An extract from None of us were like this before by Joshua E. S. Phillips. The book explores the legacy of torture in the “War on Terror,” told through the story of one tank battalion.
If there were increased attacks on US forces during the latter part of 2002, they didn’t translate into a spike in casualties and deaths in combat. In fact, the military’s own figures show a drop in casualties during that period. There is no indication that “scores” of soldiers were killed during the time frame that Mackey referenced.
Dilawar and Habibullah were detained in Bagram during November and December, when eight soldiers were wounded in action and one soldier was killed in action. The “high stakes” argument was at best inaccurate and at worst misleading.
American troops admitted they abused detainees as they filtered into the base. “Whether they got in trouble or not, everybody struck a detainee at some point,” said Brian Cammack, a former specialist with the 377th. Jeremy Callaway, another Army specialist who served in the 377th from August 2002 to January 2003, told military investigators in sworn testimony that he, too, struck about twelve detainees at Bagram.31 When military investigators asked why, Callaway answered: “Retribution for September 11, 2001.”
Sometimes MPs greeted detainees with dogs that had been provoked into frenzied barking. “The K-9 unit from the Military Police would be called to the facility and normally he was there before the detainees arrived,” remembered Sergeant Jennifer N. Higginbotham. “The detainees would be brought into the room and the dog would be barking. The MP K-9 handler would bring the dog into the facility on a leash and the dog was normally muzzled. Once inside the building, the muzzle would be removed to allow the dog to bark. The MP K-9 handler always kept the dog on a leash.
If there were only a few detainees brought into the facility, he would stay for about fifteen minutes. If more detainees were present, he may stay longer.” Detainees were also abused during interrogations. Interrogators from the 519th continued to use the same regimen of abuse handed down by their predecessors, and secured additional manpower to buttress their work. The interrogators asked members of the 377th Military Police Company to help them with monstering, and the MPs complied. Sometimes they improvised.
Soldiers from the 377th admitted they slammed prisoners into walls, ordered them to hold straining positions for hours, twisted their flex-cuffs around their wrists to cause pain, and forced a detainee to consume water “until he could not breathe.”
Troops also used techniques from their training drills. “We used to have the detainees do physical training,” said Higginbotham. “Sometimes we would do the training with them‚Äîas in jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, ‘Iron Mikes’ (lunges with your hands on your hips), wall sits where the detainee assumed a seated position along a wall without a chair and holding their hands out to their front ... We would sometimes use stress positions as an interrogation technique.
That would be anything from sitting on the floor with no chair, standing with a chair next to you, but not being able to sit down in it, kneeling on the floor with your hands interlocked behind your head, lying on your back with your hands and feet in the air. Some of us tried these stress positions to see how long you could stand to be in those positions. Once you knew how long you could stay in one of the positions, you never told the detainee to stay in the stress position for a period of time longer than you could stay in it.”
The MPs also added different methods of monstering to punish detainees and keep them from sleeping. “If they would not stand up when they were told to, then we would cuff them to the ceiling to keep them standing,” explained an MP from the 377th in a sworn statement. “We would use a leg chain, fixed to the ceiling and then affixed to the short handcuffs.” But why force detainees to stand? It was, as the MP explained, “so they wouldn’t sleep, so they would be willing to talk to MI [Military Intelligence].
MI directed us to keep them from sleeping for specified periods of time. They would write it on the status board, for example, ‘one hour up, two hours down.’ ” The MPs also turned to other techniques to discipline and monster their prisoners. These techniques didn’t come from official Washington guidelines. Instead, MPs simply turned to their training.
Soldiers from the 377th learned how to subdue and restrain detainees during their MP training at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Some of their instructors were police and corrections officers who had used these techniques in their work. Many of these techniques, such as “pressure-point control tactics” and “compliance blows,” were designed to disable prisoners without causing lasting damage. Some troops became proficient with these techniques and earned nicknames because of these associations.
One soldier was dubbed “the Knee of Death.” Damien M. Corsetti, a specialist in the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, was actually nicknamed “The King of Torture” or “Monster” and had the Italian word for monster (mostro) tattooed on his stomach.
One of the 377th MPs, Specialist Willie V. Brand, said that he was instructed how to use many of these techniques when he first arrived at Bagram. One of the most frequently used compliance blows that Brand and his peers used was the “common peroneal strike”‚Äîhitting a prisoner on the lateral side of the thigh. Striking detainees became “a matter of common practice,” said Brand, and compliance blows were adopted as “standard operating procedure” (SOP) at the base since they were so effective at disabling unruly prisoners. Brand used the strikes four times against one such defiant prisoner, who was hung by his wrists with chains: Habibullah. “It was morally wrong,” Brand said in an affidavit. “But it was an SOP.” Even after Habibullah’s death, soldiers weren’t discouraged from using peroneal strikes‚Äîthey were only instructed to record when they used them.
The day after Habibullah died, Brand had to contend with another detainee who, according to depositions, was “resistant to interrogation” and “eventually became combative.” That detainee was Dilawar.
Dilawar was suspended by chains from the ceiling at Bagram, and his handlers couldn’t understand what he was pleading for. Fellow detainees heard him beg for help. Guards remembered Dilawar trying to shake the hood off his head and repeatedly kick one of the prison doors to gain the guards’ attention.
The guards tried to ignore him, but grew annoyed by his conduct. Some of them were irritated with Dilawar after he spit up water when an MP took “a small [1/2 liter] bottle of water and shoved it in [his] mouth and squeezed water into his mouth.” One even remarked that Dilawar was “being an ass.” Brand had had it. He struck Dilawar in the thigh several times to subdue him. “I told people I had to switch knees because my leg got tired,” said Brand, who admitted he hit Dilawar about thirty-seven times. Brand may have delivered the final blow, but others contributed to Dilawar’s abuse.
Another MP pummeled him six times on both legs with peroneal strikes. A soldier who witnessed Dilawar’s treatment remembered “the look [the MP] gave me when he came out, which seemed ... to me as if to mean, ‘This is how you take care of business.’ ” Troops passed by Dilawar as they went on to deal with other prisoners.
“Dilawar was hanging limp in the chains,” remembered Sergeant Thomas V. Curtis. “I thought he was sleeping. So I kicked the door and I could have sworn I got a response, a slight move of the head.” Then, he said, “we took the hood off and uncuffed him and he was dead weight. He just dropped.”
The MPs tried to resuscitate Dilawar but failed. His legs were “pulpified,” according to the forensic report.
Curtis summed up the way he felt about Dilawar’s death: “It was more or less that he was the second one to die in our shift,” he said. “I had no personal connection to him, I didn’t [know] him, but it was unfortunate ... You can sit back now and see that we should have done things differently. It was like a war thing, us against them. We just did what we were trained to do.” Even if high-ranking officers did not have a direct role in ordering the abuse at Bagram, they could still have contributed to it in other ways.
According to a classified report given to the Washington Post, the 377th’s command oversaw the abuse, knew soldiers “were striking detainees in Afghanistan,” and that a “dereliction of duty contributed to routine prisoner mistreatment.” Perhaps more than issuing orders, officers simply chose to ignore maltreatment, and that inaction, in turn, helped allow abuse to continue, and to worsen, unabated.