I should never be mistaken for a hero. But as my unit completed a year in Iraq, as we waited in Kuwait to deploy back to the United States, our officers and leaders called us heroes all the time. "You did a great job. You saved lives. You should be proud." The disgrace of Abu Ghraib was hanging over all of our heads, and the entire U.S. project in Iraq was starting to look like an utter failure. Our leaders were trying to keep morale from sliding into a pit. They really overdid it with their praise and didn't do much to change how we felt about the mission. Finally, one of our senior NCOs went completely over the top and, in an honest moment, broke some of the tension by making fun of himself and those who called us heroes. As he led us on a ruck march, he shouted, "You are the lions of the desert! You are the scorpions of Abu Ghraib!"
I was an interrogator with a military intelligence battalion. When they said we saved lives, they meant it was through gathering intelligence. When they said I did a great job, they meant in the interrogation booth, breaking prisoners. When they said those things, I didn't know what they were talking about.
Leaving Iraq, I couldn't get over the feeling that I had accomplished almost nothing; I had not helped advance our goal of rebuilding the country, and, in fact, I had done horrible things that probably turned Iraqis against us. When they called me a hero, I bristled.
We landed at JFK on our way back to Fort Gordon, Georgia. We had a long layover, but were given very specific reminders that we were still on duty and still under the prevailing orders of a combat zone — namely, no booze.
A buddy and I didn't even think about obeying that order. We went to the bar farthest from our gate, asked the bartender to put some whisky in coffee cups, and sat in a booth, trying to fade into a corner despite the fact that our uniforms screamed at everyone who walked by. Most tried to avert their eyes. We were obviously back from Iraq and they didn't know what to say. A few of them approached and thanked us awkwardly for our service.
Soon, a very happy but somewhat confused man joined us. He said he was dropping off his wife and heard that a plane loaded with soldiers back from Iraq had landed here. He expected the bar to be full of uniforms, but there was only us. He insisted on buying us drinks — that's why he came. He was dying to buy a soldier a drink. He called us heroes.
I wanted to change the topic before he started asking me uncomfortable questions about Iraq. "So, what do you do?" I asked. Turns out he was a firefighter, and yes, he'd been there, Ground Zero. He said that most of the guys in his Brooklyn fire station were killed in the collapse of the towers.
Here was an actual hero, someone who regularly made a difference and undoubtedly saved lives. I almost couldn't bear to sit in his presence, let alone allow him to buy me whiskey, and it wasn't just the comparison between him and me that I couldn't stand. It was a reminder that some folks in Washington had taken 9/11 — which to this man was a very personal tragedy — and used it to justify sending me, and others like me, to Iraq. This man's government had betrayed him immensely.
It was hard for me to think of myself as a hero when I remembered Iraqis like Alim, a fifteen-year-old boy who cooperated with us, gave us information we could use, and then was rewarded with a trip to Abu Ghraib and an indefinite detention. Or another fifteen-year-old who came to me with his face battered and bruised, and had no idea why we were holding him captive. Or the old, feeble men who could barely move after I was done with them.
It's hard to be a hero when your job is to deal with prisoners whom you hold absolute power over. Still, when people hear I was an interrogator, they get very interested. It seems like many of them think of my job as a kind of duel, a face-to-face match, a test of power and a test of wills. When I was in training, I thought of interrogation like that, and I thought I'd have a chance to save lives, even if I never rose to the level of "hero."
So I went into my first interrogations with gusto, and this enthusiasm came out in the form of Fear Up Harsh, a specific "approach" to a prisoner that attempts to raise his level of fear, and does so in a harsh manner — lots of yelling, maybe some physical intimidation, like slamming a fist on the table or flinging furniture around. It established me as the powerful one in the room; if it was a duel, I won. But did I get intelligence? Save lives? Protect America? I don't believe I did any of those things.
Excerpted by permission from Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator's Dark Journey Through Iraq Copyright © Tony Lagouranis and Allen Mikaelian, 2007. Published by New American Library Caliber.