Tortured Confessions: The Rumpus Interview with Justine Sharrock


In her book Tortured: When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things, journalist Justine Sharrock takes a close look at low-ranking soldiers who engaged in acts of torture. The project started as Sharrock’s graduate school thesis, and gained momentum as she traveled around the country conducting interviews with more then two dozen soldiers, four of whom become the book’s central characters. With her intimate investigative journalism, Sharrock probes emotional landscapes as much as the political and societal contexts in which they exist.  She manages to uncover the gritty memories, looming anxieties and regrets of her subjects, and I was left wondering how in the world she got these men to reveal stories to her that they still couldn’t tell their families.

Once I met her, I understood; her enormous brown eyes, demure manner, and sweet voice instantly make her someone you want to talk to. Though she may seem soft-spoken, Tortured is anything but. With her shrewd research and unyielding tenacity, Sharrock paints a searing portrait of the disturbing circumstances that lead soldiers to torture. She also takes a look at how torture scars its perpetrators and why America’s engagement in torture has forever changed its international reputation. Tortured is a must-read for those who have not been closely following the ramifications of the Iraq war just as it is essential for those with any interest in the Guantanamo Bay detention disaster.


The Rumpus: Why did you focus on lower-ranking soldiers as subjects for your book?

Justine Sharrock: One big difference with what is happening with the current war is that the military is relying on low-level soldiers who don’t have the same training to engage in torture. They’ve used no-touch torture before, but it was CIA agents who were more trained and more prepared to do this, whereas the low-ranking soldiers had no idea that this is what they were going to get into. So I think it had more of a profound effect on them, but I also think it’s an interesting way to look at how the torture regime has affected all of us as Americans.

Low-ranking soldiers also have the least amount of power. If you speak to an officer, they have more ability to make their own decisions, and to refuse orders, and they are more involved in the planning process. Low-ranking soldiers lack a lot of agency.

Rumpus: Are there instances of high-ranking officials coming out against the tactics used at Guantanamo?

Sharrock: Yeah, there are. [In Tortured, Sharrock writes about Lieutenant Commander Matthew Diaz, a Navy JAG Officer, who was imprisoned for leaking names of detainees in attempts to help lawyers file cases. A recent article in Mother Jones, “Is the Army Forcing Out a Gitmo Whistleblower?” takes a look at Lieutenant Colonel Darrel Vandeveld, who spoke out against injustices at Guantanamo and may be expelled from the military as a result].

Rumpus: What do you think made you so successful in extracting all the painful memories from the soldiers you interviewed? How do you think you were able to earn their trust?

Sharrock: A lot of it is the willingness to listen. I think oftentimes when journalists interview people, they try and push their ideas on the person. My goal was just to get inside their heads. I spent a lot of time trying to understand the pro-torture point of view. I had to suspend my own beliefs. I thought a lot of what some of the soldiers did was pretty abhorrent, but I withheld judgment.

Chris Arendt

But the soldiers also are just so desperate for someone to talk to who is a neutral party. Also, speaking with a journalist comes with the idea that it’s a form of whistleblowing, that they are doing a larger form of good by getting the message out there and speaking out against the war. Whereas if they are speaking with their wives, they have to face the fact that their wives will think differently of them, think lesser of them. Or if they talk to other vets or other soldiers, then they are just seen as total pussies, or being traitorous. Speaking with a psychiatrist in the VA, they are afraid of being deemed crazy or just given anti-depressants. Even Chris (Chris Arendt, one of Sharrock’s four main subjects in Tortured) was afraid that they would “cure him” and he would be sent back to war.

Rumpus: Tortured argues that the acceptance of torture tactics, even though they may be disguised, is widespread.

Sharrock: Yeah, and I mean that’s something that living in San Francisco and New York, I was really surprised by.  Obviously it’s stronger in certain pockets of America.

Rumpus: And you focus on very conservative areas in your book– Texas, Appalachia– but how widespread do you think the acceptance of the use of torture was before there was a spotlight on Guantanamo?

Sharrock: Immediately post-9/11, people were calling for the use of torture. I went back to do LexisNexis search and I think it was September 12th, 2001, there was an article about the discussion in classrooms where people were arguing for the use of torture.

It’s not just conservative areas. I took a counter-terrorism class at the International Policy School at Columbia, and we had a discussion about whether or not to use torture, and no one raised their hand protesting it. Everyone there agreed. And this was New York City, Columbia University, and these are also people who were considering jobs going into government. And look at the people in the Bush administration, that’s not Appalachia. The patriotism and the anger post-9/11 was so strong, and it really did shape people’s beliefs. But even now, you look at Obama’s decision to continue indefinite detention, and there’s still a lot of sentiment proposing that. Or you have Dick Cheney on network news supporting war crimes. And there isn’t outrage.

Rumpus: The question I found myself asking, and this is a really tough question, was that if you were a soldier in the circumstances of the soldiers in your book, would you have acted differently?

Brandon Neely

Sharrock: That’s a hard question because no one wants to say that they would do that. Especially when you are using the word torture. My editor actually asked that of me and I mean, I am so foreign from the military world that if I got drafted I would try and run away or get pregnant or something. It’s hard for me to get into that mindset, so a lot of the reporting was trying to understand that military world. In some ways, since I was so foreign to it, it helped–there’s an argument about whether it’s better to do insider journalism verses outsider reporting. The fact that they didn’t fully understand what they were doing could lead me to do those things. For instance, when Brandon Neely was asked to check for weapons every hour and didn’t realize that that was a way to implement sleep deprivation. That’s something I could see myself getting into.

It’s hard for civilians to understand the extremity of the repercussions [of refusing orders or speaking out against torture]. It’s not just that you are letting down your friends, but what you’re doing is treasonous, you could go to prison. It’s hard to imagine saying no with all those circumstances.

Rumpus: So, you don’t have a military background. What do you think compelled you to stick with this project?

Maddie Oatman has interviewed musicians and writers for The Rumpus. She's the research editor at Mother Jones, where she also writes. A Boulder transplant, she can often be found on her bike, skis, or cooking with vegetables, and she wrote her English thesis on a gay red-winged monster and Billy the Kid. Follow her on Twitter or read occasional musings on her blog Oats. More from this author →