Fear and Othering in Iraq: The Lagouranis Account

I was planning to use the same collection I’d used for last week’s post and blog about differences in the DoD and FBI approaches to interrogation at GTMO. However, at the risk of setting off another firestorm of criticism (or maybe I’m a masochist), I’m going to use this post to present my reading of Tony Lagouranis’ Fear Up Harsh, his first person account of his experience as an Army interrogator in Iraq. This seemed to be something that posters a couple of weeks ago were interested in, so I’ll share some excerpts from a review article that I’m polishing, in which I read Lagouranis against some of the official DoD investigation documents, such as the <a href=”http://news.findlaw.com/hdocs/docs/dod/fay82504rpt.pdf””>Fay-Jones Report. I’ve amended the language to sound more casual, I’ve kept the anthrospeak to a minimum – and please note that while this is way too long, it’s also drastically shortened, and is still choppy. Sorry.

Keith Brown and Catherine Lutz’s review essay “Grunt Lit” urges anthropologists to pay attention to the voices of the subaltern, represented in the firsthand accounts of soldiers back from the battlefield. In Tony Lagouranis’ remarkable Fear Up Harsh, the obliquely bureaucratic prose of the thirteen investigations DoD has completed begins to make more sense, while the DoD findings help illuminate the institutional dynamics that shaped Lagouranis’ experience.

Lagouranis describes himself as a drifter with a passion for ancient languages. He signs up for service in Army intelligence in the summer 2001 with no expectation of going to war, yet “…I recognized that war was something I longed to see. If I wanted to be in places where I was not in control, what more could I ask for? The swirling chaos of a combat zone was a place stripped of all rationality” (12). This is prescient. Chaos emerges as a repeated theme in Lagouranis’ account, and as such it illustrates one of the key findings of several of the DoD investigations: a near total absence of coherent planning and preparation for interrogation operations in Iraq, setting the conditions for torture to emerge.

Lagouranis describes receiving anachronistic training, “designed for war with the Soviet Union, all based on the idea that we would be questioning uniformed POWs, maybe Russians or East Germans… Our courses in interrogation were based on doctrine established in the late 1940s” (35, 37). As Lagouranis was learning about interrogating East German POWs, DoD personnel were developing their own approaches to interrogation in the midst of confusing and contradictory policy directives. As the DoD’s Fay-Jones report pointed out, “By mid-October [2003], interrogation policy in Iraq had changed three times in less than thirty days” (42). In this atmosphere, it is perhaps not surprising that coercive approaches approved by the Secretary of Defense for use with “enemy combatants” at GTMO migrated to Iraq. As the Fay-Jones report notes, “these practices were accepted as [standard operating procedure] by newly arrived interrogators” (63).

Here again, Lagouranis’ account vividly illustrates what Fay-Jones hints at: a marketplace of techniques, in which experienced interrogators exchange ideas about how to “break” detainees as novices listen and learn. Faced with demands to get information about IEDs, from Arabic-speaking insurgents, Lagouranis learns that interrogators in Afghanistan “tried anything that had a chance of working – stress positions, dogs, sexual humiliation, and worse” (35). This hints at how knowledge flows laterally through the Army, across theaters and contexts, to be appropriated and put into practice. Interestingly, the military’s lack of preparedness for interrogation operations in the Middle East is mirrored in Lagouranis’ own inexperience. He describes one of his early interrogation performances: “Lots of yelling, lots of intimidation… My team was impressed and full of praise. All my novice skullduggery and liberal use of Fear Up Harsh had looked to them like magic. They were as green as I was and we didn’t see that I had performed a bad interrogation” (55).

Lagouranis’ story also foregrounds issues that are largely absent from DoD accounts: for example, the existence and perptuation of racially charged constructions of an Arab Other, and the way that torture dehumanizes both prisoner and interrogator. It’s in his discussion of Othering that Lagouranis introduces us to Raphael Patai. He arrives at Abu Ghraib in early 2004, just as the Army is realizing something is terribly wrong. “Something very bad happened here,” a colonel tells a group of interrogators assembled for their introductory briefing, adding defensively, “We’re not doing anything wrong” (16). This is the rather unnerving introduction to what’s supposed to be an introductory briefing by an Army psychologist on Arab culture and psychology, largely informed by – you guessed it – The Arab Mind. As the psychologist presents bits and pieces of Patai’s ideas to his audience, Lagouranis learns that,

“Arabs, apparently, can’t create a timeline. The don’t think linearly or rationally. They have a different relationship with truth than we do… they think through association, not logic or reason…. Lying is not taboo or dishonorable to Arabs… so you can’t trap them in a contradiction or force them to admit they’re lying. They’ll consider you impolite and uncultured.”

The audience seems ready to accept simplistic stereotypes the trainer is feeding them. To Lagouranis’ dismay, his fellow novice interrogators were “nodding in understanding and agreement.” Later, he sees them referring to Patai “as a definitive guide, and interpreting its sweeping statements as practical advice,” though he does not elaborate as to what that means. (17-18). Interestingly, Lagouranis denies ever seeing sexual humiliation occurring, though he confesses that he probably would have joined in if he had.

There’s some irony in Lagouranis’ desire to be put in a situation over which he has no control, and the fact that he winds up doing interrogation in a war zone, where he is expected to take control of other human beings and extract information from them. Walking through Abu Ghraib, he realizes that he has never interacted “with anyone on such unequal footing, and here I held pretty much sovereign power over them.” At the same time, the setting exerts a tremendous power over Lagouranis: “Prison has, like the army, its own culture, structure, and mores… I watched other guards and interrogators, followed their cues, and retained a little envy over how easily they seemed to accept that some men are free while others are in cages” (30). He quickly learns the importance of burying empathy under a veneer of toughness. When he mentions that he sometimes feels sorry for the prisoners, two of his fellow interrogators round on him. “‘You have no business feeling that way’, Eliza told me. ‘You’re not their psychiatrist. You’re not their friend’” (42).

It isn’t long before Lagouranis begins to enjoy the power. Realizing that “torture victims… break on the fear of more and worse pain to come,” Lagouranis wants to “go further.” He shackles detainees and forces them to spend the night outside, kneeling, in the cold. He uses dogs to threaten and frighten detainees – playing on what his superiors tell him is a cultural “Arab fear of dogs” (108). In a shipping container outfitted with a strobe light and a boom box, he interrogates hooded detainees by screaming questions over the music. At one point, Lagouranis is so caught up in the interrogation that he imagines cutting off a detainee’s fingers (127).

It is about this time that the Senate hearings into Abu Ghraib begin, inspiring a crisis of conscience for Lagouranis, who realizes,“The mission was a failure. We were ruining the lives of thousands by the day. The institution was rife with incompetence, from top to bottom, and I couldn’t escape the fact that the incompetence I hated was my own as well” (149). Lagouranis develops a brief friendship with a prisoner, Hakeem, who shows him the “huge cultural chasm between Americans and Iraqis” (177). Reading Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” Lagouranis realizes how well the story sums up the American experience in Iraq: “It seemed to me like everything we were doing here went back to that perception of the “Arab mind,” and the notion that all they understand is force. Here, our display of force made us look weak” (178).

Not surprisingly, Lagouranis has been torn apart by military personnel for his abuse allegations, particularly those involving Navy SEALS. However, after reading so many of the sworn statements of DoD personnel who’ve testified for the various investigations that DoD has conducted, I doubt that Lagouranis’ account is unique.

2 thoughts on “Fear and Othering in Iraq: The Lagouranis Account

  1. Laura, this is fascinating, necessary, and indeed depressing work. Thank you for doing this. In the fall of 2004, after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, I did a short piece for Anthropology News, looking much too briefly at the implications of using anthropological texts as the basis for understanding Abu Ghraib and the GWOT. Later that fall, though, something else struck me as a possible context for the understandings and models young soldiers may have brought to the practice of humiliating prisoners. I saw the very popular movie “Jackass” in a hotel room somewhere. Although folks like Rush Limbaugh have been rightly dismissed for claiming that the abuse at AG was no worse that fraternity pranks, it’s possible that particular habits of media use by young men might have contributed imagery or inspiration to some of their actions as soldiers. The “Jackass” film and television series shows young men engaging voluntarily in various kinds of painful and humiliating activities (e.g. tying bottle rockets to their penises and setting them off). The content of the show, concentrating on self-inflicted pain and on genital and scatalogical display, might be a source of inspiration separate from the sorts of “Arab stereotypes” drawn from the work of Patai and others, particularly insofar as it approached pain and humiliation as a form of entertainment. Elements of male youth culture might be worth following up on.
    It’s worth emphasizing as well that there is widespread use of standard and legitimate anthropological research, badly mischaracterized and misunderstood by those in other fields, particularly psychology and psychiatry, entering into some military evaluations of “enemy psychology.” I’ve seen the work of Clifford Geertz as well as that of Donald Cole and Soraya Altorki–respected Middle East anthropologists–cited in military and psychological periodicals and websites as support for various negative claims about Arab psychosexual development and thought (e.g., that polygamy predisposes young Arab men to develop deep latent resentment toward “the absent father,” making them more susceptible to sudden, overwhelming rage). The chaos of the situation and the naivete of the young soldiers thrust into it is matched on the other end of the line by tightly disciplined readings (whether by psychoanalysts or political scientists) of anthropological data.

  2. Gregory, I remember your article well – in fact, I’ve cited it in several of the drafts that I put together around this topic. It was a short and very sharp piece.

    Add to what you’ve said the idea of SERE – Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape – the abuse of prisoners seems to reflect a lot of the themes in that training, and certainly the archival material supports this. But that’s obviously not everything, as the archival material also shows some really bizarre constructions of an Other at play, too. Then add to that Laurie’s comments about the military’s general clumsiness in dealing with the nuances of culture, and the utter chaos with which the war was launched, and the literature in group psychology on torture and evil (i.e., Waller and Zimbardo), and you begin to get a sense of how complicated this whole problem is. Reducing it to “Patai as torture manual” or “Patai as source of stereotypes” is far too simple (simplistic?).

    I’ve started my own blog on this work – please contact me off list (kaidog@mac.com) and let’s exchange ideas. I’m thrilled to hear from you.

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