‘Murderous Maniacs,’ they were called in Fallujah — and proud of it
In a shocking new report, soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne reveal that they or their fellow soldiers routinely beat, tortured, stripped, humiliated, and starved Iraqi prisoners in 2003 and 2004 at a base near Fallujah, often breaking bones, either at the request of superiors or just to let off steam.
As people wonder why Iraq has devolved into a nightmare of suicide bombings, maybe part of the explanation is that when Fallujah was the center of the insurgency — during that exact same period — we were routinely torturing Iraqis we had no reason to hold on to and whom we would soon be turning loose.
In other words, our soldiers’ dehumanizing — yet highly sexualized — treatment of prisoners at Camp Mercury, in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions, was a macabre catch-and-release game that couldn’t help but inflame a populace already pissed off about being occupied by foreign troops.
This abuse was systemic — the soldiers were even told to refer to their captives as PUCs (prisoners under control) rather than POWs, which is what they were and are. The soldiers were merely following the directives of George W. Bush and Alberto Gonzales that these prisoners didn’t really fall under the Geneva Conventions. How could this situation, and the torture it spawned, not have contributed to the escalation of violence?
The HRW report speaks to this:
These soldiers’ firsthand accounts provide further evidence contradicting claims that abuse of detainees by U.S. forces was isolated or spontaneous.
The accounts here suggest that the mistreatment of prisoners by the U.S. military is even more widespread than has been acknowledged to date, including among troops belonging to some of the best trained, most decorated, and highly respected units in the U.S. Army. They describe in vivid terms abusive interrogation techniques ordered by Military Intelligence personnel and known to superior officers.
The routine torture of Iraqis was sexualized to the max, the report reveals. Let a shrink deal with that, but in the meantime here’s what the report says:
The torture of detainees reportedly was so widespread and accepted that it became a means of stress relief for soldiers.
Soldiers said they felt welcome to come to the PUC tent on their off-hours to “Fuck a PUC” or “Smoke a PUC.” “Fucking a PUC” referred to beating a detainee, while “Smoking a PUC” referred to forced physical exertion sometimes to the point of unconsciousness.
The soldiers said that when a detainee had a visible injury such as a broken limb due to “fucking” or “smoking,” an army physician’s assistant would be called to administer an analgesic and fill out the proper paperwork. They said those responsible would state that the detainee was injured during the process of capture and the physician’s assistant would sign off on this. Broken bones occurred “every other week” at FOB Mercury.
Even worse, this berserk activity wasn’t used to just blow off steam.
The explosive Human Rights Watch investigation puts the lie to the Bush regime’s contention that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners was the dirty work of “rogue” soldiers. It was indeed a systemic problem, as I pointed out in July 2004, and it still is, according to the three soldiers whose allegations dominate the HRW report:
“Smoking” was not limited to stress relief but was central to the interrogation system employed by the 82nd Airborne Division at FOB Mercury. Officers and NCOs from the Military Intelligence unit would direct guards to “smoke” the detainees prior to an interrogation, and would direct that certain detainees were not to receive sleep, water, or food beyond crackers. Directed “smoking” would last for the 12-24 hours prior to an interrogation. As one soldier put it: “[the military intelligence officer] said he wanted the PUCs so fatigued, so smoked, so demoralized that they want to cooperate.”
It was carried out like a nonstop gang-bang, and that’s an apt analogy. They didn’t talk about “fucking up” a prisoner; they described it as “fucking” him. Here’s a deeper look into the sexually charged aspect of the torture:
“To ‘Fuck a PUC’ means to beat him up. We would give them blows to the head, chest, legs, and stomach, pull them down, kick dirt on them. This happened every day.
“To ‘smoke’ someone is to put them in stress positions until they get muscle fatigue and pass out. That happened every day.
“Some days we would just get bored so we would have everyone sit in a corner and then make them get in a pyramid. This was before Abu Ghraib but just like it. We did that for amusement.
“Guard shifts were four hours. We would stress them at least in excess of twelve hours. When I go off shift and the next guy comes we are already stressing the PUC and we let the new guy know what he did and to keep fucking him.
“We put five-gallon water cans and made them hold them out to where they got muscle fatigue then made them do pushups and jumping jacks until they passed out. We would withhold water for whole guard shifts. And the next guy would too. Then you gotta take them to the john if you give them water and that was a pain. And we withheld food, giving them the bare minimum like crackers from MREs [Meals Ready to Eat, the military’s prepackaged food]. And sleep deprivation was a really big thing.”
The fresh tales of torture and abuse also reveal a coverup at various levels of the Pentagon’s chain of command. One of the soldiers who spoke with HRW was an officer, and he detailed his frustrations. The report says:
The officer who spoke to Human Rights Watch made persistent efforts to raise concerns he had with superior officers up the chain of command and to obtain clearer rules on the proper treatment of prisoners. When he raised the issue with superiors, he was consistently told to keep his mouth shut, turn a blind eye, or consider his career. When he sought clearer procedures from general officers, he was told merely to use his judgment.
Altogether this officer said he spent 17 months trying to clarify rules for prisoner treatment while seeking a meaningful investigation. He explained at length how he openly had brought his complaint directly up the chain-of-command, from his direct commanding officer, to the division commander, to the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) office, and finally to members of the U.S. Congress. In many cases, he was encouraged to keep his concerns quiet; his brigade commander, for example, rebuffed him when he asked for an investigation into these allegations of abuse.
He believes he was not taken seriously until he began to approach members of Congress, and, indeed, just days before the publication of this report he was told that he would not be granted a pass to meet on his day off with staff members of U.S. Senators John McCain and John Warner. He said he was told that he was being naïve and that he was risking his career.
But the torture and abuse posed a greater risk to our own soldiers by inflaming the Iraqis. As the report notes:
The soldiers believed that about half of the detainees at Camp Mercury were released because they were not involved in the insurgency, but they left with the physical and mental scars of torture. “If he’s a good guy, you know, now he’s a bad guy because of the way we treated him,” one sergeant told Human Rights Watch.
The 82nd Airborne, which didn’t respond to HRW’s requests for comment on the report, didn’t exactly enhance its reputation in Fallujah, which was only 10 miles from Camp Mercury, where much of this torture took place. One of the soldiers tells HRW:
“The ‘Murderous Maniacs’ was what they called us at our camp because they knew if they got caught by us and got detained by us before they went to Abu Ghraib then it would be hell to pay. They would be just,
you know, you couldn’t even imagine.”
The report notes that soldiers considered that dread appellation a badge of honor.
Lost in all this spreading of misery and fear instead of the “freedom and democracy” that George W. Bush talks about is that the Iraq debacle is of course fucking up our own soldiers — and not just the ones who carried out such torture at Camp Mercury, though I’m sure their behavior has made them better-adjusted human beings now that they’re home.
Take Arizonan Erik Castillo, who will never recover from a brain injury he suffered in an explosion in Baghdead. In a recent story, Carol Ann Alaimo of the Arizona Daily Star wrote that Castillo “is one of hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated for brain injuries inflicted by rockets, bullets or roadside bombs” and added:
The wounds left him looking like a Picasso painting, with asymmetrical eyes and other facial features. Despite several surgeries and months of grueling therapy, the 22-year-old is deaf and disfigured on his right side and lame on his left, with no chance of complete recovery.
His laid-back personality is gone, too, replaced by an angry streak doctors say is typical in survivors of severe head trauma. At this point, they don’t know when — or if — his old temperament will return.
Castillo’s mother, unlike Cindy Sheehan, doesn’t want to talk to Bush about her son. But she has her own reasons:
Maria Castillo said she would like to believe her son’s sacrifice and her family’s suffering was meaningful on a larger scale, that the Iraq War was a just cause that will make the world safer. But she does not think so.
She believes America went to war without adequate justification because the president wanted revenge on Saddam Hussein, who reportedly once tried to have the elder President Bush killed.
“I’m so angry at our president, I can’t even stand to look at him,” she said.
Which brings us back to Picasso. Colin Powell and the rest of the Bush regime couldn’t stand to look at — or for the world to look at — Picasso’s Guernica. A tapestry reproduction of the world’s best-known anti-war painting hangs outside the entrance to the Security Council chamber at the U.N. in Manhattan. But as I noted last year, when Powell unrolled his tissue of lies at the U.N. on February 5, 2003 — the speech he now calls the “lowest point of my life” — U.S. and U.N. officials covered Guernica with a blue drape.
They didn’t want the world to see Picasso’s dying men, women, children, and animals while they pressed forward with their fabricated war. Go to the White House’s website to recall that speech and you’ll see that the page is dressed up with a banner titled “Iraq: Denial and Deception.”
That’s the only piece of truth on that White House page.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 24, 2005