Control, is especially useful here. Permit me to offer just two excerpts:
Note the elements that are present here, and how easily adaptable these elements are to the military, or to a prison system: idealization of the authority figure, which figure can be the military itself and/or a commanding officer; a loss of autonomy or, in other words, the lack of a genuine self - which means that "self" can be filled in with "values" provided by those in authority; and, most important of all, the total and absolute premium placed on obedience, as the greatest of the virtues. This is the kind of person who will never say "no" when confronted with a monstrous order -- and it is precisely for that reason that many such individuals are attracted to this sort of command structure in the first place.


This demonstrates yet another crucial aspect of the obedience-denial mechanism described by Alice Miller. One of the resulting emotions that the child experiences when he is "disciplined" or punished by the authority figure is loss of control. And as a child, of course, he is not in control of anything in his environment (in terms of the punishments that might be inflicted on him). When punishment appears to be arbitrary and unpredictable, that loss of control is terrifying to a child.

In adulthood, and if these issues are not surfaced and resolved in non-destructive ways, the punished or neglected child will seek, among other things, the kind of life where he himself is now in control -- where he enforces the rules, even if he does not set them. And this, among other elements, is one of the primary attractions that a life in the military or in the prison system will hold for a certain kind of psychology -- the psychology of the damaged child, now grown to adulthood.
Paul Fussell discusses the centrality of unquestioning obedience to life in the military and to "the culture of war" in a speech that I excerpted here. The kinds of motivations and psychological factors that I discuss in these various essays will not be found in everyone who works in prisons (here or abroad) or in the military to the same degree, of course -- but when obedience is the primary foundation of a certain kind of social structure, that structure will attract a particular kind of person much more than any other. At a minimum, we can say that a person who feels a deep abhorrence for violence and for the infliction of harm on another living being, and who also has a very strong sense of self which naturally resists following orders unless he finds that they fit comfortably within his own values, will find little reason to live within the confines of such a command structure.

A few more excerpts from the article about Lagouranis are worthy of note:
He heard nothing further before he was transferred to Kalsu, a base in Iskandariyah, about 25 miles south of Baghdad, where the marines were in charge of a new detention facility. "When the scandal broke, it gave us the power to refuse to do any harsh tactics," Lagouranis recalls, "but at that base I saw the most egregious abuse. After the scandal broke, they stopped torturing people in prisons and they would torture them before they got to the prison. They would either torture them in their homes or they would take them to a remote location ... 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. It was bad, in particular the First Recon—they’re sort of like marine special forces, an elite unit [attached to the 24th Marine Exped­itionary Unit, known as 24th MEU]. 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."
Lagouranis also explains in detail why the supposed "justification" for torture -- the gathering of intelligence -- is simply a lie. I refer you to the full article for details. As I discussed in my series On Torture, and as noted in detail in "Lies in the Service of Evil," this lie is very familiar to anyone who has studied torture, its purposes and uses to any extent at all.

And on the point of intelligence-gathering, please note this:
The vast majority of the men and women in Lagouranis’s MI brigade remained at Abu Ghraib and a nearby base for their entire tour, and at the end of that year they published an intelligence report he says was full of empty claims. "It was like, 'The top ten detainees and what we got out of them,'" Lagouranis says. "It was all bullshit. And that’s for an entire year of interrogating thousands of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. They got nothing out of that place. That’s not just my assessment—you can talk to anybody I worked with over there. The main reason for that is because 90 or 95 percent of the people we got had nothing to do with the insurgency. And if they did we didn’t have any good evidence on them. And the detainees knew that and they knew they didn’t have to talk to us." A February 2004 Red Cross report based on the estimates of coalition intelligence officers said that 70 to 90 percent of the prisoners were innocent.

"I got nothing in Iraq," says Lagouranis. "Zero."
Lagouranis describes what he was like when he finally returned to Fort Gordon: "I lost my mind a little bit. Panic attacks, anxiety, insomnia, nightmares. I was shaking all the time. Plus I was really angry." That was only the beginning of this part of his ordeal.

Now we come to the most difficult part of all: a moral assessment of what many U.S. military personnel have done and are still doing in Iraq. Here, I will simply set out what two of them say themselves about this issue. Because these issues are so complex, I will defer my own discussion to the next part of this series.

Here is Stephen Lewis, another interrogator in Lagouranis's unit:
"It was obvious that certain abuse was happening all over the country," he says. "Every day I saw things that to so many of us interrogators seemed so normal and part of a routine that nobody said anything. It takes a unique clarity to stand up and say what everyone thinks is so normal is actually abhorrent. I think I did well under the circumstances, but no one reported what they should have when they should have—including me.

"I saw barbaric traits begin to seep out of me and other good and respectable people—good Americans who never should have been put in that position to begin with. They have two choices—disobey direct orders or become monsters. It’s a lonely road when everyone else is taking the other one."

Asked if he thinks the techniques Lagouranis used constituted torture, Lewis said, "I think it was a very blurry line over there. All of the techniques any of us used were expressly approved by high-ranking officers, so any interrogator had plausible deniability because we were repeatedly told we were in the right. Yet Tony stood up and said it was wrong what the highest echelons of the Pentagon at the time were saying was right. Which is much more than most of us can say."
And here is Tony Lagouranis says about it:
"It’s tough. I can say I was following orders, and that is partly true. I was wondering, ‘At what point do I put my foot down?’ and there were definitely times when I said I wasn’t going to cross this or that line." Lagouranis refused, he says, to engage in sexual humiliation, electric shock, or mock execution (though he admits that he once failed to assure a blindfolded prisoner he was escorting past some soldiers at target practice that this was not a firing squad). ...

"But there are other answers, too. You are in a war zone and things get blurred. We wanted intelligence. It really became absolutely morally impossible for me to continue when I realized that most of the people we were dealing with were innocent. And that was tough. So it made it easier if I thought that I was actually dealing with a real-life bad guy. 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.

"Then, also, you’re in an environment where everybody is telling you that this is OK, and it’s hard to be the only person saying, ‘This is wrong.’ And I really was, even as I was doing it, I was the only person saying, ‘We’ve got to put the brakes on. What’s going too far here?’

"You might think this is not a good defense either, but the things that I did weren’t really that horrible. I mean, I saw some really horrible torture. And I’m sure like every torturer would say this—‘Other people are doing worse things.’ I didn’t carry the things that I was doing as far as I could have. ...

"I don’t think people can imagine what it’s like. In Mosul we were wide open. There was [only] concertina wire separating us from the town and we were getting mortared all the time. You’d be laying in bed and mortars were going off all over the place. The infantry brings you somebody and they tell you that this is the guy who’s shooting mortars at you. Scaring him with a muzzled dog doesn’t seem like the worst thing in that situation. ... I mean I was willing to try it. I didn’t know that it wasn’t going to work."
I urge you to read the entire Chicago Reader article. Very tragically, we have not yet even considered some of the worst aspects of what the United States has done, and what we still do every day, and not only in Iraq.

To be continued.