Reflections on Abu Garab Prison
I am a career military intelligence officer for the Army. I have always taken great pride in my
chosen profession. Pride in what my country represents and pride in the fact that the US Army is
a values base organization whose members are held to a higher standard that the civilians that
we serve. All personnel in the Army – soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and commissioned
officers – are expected to live up the seven Core Army Values: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless
Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. These are not values that I had to look up in a
book or on a website, these are the values that we know and live by.
Words do not come easy to explain my feelings about what has come to light about the actions
of a few individuals at Abu Garab prison. It is a damn shame that this happened and it is a damn
shame how it is taking attention from a bigger, more important issue.
I can offer no words to express my deep disappointment in what my fellow soldiers have done in
Abu Garab prison. It was deplorable and inexcusable. The weak, pathetic arguments that some
of the accused offer range from “I wasn’t trained” to “Military Intelligence ordered me to do it”.
Never mind the fact that the Brigadier General who is charged in this case outranked any military
intelligence personnel at the prison thereby making it impossible for her to receive such an
order. We (soldiers) are all trained – 100% - on the importance of observing human rights, of
treating captured prisoners with dignity, and with the importance of adhering to the Geneva
Convention guidelines on the conduct of warfare. We have all, repeatedly, received training on
the Laws of Land Warfare. We are also well trained on the right, even the obligation, to refuse
any order that is illegal. Even if none of this were true these were Americans who did these
things. We all know better. We are supposed to be the good guys. We wear the white hat.
Having stated what so many of my peers and seniors in the military have said – that this was
shameful behavior that is not indicative of the overwhelming majority of those who serve proudly
here in Iraq and elsewhere – I think there is another side to this story that needs to be
addressed. Specifically, to compare these actions to those of Saddam Hussein and the regime
we deposed just over a year ago is incredibly irresponsible. Yes, taking those photographs and
treating prisoners in that way was terrible but how does it compare to killing two million of one’s
own citizens? How does it compare to the killing and mutilation of four civilian contractors in
Fallujah? How does it compare to the taking of hostages from many nations and threatening to
burn them alive if certain demands are not met? How does it compare to the treatment of Scott
Speicher, an American fighter pilot shot down on the first night of Dessert Storm who was held
prisoner for over a decade then murdered to cover up the fact that he had been held prisoner all
that time? How does the reprehensible actions of a small number of Americans compare to the
rape of the entire nation of Kuwait at the hands of Saddam’s Army?
To put what these few Americans have done in the same league as what Saddam did is simply
irresponsible. According to the Report on Iraqi War Crimes: Desert Shield/Desert Storm” just a
few of the acts that Saddam’s forces carried out were tortures including: amputation, electric
shock, electric drills, acid baths, rape, forced self-cannibalism, dismemberment and ax beatings.
Is this the same thing as what those dozen or so Americans did at Abu Gareb?
How can anyone look at what was done by these few Americans and what was done by Saddam’
s regime and say “there is no difference”? The American military quickly set out to investigate
this crime and prosecute those responsible. Such behavior would likely result in a promotion of
the presentation of a medal under Saddam. One Iraqi interviewed by the American media talked
about his alleged torture. He is an Iraqi policeman and a former prisoner at Abu Gareb. He talked
about his torture at Abu Gareb and said that things are now the same as when Saddam was in
charge. This begs the question: If things are the same as when Saddam was in charge then
how is this man now not only free, but how is it possible that he now has a job as a police officer?
Though it pains me to see it, the negative reaction of all Americans serves as a shining example
of what separates “us from them”. When presented with this shameful example of how not to
act, the American people are outraged and call for justice. When presented with the murder and
mutilation of American contractors in Fallujah many Iraqis cheered and danced in the streets. I
just hope that the world recognizes that these American soldiers who let us all down do not
represent America. I also hope that Americans can believe me when I say that the overwhelming
majority of Iraqis that I have met in my time here are fine people, worthy of our respect our help
and our friendship. I wish that we could try something totally novel and unexpected: Let us
judge each other not by the worst examples, which in both America and Iraq are represented by
a small minority. Rather let’s judge each other by the best examples each nation has to offer. Is
that really so hard?
NOTE: I will refrain from giving some of the specifics of our Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs).
I know it is a long shot, but it is possible that the wrong people could read this on my website or in an
email and use it against coalition forces. For this reason I will leave out certain aspects of our trip.
A convoy does not begin when the vehicles are lined up and start rolling. A convoy requires a lot of
coordination, from clearing the route with multiple units, conducting maintenance on the vehicles,
checking load plans (or at least conducting pre-combat checks/pre-combat inspections), rehearsals for
actions on contact and just before departure, a convoy brief. Here is where the convoy commander
outlines for members of the convoy all essential information for the upcoming event, such as the route,
radio frequencies, call signs, order of march, etc.
Some of the tactics we follow for our convoys might be very surprising for some Americans who have
never had to drive in a place where you have to be prepared to kill and are in constant danger of being
killed (unless you have driven in the bad parts of DC or LA!!). Certain aspects of this come hard for me
and not only the idea of killing someone. Speed is your friend and we drive fast everywhere we go. It is
harder to shoot a fast moving vehicle, especially with “one shot” weapons like Rocket Propelled
Grenades. I call an RPG a one shot weapon because if anyone used an RPG against our convoy they
might have killed the occupants of one vehicle but it is a pretty safe bet that the shooter would not get a
second shot. Before he got a chance to reload he would be no more. In addition to driving fast we have
to take control of the roads. We often drive in the middle of the road to avoid any Improvised Explosive
Devices (IEDs) along the side of the road and if driving in the middle means making Iraqis leave the road
then that is what we have to do. They are, not surprisingly, willing to share the road when the choice is
staring down the barrel of an M60 machine gun.
Any vehicles wanting to pass a convoy must do so with extreme caution. This can be a very dangerous
pursuit. There are procedures in place to distinguish friendly from others involving the displaying of
certain items and the use of hand and arm signals. Prudence dictates that I not be specific on this point,
but suffice it to say that with a large number of coalition personnel moving about the country in non-
military vehicles it is important to get this one right every time.
The Convoy North:
We should have started our convoy this past Monday. We had a one day delay that might have been a
blessing in disguise. On the day we were supposed to leave there were three separate attacks along
our route of march – one with RPGs, one with small arms, and one using an IED. Not only were these
attacks along our route of march, if you were to timeline our trip all of these attacks occurred at about
the time we were supposed to be at those particular locations. The reasons for our delay were several.
We were held up at the South Gate first because of an IED out that gate. We had chosen the South Gate
because the North Gate had been closed earlier due to an attack out that way. When we got word that
the North Gate was now open we tried to go that way and one of our vehicles wouldn’t start. Due to the
time required to complete the convoy the decision was made to scratch this trip until the next day.
As we started our second attempt at a departure, things seemed to be moving much more smoothly.
This day seemed different. We departed on time. No comms or mechanical problems. Nice weather.
There is the normal apprehension of going out the gate when we know what might be waiting out there.
You can see it on the soldiers’ faces but nobody talks about it.
Once we cross the red line things change. The red line is the point at which you lock and load your
weapons. For all of us there are at least two weapons, the 9MM pistol and the M16, and for our
“gunners” this means loading the M60 machine guns as well. There is something sobering about
loading a weapon with the intent of killing someone should they give you reason and knowing that if you
fail in killing them then you may be killed. Fortunately (maybe not a good word to use but I can’t come up
with a more appropriate one) we are very good at killing and for every American that dies many more of
the enemy dies.
We had traveled about one hour before we hit the first glitch on our trip. An IED was detonated about 10
minutes before we arrived. At first we thought it might be an auto accident that was causing a traffic
backup. One of the worst things you can do here is stop moving so we crossed the median into the
opposite lane to pass the traffic backup and bypass the accident. When we got to the front of the traffic
jam we discovered that it had been an IED and an Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team was trying
to ensure that there were not multiple IEDs “daisy chained” together.
A daisy chain is a tactic using multiple explosives set up in a row in order to inflict more casualties.
These can be set up to achieve different effects by using different spacing and timing. A common tactic
used here is to have one device hit the lead vehicle in a convoy and then, when everyone else stops
they hit them as well. An even more devious tactic used by terrorists is to save the second explosion
for the rescue workers that come to the aid of those hurt in the first explosion.
After this area was cleared we continued on our way to Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown. Tikrit has as one of
its distinguishing characteristics, one of the two great rivers of this country, the Tigris, running through
it. One of the most spectacular views I have seen since my arrival in Iraq was from the back of one of
Tikrit’s palaces where we have our Forward Operating Base (FOB) Raider. Here there is an incredible
view of the Tigris River and the valley below. There is a sheer drop of what appears to be a couple of
hundred feet. High enough that when two OH58D scout helicopters flew past I was looking down on
them, not up at them. From here you have a respectable view of the city of Tikrit.
This FOB I am told is the only base in Iraq that has not taken enemy fire in any form since the arrival of
the coalition. I cannot say for certain if this is true, but if so it is easy to see why. From this commanding
terrain the fields of fire are such that no one can approach from any direction without being seen long
before they were close enough to use anything other than indirect fire such as rockets or artillery and
this is a small base and these weapons, in the hands of terrorists, are notoriously inaccurate.
The next city we arrived at was Kirkuk. Compared to much of Iraq, especially the parts I normally see,
Kirkuk was very pleasant. At least it was nice in terms of the countryside and the airbase where we
stayed the night. Lush green vegetation is easy to take for granted in many parts of the world but here
it was a welcome surprise.
Not everything here was pleasing to the eye of course. Squalor was the dominant feature everywhere
we went outside the base. Even on the base most buildings, except the new ones, mostly pre-fab
trailers that the coalition forces brought in, were very run down.
One big difference here from Balad, where I live while in Iraq, is the proximity to the city. In Balad there
are places where you can see some vestiges of outside life but not much. A couple of buildings from
the nearest village, Albu Hassan, can be seen from our base but that is about it. In Kirkuk the base, at
least on one side, is essentially in downtown. From where I stayed the night I could look over the wall
and see the City of Kirkuk, almost close enough to touch, and unfortunately, in a war zone definitely
close enough to shoot. Which happened not too long ago when someone in the city decided shooting
at the base would be a good idea. What they might not have considered is what a good idea some of the
coalition members thought shooting back was!
Kirkuk has another thing besides grass that we lack at Balad. Two fast food franchises! Burger King
and Pizza Hut. Never has a double whopper with cheese and french fries tasted so good.
Though I had been here before Mosul was something of a pleasant surprise. Pleasant after we got to
the base that is. Lately this town has been a dangerous place and this is where, on the day we were
originally schedule to start our trip, a soldier died right where we passed through on our way here,
killed by an IED. Though this is perhaps my favorite part of Iraq I was glad to put the city behind us on
our way home.
What makes Mosul special is the presence of green, like Kirkuk only better – trees, grass and water are
things you come to miss when they are not there. This was my first trip to what is called DMAIN, which is
situated on one of Saddam’s former palace compounds. There is a pretty familiar (to soldiers at least)
photograph of soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division re-enlisting behind the palace here. Much of the
compound here actually reminds me of a camp ground back in the US.
The palace here, like all the palaces I have seen, is beautiful. You can’t enter one of the palaces without
wondering about what it must have been like for Saddam and his family. To be the absolute ruler of this
country and to have many such palaces at your disposal must have been incredible. You can’t help but
wonder why he didn’t realize what he would lose as a result of his actions and why he didn’t act
I also think of the Sword of Damocles. If I remember the story accurately, Damocles was a court
sycophant who had an obsequious nature and a habit, annoying to the 4th Century BC Greek Tyrant
Dyonisus, of pointing out how great it must be in his position of privilege and power. The King, wanting
to make a point to Damocles, had a banquet in his honor. He even let Damocles sit in his chair at the
head of the table. However, hanging from the ceiling from a single horse hair was a sword pointing
straight down at Damocles, who of course, couldn’t enjoy the banquet. The King’s point being that with
the privileges of rank come great danger and responsibility. Saddam would have done well to have kept
the example of Damocles in mind.
There was one common denominator with all the palaces I have seen since my arrival in Iraq. The sick
feeling in my stomach when I think of all the atrocities committed by Saddam and how the overwhelming
majority of his people were forced to live while he enjoyed the luxury of these palaces.
The Road Home
On the fourth day we started back to Balad. This drive would be a little different than the one coming
up. On the way here we had eight armored HMMWVs, commonly called Hummers. These protect you
from small arms up to 7.62MM and from most shrapnel that you might encounter. Even the glass is
bullet proof. Also, each Hummer was a gun truck, with a ring mount turret that allows our gunners to
engage targets in any direction from a vantage point that makes this a very effective weapon’s platform.
Our only real concern going up was the possibility that an IED might be detonated very close to us. We
were more than up to the challenge of facing almost any possible ambush that we might encounter.
Unfortunately (for us) these Hummers were a large part of the reason for our LOGPAC. We brought
these up for our Delta Company to use and we took their thin skinned vehicles without gun mounts.
Going home we had no more protection that if driving the family car. Perhaps less even because we
took the doors off the hummers so that at least this would better facilitate the engagement of any
hostiles along the way. These vehicles, in addition to not being armored, were very poorly maintained
and the one I was in barely made it back to Balad. The fuel injector started to leak fuel just as we arrived
at the North Gate of our base.
Though not entirely uneventful, our trip back was a success. We all came back unharmed. There were
six explosions along our route home but all, while close enough to see, were far enough away that they
presented no danger to our convoy. Ultimately every mission that everyone comes back from is a