ABU GHRAIB PRISON, IRAQ—One of our master sergeants broke down our year in Iraq into weekdays. The idea was that it would be easier to think of the passage of time as “still Monday” or “almost Wednesday” than to think “90 days in, only 275 days left.” In early April 2004 it was still Monday. I had been at the Abu Ghraib prison since February. I had become familiar with the excitement caused by the random explosions of mortar attacks. One minute, I’m in our “living room” near the jail cells we had converted into barracks rooms, watching a high-quality bootleg DVD produced by some guy back in the States with a camcorder in a crowded theater. Russell Crowe’s Master and Commander loses a certain quality when the guy in the next row stands up and moves across the screen three times—once for popcorn, once for a cold drink, and once to go to the restroom, as far as we could tell. Also, someone offscreen was talking through the whole movie. The rudeness of that act was both annoying and somehow comforting. For a minute, you could pretend you were back home in a nice, safe, American multiplex. Then the mortars would start coming in.
When you’re inside during a mortar attack, there isn’t a lot you have to do. We all got up, put on our bulletproof vests and Kevlar helmets, and moved downstairs with a speed and calmness that showed that we were used to being under mortar attack. War movies get it wrong. When a mortar, rocket, or artillery shell lands near you, there isn’t so much a boom as a thud. A really loud thud. Imagine taking 2,000 pounds of lumber, elevating it with a crane, and dropping it from a hundred feet. That’s what a mortar impact sounds like.
April 4 had been a weird day. I was sitting in our command post listening to an American officer in Najaf give us a firsthand report on an attack on the Spanish compound by the Mahdi Army: “If we don’t get some air support here soon, we’re all going to die!”
The next day, as the uprisingstarted to take hold in Falluja (Abu Ghraib is on the highway between Baghdad and Falluja), we were under mortar and rocket attack all day long. Our radar pinpointed the spot where the mortar shells were coming from. We sent out a patrol to express our displeasure with the gentlemen who evidently weren’t interested in being liberated. A roadside bomb detonated while the patrol was on the way to the launch site. In the space of a few seconds, four Marines were dead, three were badly wounded, and the rest were heavily engaged.
About an hour later, the survivors returned, and the mortar attack resumed until well after midnight. We didn’t take a single casualty inside the prison that day—just our Marines outside of the walls. I remember thinking how stupid the entire insurgency was. After all, didn’t those idiots realize that we all had the same goal? It was pretty clear that they wanted us to leave Iraq and never return. What they didn’t comprehend was that we wanted to leave just as passionately. The U.S. military will leave Iraq shortly after the terrorists and insurgents stop trying to kill us. Sure, there have to be elections, a new constitution, and a democratic Iraqi government that promises not to make weapons of mass destruction and not to pretend to be hiding weapons of mass destruction. All that stuff is nice, but I’m pretty sure we would settle for the no-more-shooting thing.
The next morning I donned my body armor and helmet, picked up my M-16, and started to make my way across the prison compound to the command post. In a way, I was relieved. After all, how could I ever be more scared than I had been the entire day before? I was wrong again.
The prison was usually full of Iraqi subcontractors. The entire prison was one big construction site, and Iraqis even cooked meals for the prisoners. That morning, most of the Iraqis just didn’t come to work. That scared me, more than anything that had transpired since I had been at Abu Ghraib—including the hail of mortar rounds the previous day. And it was still Monday.
When all hell finally broke loose later in April there were no thuds from mortars or roadside bombs. There was just Dan Rather on 60 Minutes II. When I watched the broadcast I got to see the reaction of my fellow soldiers in the command post. As in any large organization, everyone knew about the pictures and the abuses that they depicted, but as the base lawyer, I was one of the few officers at the prison who had already seen the photos in all their sadistic glory.
There was a universal sense of revulsion. The thing about soldiers in combat is that we are afraid of losing a limb, being captured by the enemy, and dying—in that order. The hundreds of paragraphs of legalese in the Geneva Conventions add up to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Soldiers have to believe that as badly as Americans in enemy hands were treated by the North Vietnamese and by the Iraqis during two wars, the fact is that our comrades survived to tell us how they were mistreated. In the Senate hearings that eventually followed the international firestorm over the Abu Ghraib abuses, you could hear the concern in former P.O.W. John McCain’s angry questions: If we do this to the enemy, even a civilian terrorist or insurgent enemy, what will they do to us?
Abu Ghraib prison, always a stop for visiting dignitaries (“Come see Saddam’s death chamber!”), was soon packed with guests. International journalists were allowed in, contrary to long-standing military policy that prohibits the display of people who are interned. The point of the policy is to protect our prisoners from being made the subjects of public curiosity or humiliation. Prisoners aren’t supposed to be photographed, either.
The days and weeks following the 60 Minutes report cut into our morale more than being attacked ever did. When we told our mothers that the part of Iraq we were in was pretty safe and that they should not worry, we were certain that they knew we were lying. When we told them someone else did the horrors they saw on television, when we told them that we improved things and that the prisoner abuse wouldn’t happen again, we hoped that they knew we were telling the truth.
Craig A. McNeil is an Army Reservist and attorney in Fort Worth, Texas. He served in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib from January to December 2004.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 8, 2005