For God And Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire by James Yee (with Aimee Molloy) (PublicAffairs, 240 pages, $24.00)
One Woman's Army: The Commanding General of Abu Ghraib Tells Her Story by Janis Karpinski (with Steven Strasser) (Hyperion, 256 pages, $24.95)
War upends ordinary lives. At times, it can catapult individuals, almost overnight, from modest obscurity into painful notoriety. James Yee and Janis Karpinski -- the former charged with treason, the latter with negligent leadership -- have seen their lives convulsed, if not undone, by the war on terrorism. Witnesses rather than perpetrators in the larger story of detainee abuse in American military prisons, their complementary stories provide first-person accounts of an interrogation system in which, even according to various Army reports, “[i]mprovisation was the order of the day,” leading to “missed opportunities,” “ambiguities” in policy, poor leadership, and insufficient oversight resulting in numerous instances of physical abuse and dozens of deaths. Accused of malfeasance, both Karpinski and Yee have, quite naturally, written briefs in their own defense. Despite the evident differences between them, their stories are remarkably alike, not to mention unnervingly close to the military's official narrative.
As a third-generation Chinese American, a West Point graduate, and a Muslim cleric, Captain James Yee appears at first to offer, in his complex persona, an opportunity both to diminish America's dangerous ignorance of the Muslim world and to help meet the demands of the post–9-11 world. Quiet, obedient, and somewhat guileless according to his own description, Yee seems to have been unattached to much of the world beyond his immediate family. A classic down-home, melting-pot American -- grateful, successful and patriotic -- he dreamed as a kid of playing for the Yankees.
Scratch at the surface, however, and you find another Yee. You discover what, he insists, made him so attractive to the U.S. military yet eventually led to his undoing -- namely, his religious conversion. At the age of 23, while serving in the Army in Saudi Arabia after Operation Desert Storm, Yee encountered the teachings of Islam and decided to become a Muslim military cleric. After leaving active duty and joining the inactive reserves, he performed the Hajj twice in a row and enrolled in Abu Noor University in Damascus to pursue a degree in Islamic Studies. His stay in Syria lasted four years and when he returned home, it was with a Syrian wife of Palestinian descent and their infant daughter.
Then, in 1999, the U.S. Army asked him to re-enlist as a Muslim cleric. As Yee had no religious credentials, military authorities asked the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Studies in Virginia to accept his credits from Abu Noor, which they did. Three years later, in September 2002, Yee was ordered to Guantanamo to serve as the sole Muslim chaplain for detainees and staff.
During a year's service at Guantanamo, Yee witnessed or heard about repeated beatings, regular abuse of the Quran, irregularities in the interrogation regime exemplified by the creation of Satanic circles in which detainees were forced to declare that “Satan is [my] God, not Allah,” the intentional taunting of prisoners in order to incite conflict, attempts at suicide, and a general pattern of personal humiliation that included publicly visible toilets. Yee tried, tentatively, to intervene in the abusive and dehumanizing treatment of those to whom he was hired to minister. After several such attempts, he was arrested, charged with “mutiny and sedition, aiding the enemy, spying, and espionage,” threatened with the death penalty, and tossed into solitary confinement for ten weeks. His house was searched without a warrant, his reputation besmirched. But the government was ultimately unable to prove its case. Thwarted, the authorities at first tried substituting new charges. Finally, Yee's accusers simply had no choice but to give up. The story, taken as a whole, leaves the reader with the thought that maybe what makes Yee's an American story of our time is simply his survival of injustice.
Like Yee, Janis Karpinski, the military brigade commander on whose watch the Abu Ghraib photos were taken, was deeply committed to the Army and had even decided with her husband of many years that her love of soldiering precluded having children. Though she was in the Reserve at the time of Abu Ghraib, she identified with the career Army. As one of only a few women to join the military police, she had suffered predictable put-downs and come-ons as well as professional neglect. But she had become a jumpmaster, worked for an antiterrorism task force in Germany, and was eventually promoted to captain, taking command of an MP company. Over time, she reports, the constant discrimination against a woman in command began to “wear me down,” and after nine and a half years of service, she retired from the active Army and joined the Army Reserve.
Like Yee, Karpinski has a long-standing attachment to the Middle East. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Karpinski was also called first to Saudi Arabia and then to the United Arab Emirates where, for five years, she oversaw a plan to integrate women into the UAE army. Returning home in 1997, Karpinski commanded a reservist battalion in Florida and, after 9-11, was promoted to brigadier general in command of the 3,400 men and women of the 800th MP Brigade in Iraq.
The leadership challenge in Iraq at the time was daunting. Amid mortar fire, without sufficient plumbing or clothing, and without clear instructions about her mission, Karpinski oversaw a network of prisons, including Abu Ghraib. By her account, she was able to maintain control over the situation until the killing of Uday and Qusay Hussein, the “windfall that [also] became our curse.” Thereafter, indiscriminate round-ups of Iraqis expanded the population at Abu Ghraib, from 300 to 7,000 in just a few months. Karpinski struggled to do her best in a deteriorating situation until one day in January 2004, when she was presented with photos of detainees stacked naked one atop another, butts in the air, her very own soldiers smirking and giving thumbs up. To this day, Karpinski maintains: “I never had the slightest idea that anything out of the ordinary was happening there.” Still, the Taguba investigation into the abuses at Abu Ghraib singled her out for lack of leadership and other failings and recommended that she be reprimanded and removed from her post. Although many of the charges against Karpinski were eventually dropped, she was ultimately charged with dereliction of duty, relieved of command, and demoted from general to colonel. In the ongoing scandal of upper-echelon impunity characteristic of the war on terrorism, she remains the highest-ranking officer to be punished for the practices at Abu Ghraib.
Unlike Yee's Guantanamo, Karpinski's Abu Ghraib is located in a combat zone with thousands of prisoners rather than hundreds. Nevertheless, their accounts echo and reinforce each other in striking ways. Both of them emphasize how ordinary protocols were summarily suspended and official chains of command circumvented. Yee was told outright that if he received valuable information from detainees he was “not to notify our chain of command,” but to go directly to the counterintelligence officer. Though she was the brigade commander, Karpinski was repeatedly left in the dark about policy, especially when it came to cellblocks 1A and 1B, for which she agreed quite early, and with only a handshake, to authorize a transfer of control to military intelligence.
Yee and Karpinski observed not only the breakdown of standard practices, but also what each now says was irresponsible and illegal behavior toward detainees. Although neither provides us with detailed or up-close accounts of the worst bodily cruelties, they both attest credibly to physical abuse. Yee describes the frequent IRFings (use of “initial response force”), which involved beating prisoners in their cages and dragging them to solitary confinement for the slightest infraction. As Yee tells it, the Army wanted to perform the IRFings and often taunted the detainees into reacting. Karpinski describes the riots that followed the harsher regime that ensued when military intelligence took over command of Abu Ghraib. The MPs used lethal force to quell the rioting of 1,500 men, leaving three detainees dead.
Their stories converge on one man in particular, General Geoffrey Miller. If the bookish John Yoo opened legal loopholes that eventually permitted torture, Geoffrey Miller was the soldier who stormed through the breach. Famous for “Gitmo-izing” Abu Ghraib, Miller is a dominant figure in both books. Both Yee and Karpinski hold him accountable for the policies they observed and under which they suffered. A two-star general from Texas and commander of Guantanamo, Miller helped initiate the “softening up” process at Abu Ghraib. According to Yee, “General Miller had a saying that he'd often recite to guards when visiting Camp Delta or whenever seeing troopers around the base. ‘The fight is on!' This was a subtle way of saying that rules regarding the treatment of detainees were relaxed and infractions were easily overlooked.” Yee also reports that “Never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut!” was Miller's way of reminding troops that what happened at Gitmo was not to be discussed beyond Gitmo's perimeters.
Miller's aphorisms reflected a general harshness at the prison. His policies, according to Yee, targeted Muslims -- detainees and soldiers alike -- leading Yee to the conclusion that abusing Islam was the Army's most cherished “weapon” inside Guantanamo. Yee asserts also that “in the first few months of General Miller's command, there was a rash of suicide attempts.” Yee's comments on Miller need to be read with some skepticism, needless to say. Miller was the one to indict him and to keep the legal battle going as long as possible. But his account differs little from what other sources reveal. Acknowledging Miller's denials, for instance, Karpinski insists that, upon his arrival at Abu Ghraib, Miller told the officers: “Look, the first thing you have to do is treat these prisoners like dogs.” Moreover, she associates the arrival of contract interrogators with Miller's new regime.
Both Yee and Karpinski claim that they were assigned to perform an impossible task and then maligned for doing their best. But their mutually reinforcing accounts of Miller are not at all contradicted by the reports on detention and interrogation policies at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo that have been undertaken or commissioned by the Department of Defense. The Schlesinger Report on Abu Ghraib, for example, released in August 2004, acknowledged that the policy outlining the relationship between military intelligence and military police was basically Miller's creation. The bulk of the Church Report remains classified, but its executive summary states that Miller introduced the new and expanded interrogation techniques to Abu Ghraib in the fall of 2003 -- only months before the notorious photographs were taken. The Schmidt Report, a military investigation into Guantanamo that was released in July 2005, documents “creative, aggressive, and persistent techniques” with “abusive and degrading impact” under Miller's command. This same report called for a reprimand for Miller, a recommendation that was rejected by Miller's superior officer.
The officially commissioned reports corroborate the accounts of Yee and Karpinski in even greater detail when it comes to the overall problems of the Army's detention and interrogation program. The reports cite poor training, inadequate resources, weak leadership (including but not limited to Karpinksi's), the opaque role of military intelligence, a confusion about which interrogation manuals were supposed to be followed, and a general disorder in procedures and protocols.
So, what do we learn from these authors that we might not otherwise know? While their descriptions of abuse are reserved and unremarkable, their portrayal of military culture is bracing. Despite their reiterated allegiance to the Army, both Yee and Karpinski depict the Army overall as a troubled institution in dire need of reform. Each of them was set up and persecuted by Army personnel in a range of positions. Their accounts suggest that disarray, tolerance of abusive behavior toward detainees, and a willingness to disregard the law are all too frequent at every level and that the military, consequently, is poorly prepared to act consistently in the country's highest interests.
Both books leave one wondering about remedy. Karpinski hopes that someday the “chain of command going in the other direction,” presumably from the top down, will be held accountable. More simply, Yee seeks an apology. “An apology would make us feel confident that our military -- the tool with which we defend and encourage American values of justice, equality, tolerance and diversity -- truly upholds and defends these principles itself.” We all want the military to keep us safe, but that safety depends on the military being able to control itself. These books are cautionary tales about how far short of that goal it now stands.