|SANCTUARY, ST. JOHN'S EPISCOPAL CATHEDRAL,|
My response to the Senate report released late last year on the "extreme interrogation" techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency was deep sorrow. That we routinely brutalize and torture detainees is one more example of how in trying to wage a war on terror, we have become terrorists ourselves.
As former FBI agent Ali H. Soufan observed in a NYT article, “Imagine if we didn’t go down that road. Imagine. We played into the enemy’s hand. Now we have American hostages in orange jumpsuits because we put people in orange jumpsuits.”
On the Cross, Christ said, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do." But more and more, we DO know what we do. In an effort to maintain our status as the world's superpower, we torture, kill, drop nuclear bombs on, shatter the families of, impoverish, traumatize and mass displace the innocent.
Over the weekend, I read this NYT review of Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, an innocent man from Mauritania who we have detained for 13 years and brutally tortured.
It seems an apt time to run an interview I conducted in mid-2013 with a young man who prefers to remain anonymous. In 2006 he enlisted in the U.S. Army, was sent to Fort Benning, and went AWOL.
Guantanamo Diary, Benning Diary: Here you go.
I graduated from a Catholic college in May, 2005, and I began thinking of the Army in December of that year. In March of 2006 I really started preparing to go into the military and figuring out what I was going to do. I chose to be a medic and I had this idea that I was going to go into the military and it’s going to grant me total access to what goes on in there. I figured I’d be shipped to Iraq and it seemed there were so many people for and so many people against the war. So I figured if I went on my own I could figure it out and that learning photography would be a good skill to have and a way to gain entrée there.
Why the military? My sense is, if I’m hearing you right, that you wanted to get close to the beating heart of the military. What really goes on here? What is it about?
Let me ask you this: Did you feel any conflict with the whole simple Christ-like message? "Thou shalt not kill". "Love thine enemy." Did you feel a conflict with the military itself? Did you ponder any of that?
The recruiters hinted at what it would mean to go room to room and actually pull the trigger. “Will you defend your brothers or will you do nothing?” was the way they put it. Because I was enlisting as a medic I thought I could sidestep the whole question. In college, I was kind of the obnoxious neo-conservative in a school that wasn’t neo-conservative at all. People could still tell it was kind of rhetoric on my part. “He doesn’t really believe what he’s saying.”
Rhetoric meaning “American is the land of the free and the home of the brave” and we’re willing to die for our ideal of freedom? And we’re going to agree not to look too closely at how that “freedom” has played out? How we treat our enemies under the banner of "God"?...
I studied abroad my sophomore year in Rome. We went to war in Iraq right about then. Pope John Paul was an outspoken critic of the war. He was saying, in essence, “This is going to lead us down a road we don’t want to go and it could even lead to the end.” It could destroy everything. At that point I was siding with the President over the Pope. But one of my teachers was a military veteran who’d been in Korea. He had a lot better understanding of what this was all about than I did. And he was horrified. He was someone who you’d consider a solid Republican. He didn’t discuss who he’d voted for but it was pretty clear to all of us that he wasn’t going to vote for Bush for the second term.
Why was he especially horrified by Iraq?
I think it was the fact that he had been to war. He knew what war was. I don’t think he was a pacifist. But he realized that Iraq was not for the national defense. It wasn’t necessary for the national defense. The President was creating something. My teacher didn’t actually accuse him. But he was saying this isn’t for our national defense. We can survive without taking out Saddam.
Another professor was Canadian and he was much more leftward-leaning. When we were in Rome he told us he had friends who were Iraqi Christians. The friends were saying, and this was before we even went in, that once Saddam was gone, they knew they’d be going, too. I thought that was ridiculous. I thought we’d defend the Christians there and that Iraq would miraculously turn into a democracy. So when the Christians started being killed and we were doing nothing…it seemed to me that he was right.
You had heard all that before you enlisted. That makes it even clearer why you would want to go and see: What is the truth here?
Right. That was really my main reason. Also both my grandfathers had served in WWII. So there was that whole patriotic draw.
Did you think you might be killed if you were sent over there?
I remember there was a certain point that I did think that. But I had my mind set. My idea as I said was to be a medic. The class ended just a couple of days before I was going to go in so there wasn’t a whole lot of time to think about it. When you ask whether I thought I might get killed, the first time it started to hit home was when they told me I was going to Benning. Benning is the home of the infantry. I did all sorts of research before so I knew when the recruiter said they were sending me to Benning that I could have told him, “No, I’d rather go to a different base.” But I didn’t. And that was the first time I realized that they were sending me to the people who train the infantry. That was when I realized, This isn’t going to be a cakewalk.
You weren’t going to “audit” the Army and take a few pictures, in other words. The School of Americas, where they train foreign dictators to torture, maim, kill, is at Fort Benning, right?...
Yup. It was right there. I had one friend from there who I’ve stayed in touch with. He’s in San Bruno, CA now, but originally he came from Guatemala. So for him the School of the Americas had a lot of significance. I knew what they were accused of doing in South America and Central America. It’s probably the nicest building on Fr. Benning, Spanish style architecture, all sorts of officers there from it seems to me like every country. They’d have on their country badge. I wasn’t on the inside so I couldn’t figure out what they were training them to do.
Okay, but back up a minute to when you first came.
As soon as we arrived at the airport in Georgia, they started separating us out: These people are going to Benning, these people are going to I think it was Ft. Jackson. The people who were going to Benning looked a lot more…intense. They were who you’d see on the football team. Whereas the people who were going to Ft. Jackson were more like…I belonged with them. Like the support crew. Not that there aren’t tough soldiers who go to Ft. Jackson, but they were more my level.
It was like the football team and the tennis team. So that was another moment when I was like, Unh-oh.
Cause you’re definitely a tennis team type guy.
Right. Then there was the bus ride in. And things deteriorated really fast for me after that. I just had a really bad feeling about the whole thing. The bus ride in they kept playing a tape over and over again. It was some kind of civil rights speech. And they just had it on a loop. So the mind games started right away. And that’s really all Ft. Benning is—a big mind game. They need to break you down so you can…kill. So the bus ride in…
Meaning they’re trying to instill in you that you’re an American and this is what we’re willing to kill for.
From the bus ride on to a certain point when I just snapped, I don’t even know how much is real. My mind just went into…it freaked out.
Had you ever had any kind of psychological problems or fragility before?
So they start playing this speech on the loop and then it’s just thing after thing after thing?
Yeah. Even with that tape, I think it happened. I’m actually 100% sure it happened, but then my memory goes into hazy territory. We got there basically at night and instead of processing us then, they put us in I think it was Johnson Hall. We were up all night. The processing began the next day. So over the course of training, that’s just one example, you don’t get a lot of sleep. They’re constantly waking you up at all hours of the day and night, so you never get enough sleep. From there, the next example would be they had us line up in formation and you kept having to say your name and your line number. Mine was Charlie Bravo 141040. We kept having to say it, over and over again. Meanwhile they’re talking about the military, the glory of the U.S. and how it’s defended freedom forever. I really thought at that moment like I was losing my personality. I felt like I was becoming part of the collective to the point where I was no longer going to be me.
Which is kind of the aim of it, right?
I think so. It’s also really, really hot there. Looking around, I could see everyone was in the same space I was. Which was: We’re hot, tired, and just kind of…dead. They give you a pistol belt, you keep your canteen in it. They’ve been used before, you just grab it out of a box. Mine had graffiti all over it and someone had written on it “Born to kill.” I remember thinking, “That’s not why I came into the military, to kill.” But that was very much the mentality and the culture at Benning. You’re going to kill and you’re going to be part of a team that kills and you’re not going to be too concerned about whether this person was innocent or not. Guilty until proven innocent, and having so much power that you can just go in and kill people at will. And not worry. And there’ll be no repercussions. It’s a totally different realm than the world of laws.
Anyway we were in some kind of formation and I looked down at the belt that said “Born to Kill” and the best I can describe it I heard a voice and the voice told me: You need to get up and go. Cause this is not going to be good for you. This voice was telling me to go, and I actually didn’t want to go. There was the camaraderie, being with people, suffering through it with them. I could feel that affinity for the people around them. I wanted to stay because of that and this voice started saying, You need to go. And I’m thinking, This is not possible. It’s a fort. A huge, defended fort. There’s no way you can get off a fort, especially not Ft. Benning. But somehow at that point I just get up and left.
How long had you been there at this point?
That’s the thing. I’d been there less than two days.
That’s amazing. That voice was saying, You will die here, spiritually.
Yes. Spiritual death.
You got up and left, meaning you left that scene, that situation?
Well that’s what I mean. You can’t leave. And you can’t go anywhere without your battle buddy. The whole point is you’re not going to be an individual. There’s practicalities to that when you’re in a war zone. You want to have someone who’s covering you. And for training, it’s a way to be accountable. So if your battle buddy is messed up, his shoes aren’t tied right or his shirt isn’t tucked in, then you have to suffer the consequences, too. But the point is you can’t walk around anywhere without someone. But I just got up and left. I just got up and started walking, and it was the longest walk of my life, definitely. I just kept walking. Fully expecting that at some point someone was gonna see me and command me to go back.
I would have been afraid they’d see me and shoot me. But wasn’t there a platoon leader or drill sergeant or…?
Exactly! There were drill sergeants there. There’s this one passage in the Bible where Jesus is about to be stoned and he walks through the crowd unharmed Luke 4:28-30].
It was like that. It doesn’t make any sense. It didn’t make sense for him and it didn’t make sense for me. When people are really mad at you, they know who you are, they want to kill you, how can you just walk through the crowd? It really was like I was invisible. I just walked out. I walked off the fort.
At a certain point I actually saw a cross, an illuminated cross, it must have been at a Pentecostal church or something like that, and at this point the night was coming, it was growing dark. I could see the cross and I made a beeline.
So you were out of the fort now?
Ft. Benning is weird because if you look at map of that place, it’s huge. It’s not a town, it’s a military installation. I walked a long time. All the streets had names like such and such Airborne Drive. All the names looked the same to me. You’re in a military world. But I think at that point I was off Ft. Benning.
Yup. And I kept walking out, away from the place, not with any particular destination. That’s when it hit me: I need to figure out what came next. Where do I go from here?
Did you have any wallet or ID or anything with you?
Well that’s the thing. I had such a negative reaction to the military process, to becoming one of the group. The shirt and all my clothes were Army. They had “Army” emblazoned on them. I wasn’t exactly in my right mind. But I took everything off. So all I had on was boxers and socks. In my socks I actually kept my driver’s license, a credit card and some cash. So I did have that in my socks.
What about shoes? Did you have on military boots?
The military shoes hadn’t fit right anyway so I hurled them off, too. We hadn’t been given dog tags yet or anything.
So you were wandering around in boxer shorts and socks? I’m thinking of that guy who goes toward Jesus when he’s on his way to his Crucifixion. He’s wrapped in linen and they try to grab him and the linen unwinds and he runs away naked [Mark 14:50-52]. So you’re not out of your mind but you’re completely disoriented, sounds like.
Yeah. And I kept praying to Mary. Because I knew if I stayed I’d be spiritually dead. There was hell before me. Even if I was alive physically, I’d be in a hell. So I really prayed to Mary, saying, You’ve got to…I mean please. Help me. Help me get out of this. And I just had this picture of myself completely spiritually dead and that’s who I was going to be if I stayed.
If you stayed in the Army.
Yeah. So I was really praying to Mary to get me out, to prevent that from happening to me. I kept walking and walking and at some point I got thirsty so I went into a convenience store. They had a good laugh at me. There I was, in just my boxer shorts. Since I was in such close proximity to Benning, I had a crewcut, I looked like a recruit, I have a feeling they thought I was the victim of some kind of initiation prank.
After the convenience store, I came upon a fire department and I remember thinking That’s a good place to go. I was aware of my near-nakedness. I had to get clothes somehow. So I looked around for clothes but I didn’t see anything and the station was locked. Then an ambulance drove in. They’d just responded to a call, looked like, and were returning. I let myself be known and I gave the medic the scare of her life. She said “I don’t know who you are, but you better start talking.” I explained to her what was going on and she said I had two choices. I could keep walking and then I’d be in trouble with the military. Or she said she knew someone at Ft. Benning who could help me get out. But for that, I would need to go back to the base. Which to me was not an appealing thought after just having gotten out.
Still, that was what I went with. She took me back and I was explaining to her the whole way what it was all about and she said if she had any kids she wouldn’t send them to Benning because it was a very bad place. The fire department responded to suicide calls there all the time, for people who’d been successful at killing themselves. She just said it wasn’t a good place. She took me in an ambulance to the hospital on Ft. Benning. She saved my life. I don’t know her name but she even said to me, “I’m your guardian angel.”
Back at the base, I was in the hospital for only a few hours. They thought I was on drugs or something. So they tested me, did a urine test, and of course it came back negative. So they sent me back to the unit.
They sent you back to training?
Yeah. I mean it’s like limbo there. The military isn’t super-efficient. They sent me back and they put me on suicide watch. Anyone that’s put on suicide watch, it’s just going to convince you to do it, because they take away your shoelaces so you can’t hang yourself, but then they make you put on an orange vest that’s a stigma…luckily for me I wasn’t alone which would have been way worse, but I was with someone when I was in that state of humiliation. He was on suicide watch, too. There were two of us. And whenever you have someone else, even if the situation is not so great, it’s much better. Better to have someone else than to be the only one.
The function of the orange vest is that every single recruit, every single drill sergeant, knows you’re someone who was supposedly going to commit suicide. So they taunt you. “Oh, you were going to commit suicide? Why would you do that?” Sometimes they egg you on. They want you to commit suicide
Stop! Who is “they?”
The drill sergeant would make comments. “If they want to slit their wrists, then I hope they do it.” For me, I wasn’t suicidal, so it didn’t bother me. There was humiliation involved, but for me, I’d already snapped earlier, so I had a sense I had a ticket out of there. My drama had already happened. But the other guy, I think he really was suicidal, so I think it wore on him a lot more.
Did you talk to him?
Yeah. I really wanted to stay in touch with him after I left. I thought I had gotten his email but I didn’t. I have no idea where he is now. He had OCD and he hadn’t told the recruiter that. The Army is no place for OCD. At mealtime you have to take two cups of juice, I think it’s some kind of red juice and on orange-colored juice. So you need to drink both of those, it’s not an option. You drink it because their mentality is you’re going to get heat stroke if you don’t. But for someone with OCD, I don’t think they can. So then it’s, “What are you doing? You’re not respecting my authority.” He was really different when he left. He was shaking.
What about the “normal” recruits? Would you guys talk to each other and say, “This is brainwashing. This is horrible mind control?”
Not really. When I was in Charlie Company, which was the company that was going to go down and do the training after processing, the group mentality was, You need to get through this. Once I was transferred to the discharge company, Alpha Company, that’s when that conversation could come up: “This is brainwashing.” The stress level, which I wasn’t even aware of, dropped way down once I was transferred there. Everyone there was going home.
Would they kick some people out, too?
Yes, there would be other people who were leaving. It could be physical, an injury. But there were also a lot of people who didn’t want to continue with the training. Once you sign the contract, though, that’s it. You can want to go home but you’re not going to go home. Unless you totally luck out like I did, or they ask you to leave.
The woman from the fire department had set me up with the Community Mental Health Services so I had an appointment to go there and be seen by a counselor. My drill sergeant didn’t want me to go because he knew he didn’t have control over that. I mean a place like Benning, they control you. They control your life. But that was just a little bit outside his authority. That’s the only reason I eventually got out. I got to see the counselor and talk with him and they scheduled me to leave.
It seems like they’d want you to leave. If you didn’t feel you were fit.
I would say it’s brainwashing. I don’t know what it is. But you just have this spirit of wanting to be part of this collective group. There were a couple of other people who’d come in with me who were trying to get out, but just because you’ve gone AWOL doesn’t mean you’re getting out. They’re mad at you but they’re still going to try to train you. The attitude was, “You screwed up but just continue with the training. You’ve got to continue.”
They can MAKE you continue?
Oh yeah. You’ve signed a contract. Even after I went back to Benning, it crossed my mind that I should just stay and be with these soldiers and continue and be part of the thing. That’s kind of my personality anyway, sort of flip-flopping back and forth whenever there’s a big decision. I’ll put it off till infinity. I should go this way, no, I should go that way. I was doing that and at one point I convinced the counselor I should stay, and he said, “Well you have to have two weeks without any sort of incident and then I’ll let you go back and train.”
I remember it was a Sunday, the Sunday after which it would be too late to back out of the Army. I was praying and that night I had a dream that I was married. Again, the message was: “You’ve got to get out of here.” I’d written a letter saying to the counselor I want to leave and there was a debate going on inside me as to whether I should give it to him or not. Early in the morning the next day I could have put the note under the door. That same day a drill sergeant had come in with a recruit whose nerves were just completely shot. His nervous system had had some kind of reaction. His whole body was shaking. It was a sign. You think you’re a tough guy but the truth is that you’re not going to be able to handle this.
I feel the real human being is not meant to handle that. We’re not meant for that. It just makes me weep…all those boys who have gone in, and whose nervous systems, whose souls have been permanently shot.
There was an article in Rolling Stone a couple of years ago called “The Kill Team” [March 27, 2011, by Mark Boal]. It was about Ft. Benning and saying exactly that. People aren’t hard-wired to kill. In WWI, when people went to war, in many instances when an American soldier or any soldier saw the enemy, he’d actually try not to kill him. There was a certain rate, in so many instances out of a hundred, the guy wouldn’t pull the trigger. The kill ratio with the Army now, they’ve managed to perfect the kill instinct to where basically in every instance the soldier’s going to pull the trigger.
There’s actually a condition they call FTA, Failure to Adapt, right? I always feel like the people how have that are the only sane ones.
Yup. I remember reading about it and it’s a mental condition for that environment. But it’s completely related to the situation you’re in so it’s not an actual mental condition. Once you’re removed from the environment, it doesn’t exist anymore.
One barrack was named Wolf Pack. It is like a pack and there are weak links in the pack. In order for the pack to keep moving forward, you need to either make those links stronger or eliminate them. So you have a turning in within the group. If there’s someone who’s constantly messing up or not living up to expectations, that person has to suffer. At the hands of the group.
In what way?
The person who was my battle buddy was good for me in the sense that he wasn’t exactly cut out for the military either. He was overweight. Still, in the time we were together we’d try to train to the best of our ability. I was there for three months and a month and a half in I’d see people I’d come in with and ask how he, my battle buddy, was doing. And they’d say, “He’s a complete f- up. He’s crying.” He wouldn’t be able to do the training and so he’d get punished more for that.
Meaning he’d have to do a million push-ups or?...
Yeah. Like that. There are people who are of the physical build, and mental, who are in a sense meant to be soldiers. For those people who can give it their all, give themselves completely, it’s what they want. I remember this one kid, they’d told us, “If you get hung up with a health issue, you may not be shipped down-range.” So people wouldn’t want to report things because they’d want to be with their group. One guy had an infected wound on his leg and literally flies were nesting in it. I said, “Let’s just go to the drill sergeant right now, I’ll walk up with you, and we’ll just get you to the doctor.” And he wouldn’t go. That’s just one example. He didn’t want to lose his spot.
How long were you at Ft. Benning total?
I arrived around August 1. I was discharged October 25th.
After you had your “break” and you came back to Benning, you were in the hospital for a bit, right?
Like for an hour.
And then they sent you back to the company?
And there you stayed for the rest of the time.
Yes. Training. Well once again it’s not officially training yet. It’s called downrange, where the action is. I was never given any weapons. So officially I wasn’t in training, it was preparation for the start of basic training.
People told stories who’d been to Iraq. One story there was a group of Iraqi civilians, including children, and there was a gunman inside, within the group, shooting at the American soldiers. They were taking fire and the commanding officer said to fire back and the guy who was telling the story didn’t want to do it, but the commanding officer said to and so he did it. So everyone in the house died. All the kids. I think with war there are those kinds of situations all the time. The mentality is, “These are my friends. We’re under the same flag. So I’ll do things for them even it if means taking a life from other people.”
I’ll mention one more thing. I would go to church on Sundays. The main chaplain for the base was awesome. One man serving the spiritual needs of an entire base. He gave it his all and it still wasn’t going to be good enough. Anyway one time I went to go to church on Sunday and they wouldn’t let me in. The chaplain wasn’t involved; these were other people. They said, “This is only for infantry.” It was probably the one time in my life I’ve ever been turned away from a church, the Catholic church. So that didn’t sit well with me. It’s like we were of a different military specialty than everyone else on the bus. We didn’t rate.
They wouldn’t let you participate in the Eucharist?
I think in the military you have to be someone with a kind of football mentality. You have to sacrifice yourself for the good of the whole physically. That kind of person with a group mentality is going to fare better in the military, as opposed to someone like me who’s a lot more individualistic. Always thinking about things. It doesn’t mean you’re not intelligent if you want to be a soldier, but you definitely have to turn off the processing.
This was very soon after the Sunday after I’d gone AWOL. I remember we were going to chapel, and I’m not sure who it was, someone in charge, that came out and said, “That’s nice but this is a chapel, it’s for infantry.” Looking at it in the best possible light, he was maybe saying, “You have to go to another chapel.”
But I didn’t know where to go after that.