Florida resident Michael Keller spent a year as a guard in Abu Ghraib, the United States’ most notorious Iraqi prisoner of war camp. Torture Central: E-mails from Abu Ghraib consists of 143 pages of e-mails that Keller sent home during his tour of duty. His integrity, forthrightness and optimism are a breath of fresh air for any American who has become – understandably – skeptical of the media.
In Torture Central, Keller repeatedly expresses his impatience with the upper echelon of his command, a sentiment in stark contrast with his respect for the men and women he worked with for 80 to 100 hours a week running the facility and essentially doing the dirty work. Keller is a true patriot, and his e-mails convey a deep concern for America’s mission in Iraq. It is out of this concern that he openly criticizes the shortcomings of his commanders. The integrity of his motivations and his firsthand experience in the war lend his book a positive, trustworthy feel that mass media reports and White House press releases sorely lack.
Keller arrived at Abu Ghraib in December of 2005, in the wake of the detainee torture scandal. He mostly worked in the lower security section of the prison and had no access to the portion of Abu Ghraib where the highly publicized prisoner abuse took place, so his book is not filled with gory, sensational details. It’s a testament to his good taste that he purposely avoided telling horror stories, except for one brief account involving a gang rape and a bullet wound that will make your stomach turn.
Indeed, this matter-of-fact account of a year at Abu Ghraib is still quite disturbing. Even after news of the torture scandal broke worldwide, it was standard operating procedure to punish detainees at Abu Ghraib by sandwiching them between two medical litters (backboards) and pulling the straps so tight that they could barely breathe, “with the guard checking every 15 minutes to ensure the detainee still has a pulse.” Prisoners were also tied to chairs that completely restricted their movements and were left in the desert sun for hours.
When Keller reported this to his company commander he received no response. When he reported it to his battalion commander, she tried to have him disciplined for “skipping (his) chain of command.” He had documentation proving that he didn’t skip his chain of command and he wasn’t punished, but the battalion commander “went ballistic.” She was relieved of her command a week later and the improper use of medical litters and restraint chairs was stopped.
Keller found this encouraging, but he continued to have trouble getting his superiors to answer his letters about violations of the Geneva Convention that he witnessed every day at Abu Ghraib. Among the more petty violations: no canteens established for detainee use, no reading material provided for detainee use, and the prohibition of detainees from mailing or receiving letters or parcels. Some detainees were out of contact with their families for two years.
Keller took advantage of his long hours on guard duty to get to know a few of the prisoners’ stories. Some of them are appallingly Orwellian. For instance: “We have two 12-year-old children who were arrested by Marines and have been in Abu (Ghraib) over 9 months. Their arrest record (written by the arresting Marines) simply reads ‘Reason for Arrest: Because we were bored.’ Periodically, higher echelons would pick 50 or so Sunni kids, decide that they had all turned 18, and send them to one of the adult levels … Rape was not uncommon … MI (Military Intelligence) had been able to determine that the price for one of the newly transferred kids was 22 cigarettes.”
Another detainee had earned his Ph.D. and worked as a translator for coalition forces for about 18 months. After he refused to stop dating a female in the Army battalion he worked with, his commanding officer signed a sworn affidavit saying he was a terrorist and he was sent to Abu Ghraib. Multiple attempts on his life were made by detainees he had personally arrested. Instances like these caused Keller to be deeply concerned that some Army personnel were helping to justify the opinions and swell the ranks of the insurgents.
Other accounts of mismanagement in Iraq have nothing to do with prisoner abuse, but are reason enough to enrage any conscientious American. For example: “The quality of food ranges from fair to inedible (think high school cafeteria caliber)… on really bad days I can just make myself a swiss-cheese sandwich… For this service, the Department of Defense pays KBR (a subsidiary of Haliburton) $18 per meal per soldier… Halliburton/KBR is under a cost-plus contract, meaning they are reimbursed for all of their costs, plus they are then paid a percentage of those costs as a fee (for their profit). So they’re actually paid to make the costs as high as possible (i.e., waste money)… $80,000 trucks are routinely abandoned/torched if they acquire a flat or need an oil change… pricing the cost at $2 per can of soda and $100 per laundry bag washed… Since it’s a no-bid contract, (Halliburton doesn’t) have to worry about a competitor offering the same services for a lower price.” Perhaps Dick Cheney, vice president and former Halliburton CEO, can explain why a capitalist nation offers billion-dollar contracts without considering bids from competitors or why “Senate Republicans have repeatedly blocked investigation attempts into the Halliburton/KBR contracts.”
Keller details many circumstances in Iraq in desperate need of scrutiny and improvement. He repeatedly expresses his disgust with the media for not reporting on these matters. However, his belief in America’s mission to spread democracy and human rights in Iraq is unwavering, as is his belief that we are making progress. In the appendix there’s an account of a former executioner who worked at Abu Ghraib during Saddam Hussein’s reign. His story is gruesome and it goes a long way in justifying Hussein’s removal from power. At its heart, Torture Central is an honest account of the war in Iraq written by someone who was immersed in it long enough to know what he’s talking about – someone who isn’t afraid to address ambiguities and criticize the things he disagrees with. It’s something concerned Americans have been starving for, and it’s a must-read.