Justine Sharrock on Torture and the Soldiers Who Carry it Out

Chris Arendt

Chris Arendt

By Maddie Oatman

In her book Tortured: When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things, journalist Justine Sharrock takes a close look at low-ranking soldiers who engaged in acts of torture. The project started as Sharrock’s graduate school thesis, and gained momentum as she traveled around the country conducting interviews with more then two dozen soldiers, four of whom become the book’s central characters. With her intimate investigative journalism, Sharrock probes emotional landscapes as much as the political and societal contexts in which they exist.  She manages to uncover the gritty memories, looming anxieties and regrets of her subjects, and I was left wondering how in the world she got these men to reveal stories to her that they still couldn’t tell their families.

Once I met her, I understood; her enormous brown eyes, demure manner, and sweet voice instantly make her someone you want to talk to. Though she may seem soft-spoken, Tortured is anything but. With her shrewd research and unyielding tenacity, Sharrock paints a searing portrait of the disturbing circumstances that lead soldiers to torture. She also takes a look at how torture scars its perpetrators and why America’s engagement in torture has forever changed its international reputation. Tortured is a must-read for those who have not been closely following the ramifications of the Iraq war just as it is essential for those with any interest in the Guantanamo Bay detention disaster.


The Rumpus: Why did you focus on lower-ranking soldiers as subjects for your book?


Justine Sharrock: One big difference with what is happening with the current war is that the military is relying on low-level soldiers who don’t have the same training to engage in torture. They’ve used no-touch torture before, but it was CIA agents who were more trained and more prepared to do this, whereas the low-ranking soldiers had no idea that this is what they were going to get into. So I think it had more of a profound effect on them, but I also think it’s an interesting way to look at how the torture regime has affected all of us as Americans.

Low-ranking soldiers also have the least amount of power. If you speak to an officer, they have more ability to make their own decisions, and to refuse orders, and they are more involved in the planning process. Low-ranking soldiers lack a lot of agency.

Rumpus: Are there instances of high-ranking officials coming out against the tactics used at Guantanamo?

Sharrock: Yeah, there are. [In Tortured, Sharrock writes about Lieutenant Commander Matthew Diaz, a Navy JAG Officer, who was imprisoned for leaking names of detainees in attempts to help lawyers file cases. A recent article in Mother Jones, “Is the Army Forcing Out a Gitmo Whistleblower?” takes a look at Lieutenant Colonel Darrel Vandeveld, who spoke out against injustices at Guantanamo and may be expelled from the military as a result].

Rumpus: What do you think made you so successful in extracting all the painful memories from the soldiers you interviewed? How do you think you were able to earn their trust?

Sharrock: A lot of it is the willingness to listen. I think oftentimes when journalists interview people, they try and push their ideas on the person. My goal was just to get inside their heads. I spent a lot of time trying to understand the pro-torture point of view. I had to suspend my own beliefs. I thought a lot of what some of the soldiers did was pretty abhorrent, but I withheld judgment.

But the soldiers also are just so desperate for someone to talk to who is a neutral party. Also, speaking with a journalist comes with the idea that it’s a form of whistleblowing, that they are doing a larger form of good by getting the message out there and speaking out against the war. Whereas if they are speaking with their wives, they have to face the fact that their wives will think differently of them, think lesser of them. Or if they talk to other vets or other soldiers, then they are just seen as total pussies, or being traitorous. Speaking with a psychiatrist in the VA, they are afraid of being deemed crazy or just given anti-depressants. Even Chris (Chris Arendt, one of Sharrock’s four main subjects in Tortured) was afraid that they would “cure him” and he would be sent back to war.

Rumpus: Tortured argues that the acceptance of torture tactics, even though they may be disguised, is widespread.

Sharrock: Yeah, and I mean that’s something that living in San Francisco and New York, I was really surprised by.  Obviously it’s stronger in certain pockets of America.

Rumpus: And you focus on very conservative areas in your book– Texas, Appalachia– but how widespread do you think the acceptance of the use of torture was before there was a spotlight on Guantanamo?

Sharrock: Immediately post-9/11, people were calling for the use of torture. I went back to do LexisNexis search and I think it was September 12th, 2001, there was an article about the discussion in classrooms where people were arguing for the use of torture.

It’s not just conservative areas. I took a counter-terrorism class at the International Policy School at Columbia, and we had a discussion about whether or not to use torture, and no one raised their hand protesting it. Everyone there agreed. And this was New York City, Columbia University, and these are also people who were considering jobs going into government. And look at the people in the Bush administration, that’s not Appalachia. The patriotism and the anger post-9/11 was so strong, and it really did shape people’s beliefs. But even now, you look at Obama’s decision to continue indefinite detention, and there’s still a lot of sentiment proposing that. Or you have Dick Cheney on network news supporting war crimes. And there isn’t outrage.

Brandon Neely

Rumpus: The question I found myself asking, and this is a really tough question, was that if you were a soldier in the circumstances of the soldiers in your book, would you have acted differently?

Sharrock: That’s a hard question because no one wants to say that they would do that. Especially when you are using the word torture. My editor actually asked that of me and I mean, I am so foreign from the military world that if I got drafted I would try and run away or get pregnant or something. It’s hard for me to get into that mindset, so a lot of the reporting was trying to understand that military world. In some ways, since I was so foreign to it, it helped–there’s an argument about whether it’s better to do insider journalism verses outsider reporting. The fact that they didn’t fully understand what they were doing could lead me to do those things. For instance, when Brandon Neely was asked to check for weapons every hour and didn’t realize that that was a way to implement sleep deprivation. That’s something I could see myself getting into.

It’s hard for civilians to understand the extremity of the repercussions [of refusing orders or speaking out against torture]. It’s not just that you are letting down your friends, but what you’re doing is treasonous, you could go to prison. It’s hard to imagine saying no with all those circumstances.

Rumpus: So, you don’t have a military background. What do you think compelled you to stick with this project?

Sharrock: A couple of things. I started it because I was interested in issues about prison rights, but then also America’s hypocrisy when it comes to our human rights record. So this was the perfect combination of those things.

My parents aren’t citizens, so a lot of the extreme patriotism that happened after 9/11 was a little bit foreign and fascinating to me.  I don’t want to sound like I’m unpatriotic, but this story was sort of a way to tap into some of that.

I was surprised because when I set off to report it, I thought I was sort of speaking with the devil, confronting this evil person, someone who would engage in torture. And then as I found out more of these guys’ stories, it was fascinating on their individual levels, and they were the complete opposite of what I had expected. On my first reporting trip down to Cumberland, a soldier who had worked at Abu Ghraib, who was actually caught in some of the photos but wasn’t prosecuted, warned me that “once you start reporting on this, you are going to become obsessed and you won’t be able to stop.” I just sort of laughed, but now looking back I realize he was right, just because there’s so much there.

Rumpus: And not that many people are willing to uncover it, because you are dealing with high powers in our government.

Sharrock: And it’s also just looking at the ramifications the war has had on our country, it’s sort of a larger story beyond the story about the military.

Rumpus: To your knowledge, is there still a big international disagreement on a definition of torture? What’s your definition of torture?

Sharrock: I use the definition for torture that is laid out in the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which is the universally accepted definition worldwide.

The US uses their own definition which is very similar.

In the infamous “Torture Memos” the Justice Department wrote out legal arguments that could provide loopholes within that definition, basically trying to see how far they could push things before they are considered torture. They focused on two parts of the US definition: #1, There has to be a specific intention to inflict pain and #2, That the pain has to be severe.  So they pulled apart the question of how bad does something have to be to be severe, and came up with the answer that it had to be equivalent to the pain of organ failure or even death.

These loopholes are the key to why they use the type of torture that they used [in Guantanamo and other prisons]. For example, if it could be argued that the soldiers weren’t intentionally inflicting severe pain– if they get soldiers to do so unwittingly by using methods of torture lite–they are off the hook. They also argued that if any medics or doctors are present, it automatically indicated that there is no intention to inflict pain.

I think that their legal arguments are highly faulty and I disagree with them (as do many). But that is where you get into sticky situations.

Rumpus: I am sure you you’ve been interested in whether there are instances of torture in Afghanistan, and why there hasn’t been much reform since Guantanamo. Have you found anything recently that is a continuation of all this?

Sharrock: When I was pitching the story to different editors, everyone was saying: this is fascinating, it’s really well written and researched, but torture is over. It’s an issue that’s going to be in the past by the time this comes out. And I was just like, you guys have to trust me, it’s not. This is going to keep going for a long time. And they’d say, well Guantanamo is supposed to close within a year and I’d respond, well what do you do with the detainees after that?

There are so many prisons besides Guantanamo. For instance, Bagram is still operating. And that was a place where there were even more abuses. Just because Guantanamo closes doesn’t mean it’s over.

Justine Sharrock

I’m working now on some stories about the individual acts of reconciliation between guards and detainees. And looking at the larger question of: should we do a truth commission? Should we do prosecutions? How do you not just try to address it for our own reasons, for setting precedence, but how to you amend and change the view of America? I think we will be tarnished in terms of our international reputation forever.

Rumpus: In your conclusion, you stress how America might not be the same as it used to be, how “the flag no longer represented” what it used to. Is there a chance it was never a completely upstanding place to begin with, that the military has been covertly using these tactics for many years?  Can you elaborate on what is so different now?

Sharrock: That was one of the things that drew me to the project: the hypocrisy of what we like to think of ourselves and the reality of what we do, both in war times but also our human rights record, especially internationally. In each war, the lines are redrawn in terms of what’s moral or ethical or allowed, so that was the whole point of the Geneva Conventions, to set that precedent. But now that our officials are saying the Geneva Conventions don’t apply, that negates decades of trying to change the international norm.

I mean, America doesn’t recognize many of the United Nations treaties. We’ve always had our own treaties that are very similar. It’s not the fact that they were doing things differently than they’d done in the past, it’s the fact that they were arguing openly that it should be legal to do them, and that’s a big shift that sets enormous precedence. And that it wasn’t just covert CIA agents doing this stuff, but rather ordinary Americans on such a widespread level. I think that does represent a significant shift.

Rumpus: In your introduction, you point to a kind of suffering Veterans deal with that “is not as immediately obvious as the death tolls, and is easier to dismiss,” when soldiers are “left adrift to try to make sense of the horrors they had seen and to understand who they had become.” Many of the soldiers you interviewed suffer from severe PTSD. Did you see signs of progress in how we treat and regard PTSD in the United States? From your perspective, are we making strides in recognizing the psychological impacts of war?

Sharrock: After Vietnam, they put PTSD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (The American Psychiatric Association added it to their third edition in 1980). Having it be a disease instead of an emotional reaction makes it a lot easier for soldiers to admit to it because they can get an official stamp that it’s a disease they have rather than just an inability to cope. There’s still a huge stigma against it, but I think we are making strides, mostly in terms of acceptance that it is a real problem. But I think we still have a long way to go in terms of addressing it. The VA system could be doing a lot more. They tend to just over-prescribe drugs that can often lead to further problems.

There are other aspects of it too that people don’t really consider. Some soldiers have a really hard time holding down jobs or being able to go to school because of their emotional difficulties. There are some good programs. One is Boots to Books, a support network for soldiers who are going to college. Things like being able to sit in a large, crowded lecture hall can be difficult for some of them. Or if you have insomnia, maybe you need a bit more flexible schedule. There’s also a green jobs program, Veterans Green Jobs and an organization facilitating veterans getting farming jobs.

Andrew Duffy, who’s in the book, tried to get a job at the VA hospital because he had medic training. But then he had some interpersonal problems, so they demoted him to being a janitor. And that’s at the VA, where they should be able to understand. There are ways that you could address the problem beyond just setting up more psychiatric help.

Rumpus: I found it intriguing how you treat the perpetrators of torture as victims of torture as well, so that the act of torturing is a form of torture itself. Do you see any evidence that the military or the government affiliated with the military has made this realization?

Sharrock: No, I don’t think so. There’s a recognition that soldiers in general deal with repercussions, but I think people assume that it’s the soldiers in combat who are going to have PTSD, not people working in prisons. And that was a common reaction to these soldiers: “Why do you have PTSD? You were just a prison guard. You weren’t fighting.” So I think it’s harder for them to get any recognition.

One problem with working in the prisons is that you are face to face with the person you are breaking down over a long period of time. Whereas if you are sniper, you’re shooting at someone who’s really far away and who you only see for a second.

No one has done any studies about how PTSD has affected soldiers who work in prisons as opposed to those out in the streets. I tried really hard to find that and no one is tracking it. There are studies about people engaging in torture in other countries and the repercussions of that, like in Argentina for instance. It would be a great to have a widespread survey of that. The book is just the story of a couple of people.

Rumpus: There is a part in your book when one of your subjects, Andrew Duffy, reaches Abu Ghraib after the scandal over photographs had reached the media and the prison was supposedly cleaned up. I was shocked, like Duffy was, to learn how little the prison had reformed their use of torture techniques, including sleep deprivation, segregation in cage-like cells, and holding prisoners in stress positions for prolonged periods. How does our country allow the military to get away with all of this “grey area,” the use of torture that is not identified as torture? How was it so well hidden from us?

Sharrock: That’s done on a lot of different levels–trying to represent the Abu Ghraib scandal as an exceptional case, and then trying to say “we cleaned it up” when obviously that didn’t happen. One is even just the rhetorical devices used, when you say things like “no touch” torture or “stress positions” or explaining that people are made to stand for hours, that whitewashes it and makes it easier for us to accept. And also making all the arguments that it is legal to be doing this. I’ve had so many people ask me “what right do you have to condemn what these soldiers were doing when the highest officials have said that it’s OK?” So when you come out and criticize these things, you’re saying that George Bush or Cheney are wrong and you’re questioning the arguments of the Office of Legal Council.

Also, Americans don’t want to know about it. I’ve heard from people that they are hesitant to read the books because it’s something you don’t like to think about, and it’s easier if you don’t pay attention.

Chris Arendt

Rumpus: You bring up the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War many times in Tortured. What sorts of things have they been doing since Winter Soldier?

Sharrock: They are a great organization and I’m actually working with them to set up some joint events. They are really good on helping soldiers on a personal level and also through their activist work. Soldiers have found a lot of comfort being around other anti-war soldiers and knowing that it’s out there and that it’s a safe space. They were just supporting one soldier who wrote an anti-war song and got in a lot of trouble. They supported him with legal action.  Just getting the word out about what happens at war from the soldiers themselves makes it a lot easier for people to believe. A lot of people think the detainees, for instance, are lying when they tell what happen in the prisons.

Rumpus: This has to be such a dark, disturbing subject to write a book about. What are some of the moments of lightness you remember from your experience interviewing and researching these soldiers?

Sharrock: Spending time with Chris’s parents; I mean, they just opened their lives and their home to me. His mom told me afterwords how much it meant to her for me to tell this story, and she sees that it’s going to help her son but also other families like hers. Knowing that makes it worthwhile.

It was also interesting just to get to meet such a variety of individuals. Sometimes it would just be hanging out with them, having fun, and I would almost forget the things they’d done and gone through. With Chris especially, I spent two weeks with him and he had a really hard time talking about this stuff. So he would ask me to take days in between, sometimes we would ride bikes around. He took me to where he was doing screen-printing. Sometimes they would even stop me in the middle of reporting and we would just hang out. That also helped build the trust and make them feel more comfortable.

The responsibility of asking people to share those things, you have to take on a burden. It was really difficult to see what these guys are going through.


This interview was conducted and published by The Rumpus June 15, 2010.

Main Torture Justine Sharrock on Torture and the Soldiers Who Carry it Out


World Can't Wait mobilizes people living in the United States to stand up and stop war on the world, repression and torture carried out by the US government. We take action, regardless of which political party holds power, to expose the crimes of our government, from war crimes to systematic mass incarceration, and to put humanity and the planet first.