Updated on November 24, 2015
As a counterintelligence agent, I was cross trained in interrogation and strategic and tactical debriefing. In Iraq, I did a lot of this with the help of interpreters since I was a Spanish linguist (go figure). While in Iraq, I conducted hundreds of battlefield interrogations before, during and after battles. Some prisoners of war were easy to talk to and some needed enhanced encouragement to speak. However, we never resorted to “torture.”
I can’t be specific about the means and methods of Army interrogation, but I can talk in a little more detail about one interrogation early in the Iraq War in 2003. I wrote briefly about this in a journal entry I shared over ten years ago on this blog. 99% of successful interrogations are nothing more than asking questions and getting answers. Very few require more aggressive methods and those are only used as a last resort. This chemical officer we were interrogating wasn’t saying anything. He kept trying to say he was a nobody even though all his documents proved otherwise. It wasn’t until I asked a simple question that he started to cry. That was the break I needed.
Frustrated, I began going through his “pocket litter” (the contents of information on the prisoners person, such as in pockets, briefcases, etc) and found a picture of his family. I showed him the picture and asked him a few simple questions mainly to try and humanize myself and gain rapport.
“Is this your family?”
“Naam (yes),” he answered.
“Would you like to see your family again?” I followed up.
It was a seemingly innocent question, but one that caused his eyes to well up in tears. His demeanor completely changed as his shoulders sagged, his chest deflated, and his head dropped down. This was it. This was his breaking point. I could use his love of family against him. I didn’t mean to insinuate that if he didn’t cooperate with us that he would never see his family again. I honestly just wanted to know if he wanted to see his family again. If he helped us more, we could end the war sooner so he could get back to his family. Little did I know at the time that he valued family over his allegiance to Saddam. We got all the information we needed at the time and passed him and our intel reports up to Division so the Commanding General understood the risks.
There are times where I truly feel bad for making this man think that we were either going to kill him or his family if he didn’t cooperate with us. Maybe it was the translation that made it sound that way or something, but to see a grown man in a position of authority cry during combat like that caused me a lot of reflection after I got home and started to process my combat experiences. At the time, it was no big deal. His tears were a tool I used to get what I wanted. I took advantage of his emotional state.
One day in Fallujah, a man was brought to us that was captured during a patrol. A group of Iraqis had ambushed them with RPGs and machine gun fire, injuring a couple of our troops. It was a brief, though heated battle and adrenaline ran high, as it always does during an ambush. By the end of the battle, all but one of the insurgents was dead, but the troops beat the living tar out of the survivor according to their own words. By the time he got to our interrogation hut, the man was bloodied, bruised, and his eyes were swollen shut. He had swelling all over his head, neck and arms and probably more in places I couldn’t see. He had been bandaged up and blessed by medical personnel to begin interrogation. The man actually asked us for toothpicks to hold his eye lids open so he could see who he was talking to (we didn’t need a blindfold). The man could barely speak because of the swelling. They almost killed this man with their bare fists, not because he was fighting them back, but because they were angry.
I bring these two stories up – which are two examples on opposite ends of the spectrum – because Donald Trump said something yesterday that greatly concerns me.
“I think waterboarding is peanuts compared to what they do to us,” the Republican presidential candidate said. “What they’re doing to us, what they did to James Foley when they chopped off his head, that’s a whole different level and I would absolutely bring back interrogation and strong interrogation.”
Not only did this concern me, but many of my friends have been praising him for saying it. The vast majority of those saying it have never served in the military so I get that they don’t fully understand the folly of Trump’s words.
Combat is the most inhuman and disgusting activity human beings can engage in. Yes, it’s necessary from time to time, but that doesn’t lesson the severity or impact of it on those that engage in it. Anyone that has been in actual combat and has had to engage the enemy leaves a part of themselves on the battlefield. Sometimes, it’s a physical part of themselves and sometimes it’s an emotional or psychological part of themselves. The act of killing another human being is one of the hardest things to not only do, but to live with afterwards. The images of the people I had to kill – as well as the images of the dead Soldiers I had to search – are forever etched in my head. I can see them when I sleep. I can see them when I’m staring into the night sky. Sometimes I see them while driving. While those men were the enemy and they wanted to kill me, they were husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. While in combat, we don’t think of them that way. They are nothing more than animated flesh – robots – when we are engaging them on the battlefield. They are animals, inhuman. They have no souls. We necessarily dehumanize them so we can kill them.
With that said, it is the height of hubris and ignorance to suggest that our troops should be ordered to torture another human being, especially by people who have no idea what that means. It’s an easy thing to say, “YEAH, TORTURE THOSE RAGHEADS! THEY BEHEAD INNOCENT MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN! THEY HAVE IT COMING THE BARBARIANS!” But, what people fail to realize is that someone has to strap that person down, wrap their faces in a scarf or cloth, and pour water over their faces to simulate drowning and induce panic. Those Soldiers may find it somewhat easy to deal with in the heat of battle, but one day they are going to reflect on their actions and it’s going to eat them alive. Not only do they dehumanize the subject, they are slowly dehumanizing themselves. No matter how disgusting, inhuman, animal-like, or egregious the enemy is, we don’t need to lower ourselves to their level. Because, unlike them, Americans are good people with conscience and anyone with a conscience knows that torture is evil. It is everything we are fighting against.
Set aside the fact that waterboarding is only minimally successful at best, there are so many others options that work much better even on hardened jihadists. What typically ends up happening with torture is that prisoners tend to just say SOMETHING to make the torture stop. Sometimes there is a partial truth in there so they aren’t subjected to the torture again and sometimes the entire confession is false. Regardless of the relevancy of the intelligence, the toll torture takes on the torturer in life is much more costly.
When I hear people say that if someone broke into their home or tried to rob them on the streets they would put “two to the chest, one to the head” I can’t help but shiver at how cavalier they make killing someone sound, even when justified. As a gun owner and a combat veteran, I hope I never have to shoot another human being ever again. I hope I never have to pull my gun on another human being. I’m willing and able to if I have to defend myself, but I don’t seek it out.
Killing and torture for any reason is not something anyone should dismiss as no big deal. It is a big deal. It weighs on your soul (I wrote about that too, as well as how to keep your soul). Both cause you to lose a little bit of your humanity. This is why I am against torture and condemn Mr. Trump’s casual demeanor about bringing back waterboarding, or what he calls “strong interrogation.” Our politicians need to think long and hard about the ramifications their flippant attitudes towards using troops to achieve political and military objectives will have. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I’m against killing ISIS or anyone that is a danger or threat to America and our way of life. I’m not some peace loving hippy that thinks we should be putting flowers in the jihadists suicide vests. If they need to be killed, let’s kill them. I’m simply saying we need to think our decisions through and understand the true cost of implementing them before someone has to spend the rest of their lives for being the blunt end of the stick.