In January of 2004 I visited “Bucca Camp,” a U.S.-run POW camp named for a firefighter lost in the 2001 collapse of New York’s World Trade Center. Located near the isolated port city of Umm Qasr, in southern Iraq, the network of tent prisons had been constructed by U.S. Coalition authorities. Friends of five young men thought to be imprisoned there had begged our three-person Voices delegation to try and visit the camp and find out what had happened to their loved ones.
This was a year before the capture of Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, who, starting in 2005, would spend four years in the camp under the name Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, on his way to becoming the head of the recently founded Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Our friends with the Christian Peacemaker Teams had developed a database of people thought to be held by the U.S. military. They assembled their list of 6,000 prisoners as much through contact with terrified loved ones as through tireless and persistent correspondence with U.S. authorities.
They were able to find the “Capture Tag” numbers for two of the prisoners. These two people, at least, were still alive and at the camp.
With a translator, our small Voices delegation headed from Baghdad to Basra and then on to Umm Qasr, assuredly one of the bleakest spots on the planet. It was Saturday afternoon. At the outskirts of the prison, a U.S. soldier politely told us that we were too late. Saturday visiting hours were over, and the next visiting day would be the following Thursday. Reluctant to leave, we explained that we’d come a long way, along a dangerous road, and that we wouldn’t be able to come back a second time. An hour later, jostling on the benches of an army jeep, we were taken over bumpy desert terrain to the prison visitor’s tent.
There we met with four of the five young men, all in their early twenties, and listened as they shared stories of humiliation, discomfort, monotony, loneliness and great fear born of the uncertainty prisoners face held on zero credible evidence by a hostile power with no evident plans to release them. They seemed immeasurably relieved that we could at least tell their relatives they were still alive.
Upon leaving, we asked to speak with an officer in charge of the Bucca Camp. She said that the outlook for the young men being released wasn’t very positive, but she thought it would be worthwhile to try approaching the International Commission of the Red Cross. “Be glad they’re here with us and not in Baghdad,” she said, giving us a knowing look. “We give them food, clothes, and shelter here. Be glad that they’re not in Baghdad.” I was surprised. At least in Baghdad it wouldn’t be so difficult to visit them. She repeated herself, “I’m just telling you, be glad they’re not in Baghdad.”
Later, in May of 2004, I began to understand what she meant. On May 1, CNN released pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison: The hooded man. The man on a leash. The pyramid. These pictures are now burned into people’s minds. Suddenly there were very few places that seemed as horrible as that prison. Yes, we were very glad the young men we visited were not in Baghdad.
To be very clear, these men at Bucca had been marched naked in front of women soldiers. They’d been told to say “I love George Bush” before they could receive their food rations. They’d slept on the open ground in punishingly cold weather with no mat beneath them and only one blanket. The guards had taunted them and they had had no way of telling their friends they were still alive. But worse humiliation and torture were inflicted on detainees in other U.S. prison centers throughout Iraq.
The November 3, 2005 issue of the New York Review of Books quoted three officers, two of them non-commissioned, stationed with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Mercury in Iraq.
“Speaking on condition of anonymity, they described in multiple interviews with Human Rights Watch how their battalion in 2003-2004 routinely used physical and mental torture as a means of intelligence gathering and for stress relief… Detainees in Iraq were consistently referred to as PUCs. The torture of detainees reportedly was so widespread and accepted that it became a means of stress relief, where soldiers would go to the PUC tent on their off-hours to “fuck a PUC” or “smoke a PUC.” “Fucking a PUC” referred to beating a detainee, while “smoking a PUC” referred to forced physical exertion sometimes to the point of unconsciousness.
“Smoking” was not limited to stress relief but was central to the interrogation system employed by the 82nd Airborne Division at FOB Mercury. Officers and NCOs from the Military Intelligence unit would direct guards to “smoke” the detainees prior to an interrogation, and would direct that certain detainees were not to receive sleep, water, or food beyond crackers. Directed “smoking” would last for the twelve to twenty-four hours prior to an interrogation. As one soldier put it: “[The military intelligence officer] said he wanted the PUCs so fatigued, so smoked, so demoralized that they want to cooperate.
Maybe half of the detainees at Camp Mercury, released because they were clearly uninvolved in the insurgency, were nonetheless bearing memories and scars of torture. As one sergeant told Human Rights Watch, “If he’s a good guy, you know, now he’s a bad guy because of the way we treated him.”
When U.S. politicians want to sell a war, their marketing is top notch: they can count on the U.S. public to buy that war at least long enough to become irretrievably committed to it, as long as the advertising for that war leaves them feeling threatened. And no brand, in quite a long time, has been as frightening as the Islamic State.
The violence that brought the Islamic State into being, and which now promises to extend its legacy into ever wider regional violence and polarization, has a long history.
In between the first two Iraq wars, in numerous trips to Iraq from 1996 to 2003, our Voices delegation members grew to understand the unbearable weariness and suffering of Iraqi families eking out an uncertain existence under punishing economic sanctions.
Between the wars, the death toll in children’s lives alone, from externally imposed economic collapse and from the blockade of food, medicine, water purification supplies and other essentials of survival, was estimated by the U.N. at 5,000 children a month, an estimate accepted without question by U.S. officials.
The most shocking death figures from our 2003 invasion, estimating the eventual toll from war and social breakdown at credibly more than one million, were underestimates as they inevitably took as baseline the inhuman conditions under our years of economic warfare in Iraq.
On September 16, 2014, the New York Times reported on a newly released UN report which notes that in Iraq, “the share of hungry people has soared: Nearly one in four Iraqis are undernourished, according to the report, up from 7.9 percent of the population in the 1990-92 period.”
And now, the U.S. government says that U.S. intervention is once again needed to improve and civilize the nation of Iraq.
It’s widely acknowledged that the 2003 invasion of Iraq radicalized Al-Baghdadi, with his humiliation at Camp Bucca further hardening him. Then the haphazard flood of weapons and easy cash into both Iraq and Syria fueled potential for further war.
This will not be our third Iraq invasion. U.S. assaults, achieved through munitions, through children’s forced starvation, through white phosphorous, through bullet fire, through blockaded medicines, emptied reservoirs and downed power lines, through disbanded police forces and abandoned state industries and cities left to dissolve in paroxysms of ethnic cleansing – it is all one continuous war, beginning long before we finally turned on our former client Saddam in 1991, the longest war in U.S. history, continued now, extending into the future until it has no end that we can plausibly foresee.
One year to the day before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King urged a turn away from the war in Vietnam and a desperately needed rebirth, a “revolution of values” that was all that could free America from future such commitments. It would be so much better for the world if, instead of hearing President Obama’s September 10 speech justifying renewed U.S. military offensives in the region, we could have heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. In it, he begs us to see ourselves as we are seen by our so-called enemies. It’s not easy to look in that mirror, but understanding the history of previous U.S. wars and policies, against Iraq, would help us look for alternatives.
We need not choose blindness, or the hatred that lets us be herded in fear. We can reach out with truth, with compassion, with the activist courage that leaps from heart to heart, rebuilding sanity, civility, community, humanity, resistance. We can find hope in our own active work to prove that humanity persists, that history can yearn toward justice and that a love which is in no way comfortable, sentimental bosh remains vigorously at work in a world with such need of it.
* This article first appeared on Telesur English.