Tortured Confessions: The Rumpus Interview with Justine Sharrock

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Sharrock: That was one of the things that drew me to the project: the hypocrisy of what we like to think of ourselves and the reality of what we do, both in war times but also our human rights record, especially internationally. In each war, the lines are redrawn in terms of what’s moral or ethical or allowed, so that was the whole point of the Geneva Conventions, to set that precedent. But now that our officials are saying the Geneva Conventions don’t apply, that negates decades of trying to change the international norm.

I mean, America doesn’t recognize many of the United Nations treaties. We’ve always had our own treaties that are very similar. It’s not the fact that they were doing things differently than they’d done in the past, it’s the fact that they were arguing openly that it should be legal to do them, and that’s a big shift that sets enormous precedence. And that it wasn’t just covert CIA agents doing this stuff, but rather ordinary Americans on such a widespread level. I think that does represent a significant shift.

Rumpus: In your introduction, you point to a kind of suffering Veterans deal with that “is not as immediately obvious as the death tolls, and is easier to dismiss,” when soldiers are “left adrift to try to make sense of the horrors they had seen and to understand who they had become.” Many of the soldiers you interviewed suffer from severe PTSD. Did you see signs of progress in how we treat and regard PTSD in the United States? From your perspective, are we making strides in recognizing the psychological impacts of war?

Sharrock: After Vietnam, they put PTSD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (The American Psychiatric Association added it to their third edition in 1980). Having it be a disease instead of an emotional reaction makes it a lot easier for soldiers to admit to it because they can get an official stamp that it’s a disease they have rather than just an inability to cope. There’s still a huge stigma against it, but I think we are making strides, mostly in terms of acceptance that it is a real problem. But I think we still have a long way to go in terms of addressing it. The VA system could be doing a lot more. They tend to just over-prescribe drugs that can often lead to further problems.

There are other aspects of it too that people don’t really consider. Some soldiers have a really hard time holding down jobs or being able to go to school because of their emotional difficulties. There are some good programs. One is Boots to Books, a support network for soldiers who are going to college. Things like being able to sit in a large, crowded lecture hall can be difficult for some of them. Or if you have insomnia, maybe you need a bit more flexible schedule. There’s also a green jobs program, Veterans Green Jobs and an organization facilitating veterans getting farming jobs.

Andrew Duffy, who’s in the book, tried to get a job at the VA hospital because he had medic training. But then he had some interpersonal problems, so they demoted him to being a janitor. And that’s at the VA, where they should be able to understand. There are ways that you could address the problem beyond just setting up more psychiatric help.

Rumpus: I found it intriguing how you treat the perpetrators of torture as victims of torture as well, so that the act of torturing is a form of torture itself. Do you see any evidence that the military or the government affiliated with the military has made this realization?

Sharrock: No, I don’t think so. There’s a recognition that soldiers in general deal with repercussions, but I think people assume that it’s the soldiers in combat who are going to have PTSD, not people working in prisons. And that was a common reaction to these soldiers: “Why do you have PTSD? You were just a prison guard. You weren’t fighting.” So I think it’s harder for them to get any recognition.

One problem with working in the prisons is that you are face to face with the person you are breaking down over a long period of time. Whereas if you are sniper, you’re shooting at someone who’s really far away and who you only see for a second.

No one has done any studies about how PTSD has affected soldiers who work in prisons as opposed to those out in the streets. I tried really hard to find that and no one is tracking it. There are studies about people engaging in torture in other countries and the repercussions of that, like in Argentina for instance. It would be a great to have a widespread survey of that. The book is just the story of a couple of people.

Rumpus: There is a part in your book when one of your subjects, Andrew Duffy, reaches Abu Ghraib after the scandal over photographs had reached the media and the prison was supposedly cleaned up. I was shocked, like Duffy was, to learn how little the prison had reformed their use of torture techniques, including sleep deprivation, segregation in cage-like cells, and holding prisoners in stress positions for prolonged periods. How does our country allow the military to get away with all of this “grey area,” the use of torture that is not identified as torture? How was it so well hidden from us?

Sharrock: That’s done on a lot of different levels–trying to represent the Abu Ghraib scandal as an exceptional case, and then trying to say “we cleaned it up” when obviously that didn’t happen. One is even just the rhetorical devices used, when you say things like “no touch” torture or “stress positions” or explaining that people are made to stand for hours, that whitewashes it and makes it easier for us to accept. And also making all the arguments that it is legal to be doing this. I’ve had so many people ask me “what right do you have to condemn what these soldiers were doing when the highest officials have said that it’s OK?” So when you come out and criticize these things, you’re saying that George Bush or Cheney are wrong and you’re questioning the arguments of the Office of Legal Council.

Also, Americans don’t want to know about it. I’ve heard from people that they are hesitant to read the books because it’s something you don’t like to think about, and it’s easier if you don’t pay attention.

Rumpus: You bring up the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War many times in Tortured. What sorts of things have they been doing since Winter Soldier?

Sharrock: They are a great organization and I’m actually working with them to set up some joint events. They are really good on helping soldiers on a personal level and also through their activist work. Soldiers have found a lot of comfort being around other anti-war soldiers and knowing that it’s out there and that it’s a safe space. They were just supporting one soldier who wrote an anti-war song and got in a lot of trouble. They supported him with legal action.  Just getting the word out about what happens at war from the soldiers themselves makes it a lot easier for people to believe. A lot of people think the detainees, for instance, are lying when they tell what happen in the prisons.

Rumpus: This has to be such a dark, disturbing subject to write a book about. What are some of the moments of lightness you remember from your experience interviewing and researching these soldiers?

Sharrock: Spending time with Chris’s parents; I mean, they just opened their lives and their home to me. His mom told me afterwords how much it meant to her for me to tell this story, and she sees that it’s going to help her son but also other families like hers. Knowing that makes it worthwhile.

Chris Arendt

It was also interesting just to get to meet such a variety of individuals. Sometimes it would just be hanging out with them, having fun, and I would almost forget the things they’d done and gone through. With Chris especially, I spent two weeks with him and he had a really hard time talking about this stuff. So he would ask me to take days in between, sometimes we would ride bikes around. He took me to where he was doing screen-printing. Sometimes they would even stop me in the middle of reporting and we would just hang out. That also helped build the trust and make them feel more comfortable.

The responsibility of asking people to share those things, you have to take on a burden. It was really difficult to see what these guys are going through.

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Tortured: When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things comes out June 15th. Hear Sharrock read at several events around San Francisco, including the Monthly Rumpus on July 12th at the Make-Out Room.


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 →