Everything that’s happening isn’t me
doing it, it’s what the cold’s doing, the music’s
doing, it’s what gravity’s doing to the guy
and if I can’t imagine what it’s like
how much less can someone
outside the whole situation see it straight on
when what somebody else is doing
might be worse than what I’m doing,
and say there’s only concertina wire
between you and the town and you’re
getting mortared all the time, and if infantry brings
you a guy you think is shooting mortars, scaring
him with a muzzled dog doesn’t seem like the worst trick.
I was willing to try it. I didn’t know it wasn’t going to work.
So let’s say the source is in a field in a tent
at dawn when the desert breeze
has dried the dew and all the ropes relent
so that he gently sways at ease
from its supporting steel pole
that as far as orders go is in accord
with how far we’ve been told we can go
but if you find yourself speaking on the record,
strictly speaking we’re bound
by the memo which says that using a knot
like this so the guy can’t make a sound
when the rope goes even slightly taut,
might be pushing it, so we need to be aware
of how all this might look to the press corp.
I was dreaming about S-2, just like my uncle in the War
—S-2 means Intelligence. I was taking two prisoners
back to the rear but my dream kept putting this Major
in my way—we got stopped by the Major who asked where
we were headed and when I said, “The rear,”
the Major said, pointing toward the front, “The rear
is back there. Don’t you know any better?”
And so I said, “Yes, Sir!” and turned the prisoners
around until the Major walked out of sight.
And then we turned around again and one prisoner shook
his head and said in some dream tongue that
I completely got, “Your officers are
just as dumb as ours.” And we all stood there
laughing, and all of us were thinking, Just our luck!
As if all this is being scanned by the green light
in the barcode scanner, I’m walking around in aisle 8
looking for Ding Dongs when the fluorescence makes me
think of forcing guys to do the frog squat or how we’d
strip a guy and make him sit in the snow naked or maybe we’d
put a sandbag over a guy’s head so that this one guy
keeps begging me to take off his hood just so he
can see the sun and walk around a little while the green light
keeps flashing, and the total keeps increasing as I get
closer to the head of the line so that I’m thinking what a mess
this guy is, how isolation is just flattening him, and so I
go and do the only thing I can do—interrogate him about
his abuse—and the machine in its machine voice says,
Please place the items in your bag and take your receipt.
Part of what I did was turn myself into a dog.
I mean think like a dog. We had dog handlers
and they’d cue the dog to lunge and bark at the prisoner
who’d be wearing blacked-out goggles so he couldn’t see the muzzle
on the dog, he just knew there was this dog
going nuts in the room with him, a big angry dog
that might scare him so much he’d piss his pants,
literally. But then he’d figure out the dog
wasn’t going to attack. By this time I’d be sick
of the whole thing but then I’d have to turn into gravel
or concrete or plywood because we’d make
him crawl across gravel, concrete, plywood, we’d have three strobes
going at once, we’d lock this guy in a little box
and like me he’s afraid of insects and I’d have to turn into ants.
In one side of my brain I’m seeing him healthy and in the other
I’m standing guard at three in the morning
outside the shipping container where he’s
inside with super loud music and flashing lights, and these
four sergeants are standing around me, all wanting
to get in on the interrogation and I’m a specialist, and they’re
like, Let’s go and fuck the guy up, and I have to control these guys
who outrank and outnumber me, and they’ve got weapons
and I don’t because I’m guarding the prisoner—and then his face
is on these two screens again and in one he’s just totally broken
down while in the other he’s got this perfect moustache
that somehow doesn’t seem to belong to his face and guys
are banging on the shipping container or throwing stones
at it and I’m yelling at the guy, How do I control this situation?
You might think this is not a good defense either,
but the things I did weren’t really that horrible.
I mean, I saw some really horrible torture.
And I’m sure like every torturer would say this,
‘Other people are doing worse things, other people
are carrying things much further than this—’
like the guys we were leaving out in the cold,
I was always the guy who went out and kept checking
on them, but most of our people just sat in the office watching
DVDs while these guys were out there, out in the cold.
I was bringing them in and warming them up.
I never hit a prisoner, or shocked them, did mock executions.
But sure, hypothermia or stress positions
might do more damage than beating someone up…
But there are other answers, too. You’re in a war zone
and things get blurred. We wanted intelligence but it really
became absolutely morally impossible for me
to continue when I realized that most of the people we
were dealing with were innocent. But it was a very blurry line—
I can say I was following orders and that’s partly true.
I was wondering, At what time do I put my foot down?
And there were times when I said, I’m not crossing this line.
I saw barbaric traits begin to seep out of me—you’re
faced with two choices—disobey direct orders or
become a monster. It made it easier if I thought
I was actually dealing with a real-life bad guy—but
as I said, these are flawed arguments, but if you
think of it that way, it makes it easier to do.
Image: O’Keeffe, Georgia. “Black Abstraction.” 1927. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Tom Sleigh’s many books include STATION ZED, ARMY CATS (John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters), and SPACE WALK ($100,000 Kingsley Tufts Award). He’s received the PSA’s Shelley Prize, a Guggenheim, two NEAs, and many other awards. In 2018, he has a book of essays and a book of poems forthcoming from Graywolf, THE LAND BETWEEN TWO RIVERS: POETRY IN AN AGE OF REFUGEES; and ONE WAR EVERYWHERE. He teaches at Hunter College and works as a journalist in the Middle East and Africa.