• An All-American Nightmare

    January 14, 2013

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Iraq

    This article was originally published on Salon.com, December 18, 2012

    Why Zero Dark Thirty Won’t Settle the Torture Question or Purge Torture From the American System

    If you look backward you see a nightmare. If you look forward you become the nightmare.

    There’s one particular nightmare that Americans need to face: in the first decade of the twenty-first century we tortured people as national policy. One day, we’re going to have to confront the reality of what that meant, of what effect it had on its victims and on us, too, we who condoned, supported, or at least allowed it to happen, either passively or with guilty (or guiltless) gusto. If not, torture won’t go away. It can’t be disappeared like the body of a political prisoner, or conveniently deep-sixed simply by wishing it elsewhere or pretending it never happened or closing our bureaucratic eyes. After the fact, torture can only be dealt with by staring directly into the nightmare that changed us — that, like it or not, helped make us who we now are.

    The president, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has made it clear that no further investigations or inquiries will be made into America’s decade of torture. His Justice Department failed to prosecute a single torturer or any of those who helped cover up evidence of the torture practices.  But it did deliver a jail sentence to one ex-CIA officer who refused to be trained to torture and was among the first at the CIA to publicly admit that the torture program was real.

    At what passes for trials at our prison camp in Guantanamo, Cuba, disclosure of the details of torture is forbidden, effectively preventing anyone from learning anything about what the CIA did with its victims. We are encouraged to do what’s best for America and, as Barack Obama put it, “look forward, not backward,” with the same zeal as, after 9/11, we were encouraged to save America by going shopping.

    Looking into the Eyes of the Tortured

    Torture does not leave its victims, nor does it leave a nation that condones it. As an act, it is all about pain, but even more about degradation and humiliation. It destroys its victims, but also demeans those who perpetrate it. I know, because in the course of my 24 years as a State Department officer, I spoke with two men who had been tortured, both by allies of the United States and with at least the tacit approval of Washington. While these men were tortured, Americans in a position to know chose to look the other way for reasons of politics. These men were not movie characters, but complex flesh-and-blood human beings. Meet just one of them once and, I assure you, you’ll never follow the president’s guidance and move forward trying to forget.

    The Korean Poet

    The first victim was a Korean poet. I was in Korea at the time as a visa officer working for the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. Persons with serious criminal records are normally ineligible to travel to the United States. There is, however, an exception in the law for political crimes. It was initially carved out for Soviet dissidents during the Cold War years. I spoke to the poet as he applied for a visa to determine if his arrest had indeed been “political” and so not a disqualification for his trip to the U.S.

    Under the brutal military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee, the poet was tortured for writing anti-government verse. To younger Americans, South Korea is the land of “Gangnam Style,” of fashionable clothing and cool, cool electronics. However, within Psy’s lifetime, his nation was ruled by a series of military autocrats, supported by the United States in the interest of “national security.”

    The poet quietly explained to me that, after his work came to the notice of the powers that be, he was taken from his apartment to a small underground cell. Soon, two men arrived and beat him repeatedly on his testicles and sodomized him with one of the tools they had used for the beating. They asked him no questions. In fact, he said, they barely spoke to him at all. Though the pain was beyond his ability to describe, even as a poet, he said that the humiliation of being left so utterly helpless was what remained with him for life, destroyed his marriage, sent him to the repeated empty comfort of alcohol, and kept him from ever putting pen to paper again.

    The men who destroyed him, he told me, entered the room, did their work, and then departed, as if they had many others to visit that day and needed to get on with things. The Poet was released a few days later and politely driven back to his apartment by the police in a forward-looking gesture, as if the episode of torture was over and to be forgotten.

    The Iraqi Tribal Leader

    The second torture victim I met while I was stationed at a forward operating base in Iraq. He was a well-known SOI leader. The SOI, or Sons of Iraq, were Sunni tribesmen who, as part of Iraq War commander General David Petraeus’s much-discussed “Anbar Awakening” agreed to stop killing Americans and, in return for money we paid them, take up arms against al-Qaeda. That was 2007. By 2010, when I met the man, the Sons of Iraq, as Sunnis, had no friends in the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and the U.S. was expediently allowing its Sunni friendships to fade away.

    Over dessert one sticky afternoon, the SOI leader told me that he had recently been released from prison. He explained that the government had wanted him off the street in the run-up to a recent election, so that he would not use his political pull to get in the way of a Shia victory. The prison that held him was a secret one, he told me, under the control of some shadowy part of the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces.

    He had been tortured by agents of the Maliki government, supported by the United States in the interest of national security. Masked men bound him at the wrists and ankles and hung him upside-down. He said that they neither asked him any questions nor demanded any information. They whipped his testicles with a leather strap, then beat the bottoms of his feet and the area around his kidneys. They slapped him. They broke the bones in his right foot with a steel rod, a piece of rebar that would ordinarily have been used to reinforce concrete.

    It was painful, he told me, but he had felt pain before. What truly wounded him was the feeling of utter helplessness. A man like himself, he stated with an echo of pride, had never felt helpless. His strength was his ability to control things, to stand up to enemies, to fight, and if necessary, to order men to their deaths. Now, he no longer slept well at night, was less interested in life and its activities, and felt little pleasure. He showed me his blackened toenails, as well as the caved in portion of his foot, which still bore a rod-like indentation with faint signs of metal grooves. When he paused and looked across the room, I thought I could almost see the movie running in his head.

    Alone in the Dark

    I encountered those two tortured men, who described their experiences so similarly, several years and thousands of miles apart. All they really had in common was being tortured and meeting me. They could, of course, have been lying about, or exaggerating, what had happened to them. I have no way to verify their stories because in neither country were their torturers ever brought to justice. One man was tortured because he was considered a threat to South Korea, the other to Iraq. Those “threatened” governments were among the company the U.S. keeps, and they were known torturers, regularly justifying such horrific acts, as we would also do in the first years of the twenty-first century, in the name of security. In our case, actual torture techniques would reportedly be demonstrated to some of the highest officials in the land in the White House itself, then “legalized,” and carried out in global “black sites” and foreign prisons.

    A widely praised new movie about the assassination of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, opens with a series of torture scenes. The victims are various Muslims and al-Qaeda suspects, and the torturers are members of the U.S. government working for the CIA. We see a prisoner strapped to the wall, bloody, with his pants pulled down in front of a female CIA officer. We see another having water poured into his mouth and lungs until he wretches in agony (in what during the Middle Ages was bluntly called “the Water Torture,” later “the water cure,” or more recently “waterboarding”). We see men shoved forcibly into tiny confinement boxes that do not allow them to sit, stand, or lie down.

    These are were among the techniques of torture “lawfully” laid out in a CIA Inspector General’s report, some of which would have been alarmingly familiar to the tortured men I spoke with, as they might be to Bradley Manning, held isolated, naked, and without sleep in U.S. military prisons in a bid to break his spirit.

    The movie scenes are brutal, yet sanitized.  As difficult to watch as the images are, they show nothing beyond the infliction of pain. Horrific as it may be, pain fades, bones mend, bruises heal. No, don’t for a second think that the essence of torture is physical pain, no matter what Zero Dark Thirty implies. If, in many cases, the body heals, mental wounds are a far more difficult matter. Memory persists.

    The obsessive debate in this country over the effectiveness of torture rings eternally false: torture does indeed work. After all, it’s not just about eliciting information — sometimes, as in the case of the two men I met, it’s not about information at all. Torture is, however, invariably about shame and vengeance, humiliation, power, and control. We’re just slapping you now, but we control you and who knows what will happen next, what we’re capable of? “You lie to me, I hurt you,” says a CIA torturer in Zero Dark Thirty to his victim. The torture victim is left to imagine what form the hurt will take and just how severe it will be, almost always in the process assuming responsibility for creating his own terror. Yes, torture “works” — to destroy people.

    Khalid Sheik Mohammed, accused 9/11 “mastermind,” was waterboarded 183 times. Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj spent six years in the Guantanamo Bay prison, stating, “They used dogs on us, they beat me, sometimes they hung me from the ceiling and didn’t allow me to sleep for six days.” Brandon Neely, a U.S. military policeman and former Guantanamo guard, watched a medic there beat an inmate he was supposed to treat. CIA agents tortured a German citizen, a car salesman named Khaled el-Masri, who was picked up in a case of mistaken identity, sodomizing, shackling, and beating him, holding him in total sensory deprivation, as Macedonian state police looked on, so the European Court of Human Rights found last week.

    Others, such as the Court of Human Rights or the Senate Intelligence Committee, may give us glimpses into the nightmare of official American policy in the first years of this century. Still, our president refuses to look backward and fully expose the deeds of that near-decade to sunlight; he refuses to truly look forward and unambiguously renounce forever the use of anything that could be seen as an “enhanced interrogation technique.”  Since he also continues to support robustly the precursors to torture — the “extraordinary rendition” of captured terror suspects to allied countries that are perfectly happy to torture them and indefinite detention by decree — we cannot fully understand what men like the Korean poet and the Iraqi tribal leader already know on our behalf: we are torturers and unless we awaken to confront the nightmare of what we are continuing to become, it will eventually transform and so consume us.

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  • Recent Comments

    • Rich Bauer said...


      “We are torturers and unless we awaken to confront the nightmare of what we are continuing to become, it will eventually transform and so consume us.”

      Unfortunately, we have seen this picture before.


      01/14/13 12:59 PM | Comment Link

    • Guy Montag said...


      “…glimpses into the nightmare of official American policy in the first years of this century.”

      In 2003, as VDJ3 JCS, Gen. McChrystal was involved in the process of sending Gen. Miller to Iraq to “Gitmotize” Abu Gharib. Later, as JSOC CO, he commanded routine torture by JSOC special forces (who then killed a bunch of jihadi’s to put out the fire he helped start with the resulting images from Abu Gharib.

      The book jacket for his new memoir, “My Share of the Task,” promises to “frankly explore the major episodes and controversies of his eventful career.” However, despite McChrystal’s vaunted “candor,” his memoir whitewashes or ignores all the controversies of his career. For example, he still declines to “confirm or deny” the accuracy of Michael Hasting’s “Rolling Stone” profile which got him fired (McChrystal doesn’t even mention Hastings by name, nor discuss his 2012 book, “The Operators” which details “Le’Affair Rolling Stan”).

      McChrystal has said, “The one thing you can never, and should never want to dodge, is responsibility.” But, he has “dodged” responsibility for his central role in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s 2004 friendly-fire death, the use of routine torture by JSOC forces under his command, his strategically flawed Afghan War “surge,” and for “Le’Affair Rolling Stan” (for details, see my 120-page post, “Never Shall I Fail My Comrades” — The Dark Legacy of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, at the Feral Firefighter blog).

      I haven’t yet updated this post, but after reading thru the book I was spot on. McChrystal’s whitewash of torture in his book is hilarious (should post sometime tommorow my commentary on his book).

      And, McChrystal’s portrayal of the interrogations that directly led to the 2006 killing of Abu Zarqawi totally contradicts the accounts of author Marc Bowden (“The Ploy”) and former interrogator Matthew Alexander (“We found Zarqawi in spite of the way the task force [JSOC TF 145] did business”). And, McChrystal somehow failed to even mention interrogator Eric Maddox who was decorated for his efforts which directly led to the 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein (perhaps because a key detainee had a “heart attack” and died shortly after arriving at Camp Nama).

      In April 2011, just after McChrystal was “cleared” by the Pentagon’s NYT reporter Thom Shanker of “all wrongdoing” in the “Rolling Stone” case, President Obama appointed him to head up the “Joining Forces” program to support military veterans and their families. In response, Mary Tillman (Pat’s mother) said, “It’s a slap in the face to appoint this man” … “He deliberately helped cover up Pat’s death”… someone who has a heartfelt desire to help families would not have been involved in the cover-up of a soldier’s death…”

      This past Memorial Day, I spoke with Mary Tillman and she said seeing Gen. Stanley McChrystal on the news was “like rubbing salt in a wound.” Unfortunately, this old general just won’t fade away; now he’s making the rounds of the talk show circuit peddling his book.

      In the past, I used to have a grudging respect for McChrystal when he simply refused comment on the Pat Tillman story. But, if McChrystal won’t confess all, I feel he ought to take the advice of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who offered up a barbed assessment of how the White House had “spun” the Bin Laden raid: “I have a new communications approach to recommend … Shut the fuck up.”

      01/14/13 2:04 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Bauer- I never bought into Oppenheimer’s mea culpa. He worked for empire, he cashed his paycheck. His jerk off personal fascination with blowing up things was funded nicely. He had a fetish for destruction and found a backer- the US military. Quoting from an exotic (to Americans) passage was part of his act at appearing a poet of pure science.

      01/14/13 2:21 PM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...


      J Poole wrote:

      “Quoting from an exotic (to Americans) passage was part of his act at appearing a poet of pure science.”

      I assume you’re referring to the American presumption that dark skin confers spiritual power? Like the reason why this charlatan has been able to con millions of self-abasing White and formerly Christian people into giving him their money?:


      01/14/13 5:40 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      I was only suggesting that quoting a Hindu work to give a sophisticated and mysterious tone to his monstrous accomplishment was quite narcissistic. He could have said, we repressed and morbid scientists with our curiosity fetishes have messed up humankind perhaps irreparably.

      01/14/13 5:53 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      Peter, thank you for doing your part in keeping the “torture/renditions” issue alive, and IN THEIR FUCKING FACE.

      “..we are torturers and unless we awaken to confront the nightmare of what we are continuing to become, it will eventually transform and so consume us.

      Eventually? ha! I’d submit the chromosomal aberrant gene pool in this country has already sunk to the bottom of the cesspool and I submit ZeroDarkThirty as prima facia evidence. I can hear the audience now..like a theater full of kids watching the Lone Ranger bag the bad guy. Yessireeebob. Yahhoooooeee!!!. Our hero’s.. the CIA. I’m surprised they haven’t issued CIA Halloween costumes yet.

      Face up to our torturing ways? Right. Ain’t gonna happen..ever. Congress included, these deviant pond scum don’t have one stinking shred of remorse and are incapable of acknowledging their role in the vile ‘Murican inquisition, not to mention the mass murder of innocent human beings via the depraved Drone program. In FACT, one only need look at a recent Weapons show in Dubai to see that DRONES-R-US is here to stay..FOREVER. Just wait till one drops in on a Homeland BBQ. We ain’t seen nothin yet. It’ll make the Spanish Inquisition look like a birthday party.

      Even if some people on this planet still abhor and detest these spineless bastards, there is only ONE way this country can ever face the world with a moral face again. Until we prosecute every single War Criminal in our Government, nothing will change. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Yoo, Baybee, Obombardiar, Holder,..the whole kit and kabootle. Which has about the same chance as a snowball in hell. Nosireeebob. Nothing will change. So no…we will NEVER EVER face our deviant and grotesque inquisition. And that makes me fucking insane.

      However, think I’ll send Obomba a rear view mirror for his birthday. I’m sure it’ll change his outlook. Not.

      01/14/13 5:54 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...



      Since you “loved” “Zero Dark” go rent “Green Berets.” The never-again story of US is a never-ending story.

      01/14/13 6:43 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Mr. Earl Brooks: I don’t enjoy killing, Mr. Smith. I do it because I’m addicted to it.

      01/14/13 6:45 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      BTW- I thought “American Psycho” was a scream.

      01/14/13 6:51 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Speaking of an ALL AMERICAN NIGHTMARE, I hear there will be a remake of the Hunt for “Red October.”


      01/14/13 7:59 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Pitch, we’re with you! Keep it coming. We need diversity. I’m the calm and collected cerebral responder and we need you as a balancer. You count!!! in a major way.

      01/14/13 9:35 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      For Rich Bauer. Check out M if you haven’t already viewed this film. The child killer knows he is a monster and asks for others to identify him. We need to accept that this orbital scenario is one of trillions of possibilities and sometimes there is a “glitch” in the format.

      01/14/13 9:41 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Peter Lorre (M) was a great actor.


      PVB’s book should be a movie – “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

      01/14/13 9:56 PM | Comment Link

    • Patricia Lawler said...


      Is the photograph that accompanies this article from the film? I cannot imagine voluntarily watching such vile images. Is this really what passes for entertainment in this country? WTF?

      01/14/13 11:00 PM | Comment Link

    • wemeantwell said...


      The image is real, taken in Abu Graid prison in Iraq, where Americans tortured Iraqi prisoners.

      01/15/13 12:21 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      01/14/13 11:41 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      Only Granier was ever *charged* and *convicted* – no higher ups were ever held accountable in this debacle. All the public affairs offices couldnt overcome this scandal, even with a compliant media

      01/15/13 6:09 AM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...


      An affectionate Spike Jones spoof of Peter Lorre, alarmingly germane to the original topic:


      01/15/13 7:01 AM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...


      1. Mr Poole wrote, “Pitch, we’re with you! Keep it coming. We need diversity. I’m the calm and collected cerebral responder and we need you as a balancer. You count!!! in a major way.”

      I concur, although Poole is not the only cerebral one here. Personally I’d be inclined to call myself the representative of Jonathan Swift, however PVB has dibs on that role, therefore I suppose I’m our triple hybrid of Sir Thomas More, the Prophet Ezekiel and Dr Demento.

      2. Re “The Green Berets” mentioned above: The funniest bit is the final scene where the sun sets in the East, since someone forgot that Vietnam has no West coast.

      01/15/13 11:52 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Speaking of All American Nightmare, now that Hillary is FINALLY scheduled to testify about the Benghazi Blunder, WMW readers should submit a question for her.

      The question I would pose: Do you think it’s fair to let lower level State employees take the blame for decisions approved and influenced at higher levels ?

      01/15/13 1:03 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Bauer reminds us all of the upcoming Hillary appearance to testify about the Benghazi raid. If indeed it happens Hillary will remind the inquisition group that everything they wanted to know has been told to them by lower downs and say she has nothing to add. They’ll thank her for her appearance. That’s my guess.

      01/15/13 3:13 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Addendum: My fantasy- Hillary says it was all Obama’s fault and that everyone had told him that regime change in Libya was insane and that Obama demanded a very light security toe print in Benghazi for public consumption to cover the fact that things had gone to hell and that a large CIA presence was now needed in the mess he created. Not going to happen of course.

      01/15/13 3:31 PM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...


      @ J Poole, re “My fantasy – Hillary (etc)”…

      …here’s MY fantasy about Hillary! I’ll teach my parrot to interrogate her in THIS way!:


      01/15/13 3:50 PM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...


      And Pitch reminds me of this chap, and vice versa, and coming from me that’s a compliment!


      01/15/13 4:02 PM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...


      More from the inestimable Monty Python, this one depicts how and why Hillary’s State Department knows less than sh-t about the realities on the ground in, well, ALL of the Muslim nations whom the American Empire is attempting to remake in accord with Hillary’s ideals of abortion and gay marriage and sensitivity toward transvestites:


      01/15/13 4:11 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      According to my brother-from-another-mother, DS is pissed that Scott B. has been burned for the Benghazi Blunder when the Black Dragons have gotten away Scott-free. It’s not smart to anger the Flying Monkeys. They bite.

      Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security and Director of the Diplomatic Security Service — VACANT


      01/15/13 5:49 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Pitch, American War criminals? I made up TWO! decks with American Most wanted war criminals right after the USA issued a pack of Iraqi most wanted. I had no intention of marketing it-it was just an exercise in IDing all the creeps from Ledeen to Wolfowitz. Colin Powell is in there also but as a lowly 8 of clubs. He was just a clueless shill for empire and didn’t even know it. Will anyone ever do THE COLIN POWELL STORY for TV? It would take 500 drafts and rewrites and still it would just be a wild guess of what goes on in his noggin if anything.

      01/15/13 6:46 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      Yer killin me. Monte Python was my all time favorite show during it’s run. And speaking of the Spanish Inquisition….somehow I see a Military Commissions trial in this…seeing as they don’t allow the detainees to enter their wonderful treatment at Gitmo into evidence. “Burn em at the stake.” perfect metaphor.


      Back to reality.
      It’s not just the putrid torture issue either.
      I’m beginning to believe this nation is raising a generation of sadistic brutal murderers. ‘Murica gets outraged when one of them goes off in the homeland. But we salute the hero’s of our murdering military.

      And about that last link Rich. An INSURANCE site?
      never ceases to fucking amaze me.

      01/15/13 7:10 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      quote:”Will anyone ever do THE COLIN POWELL STORY for TV? It would take 500 drafts and rewrites and still it would just be a wild guess of what goes on in his noggin if anything.” unquote

      He just signed up Kathryn Bigelow.

      01/15/13 7:15 PM | Comment Link

    • wemeantwell said...


      I’ll have an update on Colin Powell’s latest mendacity up on tomorrow’s blog.

      01/15/13 7:50 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      This All American Nightmare is a remake of “The Matrix.” It’s a comedy of errors but none of US will die laughing –


      01/16/13 12:43 AM | Comment Link

    • Mark Murata said...


      In case anyone actually wants to learn something about Al Qaeda, I made a video about how the CIA created Al Qaeda and used it to attack Egypt. Here it is, in case anyone is interested:


      01/16/13 3:37 AM | Comment Link

    • jim hruska said...


      In SERE school they used to employ 1 psychologist per 2 students to prevent the trainees from going over the edge.
      Some troops broke even though it was only training.
      In the PWOT these same psychologists advised interrogators in the fine points of breaking prisoners will to resist.I believe that the entire medical ethos of do no harm and being mental health professionals was subverted.
      This is more critical to me then some ill informed/trained CIA interrogator torturing some one.
      Another key point of criminality was implicating the MP’s into the breaking behavior that they were required to perform. This definitely violated the GC’s.
      jim hruska at rangeragainstwar

      01/16/13 3:31 PM | Comment Link

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