This article originally appeared in GQ and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
EVERYBODY THINKS there was a conspiracy at Abu Ghraib.
Everybody thinks there was an order from high up, or that somebody in command must have known. Everybody is wrong. Nobody in command knew about the abuse, because nobody in command cared enough to find out. That was the real problem. The entire command structure was oblivious, living in their own little worlds. So it wasn't a conspiracy—it was negligence, plain and simple. They were all fucking clueless.
The general in charge of the prison was Janis Karpinski, but that didn't mean she was ever there. To actually lay eyes on Karpinski took an act of God. She spent all her time in Kuwait or in the Green Zone Palace. She kept her happy ass in the nice, safe places. The only time she'd come by was when a dignitary was visiting. She'd fly in a half hour before they got there, get briefed, lead the tour, and then fly back out. Other than that, she had no idea what was going on. She did nothing but suck dignitary ass. I guess she didn't like being in an overcrowded, violent prison with constant mortar fire coming in. In the five months I was at Abu Ghraib, I only saw her twice.
You have to understand, we were the most heavily mortared compound in Iraq. From the day we got there until the day I left, nobody took more mortars than we did. Nobody. We were taking them morning and night. It was just something you got used to. It became normal. After a while, we started having these surreal conversations while the mortars were flying. We'd hear the boom of the launch, and then we'd argue about what size it was while the shit was still coming in.
"What do you think that was? A sixty or an eighty?"
"Might have been a 120."
"No, it wasn't big enough to be a 120."
Other times, we'd hear the launch and start counting, just to see how far away it was. If you got to thirty before it blew, you knew they were 700 to a thousand meters away. But that's really all you could do—try to figure out where they were and what they were shooting at you. That, and get pissed off that nobody was shooting back.
The compound had a main prison, which was two stories high, a series of smaller prisons, an administrative building, and a small building called the Death Chamber. That's where Saddam used to torture his prisoners. There was a room with ceramic tile on the walls, floor, and ceiling so the blood would come off easily. Outside, there was a tent camp. That's where we housed the prisoners who'd committed normal crimes. Some of them were really minor offenses that would only get a two-month sentence, but they might be housed for three years while they waited for trial. The system was that backed up.
As long as the mortars landed on a building, it wasn't a big deal—they weren't powerful enough to pierce the roof. But if one landed in the yard or in the tent camp, it could do a lot of damage. Like, one night they got lucky and split our fuel tanker in half. Dropped a mortar right through it. It caused a fire you could see for miles, probably 4,000 gallons of burning fuel. Another time, they dropped one in the middle of a prisoner prayer group. That was pretty bad. These guys had just been sitting in rows, facing Mecca and praying, when the mortar came in. We had fifteen to sixteen dead and a bunch more wounded. We had to dig through the bodies, put them in body bags, and take them to the processing area to check them out of the prison. Whenever a prisoner was brought in, we would ID them with a retina scan and fingerprints, so when they died, we had to process them out the same way. Which meant that, for the rest of the day, we were digging through body bags looking for eyeballs. Sometimes there wasn't an eyeball we could use, so we'd look for a finger. You just had to tune it out. You couldn't let it get to you. You got numb.
But it catches up to you later, when you get home. Like, I slept fine while I was there, but now I have nightmares. And a few days before my unit left Abu Ghraib, all of a sudden people started worrying about mortar attacks for the first time. It was weird. They'd be huddling against the wall together. I found myself crouched in a corner, praying. The numbness was wearing off. That's one of the things you have to keep in mind when you look at the pictures. We all got numb in different ways.
I'LL SAY THIS, TOO: The abuse started earlier than anybody realizes. Nobody has ever said that publicly, but there were things going on before our unit even got there. The day we arrived, back in October of 2003, we were getting a tour of the compound and we saw like fifteen prisoners sitting in their cells in women's underwear. This was day one; nobody from our unit had ever set foot in the prison. We asked the MPs in charge—the Seventy-second, out of Las Vegas—why the prisoners were wearing panties. They told us that it was a corrective action, that these guys had been mortaring the compound. So probably the MPs decided to mess with these guys. This stuff was going on before we arrived. After we took over, it basically just escalated.
The other thing was, there were other government agencies who would come into the prison and handle prisoners. I can't say which agencies, but you can probably guess. Sometimes we didn't know exactly who they were. We'd get a call at like three in the morning from the battalion commander, saying, "You have a bird coming in. You need to take prisoner such and such from cell whatever to the landing zone in fifteen minutes." So I'd put my gear on, cuff the prisoner, bag him, go to the LZ, wait for the helicopter to land, and then hand the prisoner off to the guys inside. I didn't know who they were. Didn't ask. When they tell you not to ask any questions, you don't ask questions. They might bring the prisoner back in a few hours, or the next morning, or two days later. You didn't ask. Other times, they would bring a new prisoner into the compound. You didn't know who they were, or who the prisoner was, or what he had done, or what they were going to do to him. You just handed over the cellblock. One night, this Black Hawk landed at about 4 a.m., and a couple guys came in with a prisoner and took him to tier 1, put sheets up so that nobody could see, and spent the rest of the night in there. They told us to stay away, so we did. Then a couple hours later, they came back out. They were like, "The prisoner is dead." They asked for ice to pack him, and then they said, "You guys clean this up. We weren't here. Have a good day." Got back on the bird and took off, left the dead body right there. Those guys can come in and kill a guy, and there's nothing you can do. There's no record of them. They were never there. They don't exist.
You've probably seen pictures of that prisoner with Graner and Harman crouching next to his dead body, giving the thumbs-up. Well, that's the guy. Everybody takes that picture at face value, but the truth is, Graner and Harman didn't kill him. And when something like that happens, it stretches the limits. Maybe Graner and Harman came away thinking, Okay, let's take it further.
THE EARLIEST PICTURES were from October of 2003, but I didn't discover them until January of 2004. I found the pictures on a CD that Graner had given me. To this day, I'm not sure why he gave me that CD. He probably just forgot which pictures were on it, or he might have assumed that I wouldn't care. I was flipping through them, checking out pictures he had taken in Hilla, where we were stationed before Abu Ghraib, when all of a sudden these other pictures came up. And to be honest, at first I thought they were pretty funny. I'm sorry, people can get mad at me if they want, but I'm not a Boy Scout. To me, that pyramid of naked Iraqis, when you first see it, is hilarious. When it came up out of nowhere like that, I just laughed. I was like, "What the fuck?! I'm looking at a pyramid of asses!" But some of the other pictures didn't sit right with me. The ones of prisoners being beaten, or the one with a naked Iraqi sitting on his knees in front of another naked Iraqi, some of the more sexually-explicit-type stuff to humiliate the prisoners—it just didn't sit right with me. I couldn't stop thinking about it. After about three days, I made a decision to turn the pictures in. You have to understand: I'm not the kind of guy to rat somebody out. I've kept a lot of secrets for soldiers. In the heat of the moment, in a war, things happen. You do things you regret. I have exceeded the proper use of force myself a couple times. But this crossed the line to me. I had the choice between what I knew was morally right and my loyalty to other soldiers. I couldn't have it both ways.
I think the decision would have been harder if they had been different soldiers. But most of these soldiers I had doubts about already. Like Sabrina Harman. She was a piece of shit from the day I met her. Before we ever got to Abu Ghraib, when we were still in Hilla, she had this kitten for three days when a dog came and killed it. So Harman decided to dissect it. She said there were no marks on the outside, so she dissected it and found some ruptured organs or something. And then she decided to mummify it. She tried different methods, but all she ended up with was the head. A damned mummified cat's head, for Christ's sake. This rotted-out head with pebbles for eyes. She stuck it on top of a soda can and carried it around with her everywhere. I didn't give a rat's ass what happened to her. I just tried to avoid her. Or Ivan Frederick, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the night shift. He and I avoided each other, too. We didn't get along. Or Charles Graner. He and I got along, but we weren't friends. Graner is one of those guys, he's got an overpowering aura about him. People just like him. But if you see the other side, you understand that he's not someone you want to get too close to. He's manipulative. He has multiple personalities. He can be this religious guy, talking about God and the way things are supposed to be done, but he's also got this very, very dark, evil side. We were talking in Hilla one time, before we got to Abu Ghraib. I'd been walking around smoking a cigarette, and he was working the gate to our compound, so I was talking to him for like ten minutes, and he was telling me about when he thought his wife was cheating on him. He said that he found himself across the street from their house, up on a hill, with a loaded rifle trained on the door, just waiting for them to come out. I said, "What happened?" and he said, "They never came out."
When I turned the pictures in, that's the story that stuck with me. Because I knew what this guy was capable of.
I ALWAYS WANTED to stay anonymous. At first, I didn't even give my name to the Criminal Investigation Division. I just burned a copy of the pictures onto a CD, typed an anonymous letter, put them in a manila envelope, and handed them to an agent at CID. I said, "This was left in my office," and walked out. But about an hour later, this little short guy named Special Agent Pieron came to my office and started grilling me about where the pictures came from. It took him about half an hour before I gave it up. I said, "Fine, I had the pictures. I'm the one who put them in there." I said, "I'll talk to you after work."
I still didn't think it would be as big a deal as it turned out to be. I thought they would be taken off duty and tried, but I didn't think the world would ever hear about it. I never thought it would explode the way it did.
So after work, I went to Agent Pieron's office, scrolled through the pictures with him, and gave a sworn statement. A few of the soldiers in the pictures he knew, but I identified the rest and told him where the pictures were taken, that kind of thing. But while I was doing it, another CID agent was actually going out and rounding these people up. They worked too fast. They were picking them up while I was still there! So I'm in the back room, and I start to hear voices and people's gear coming off out front. I knew right away whose voices they were. It was Graner, Ambuhl, and England. I looked at Agent Pieron, and I didn't have to say anything. He grabbed the other agent and said, "He's still in here. He is still here."
There was only one way out of the room, so there was basically no way to sneak by. One of the agents went and grabbed all of these blankets and rugs and covered me up with them, made me look like a really tall woman in some kind of ridiculous outfit. Then he told everyone in the room to turn around and face the wall, and they led me out the door and down the corridor and outside. I couldn't see anything; they had to guide me. I was scared as hell.
THE NEXT TWO DAYS, there was a lot of tension and anger in the unit. My first sergeant and my company commander knew what I'd done, and they had a big problem with it. They were pissed that I hadn't come to them first. But the problem was, in the past, every time something came to them, it got covered up. The track record left me no choice. We had a drug addict in the unit getting prescription drugs. He actually walked out of a military hospital and jumped into an Iraqi cab and took a hundred-mile trek to Hilla. They did nothing. There were other things, too, that I'm not going to mention. But things happened, and nothing was done about it. Plus, Frederick was involved—he was in charge of the night shift for the prison, and he was in the damned photos.
For about three days, Graner and England and the rest of them were being questioned. Then it got even worse. Someone decided to keep them on the compound. I had expected them to be charged and taken away, but no, they were going to get new jobs. They'd be walking around with their weapons all day long, knowing that somebody had turned them in and trying to find out who.
That was one of the most nervous periods of my life. I was constantly scared. I started getting paranoid. I kept my gun with me at all times. I took it to sleep with me. All the other platoons in my company slept in one of the old prison buildings on the compound, in cells, but I slept in a closet in an old administration building, so I was one of the only soldiers who didn't have a big metal door that I could close. In fact, there wasn't any door at all. I was totally exposed. I hung a poncho in the doorway, like an army raincoat, and I would lie there in bed with both arms behind my head and my left hand inside the pillowcase, gripping my nine-millimeter with the safety off. I would just listen. And about four days into it, I'm lying there, and I hear the poncho go swish. I was like, Holy shit—somebody is coming into my goddamn room. And then it was quiet again. I'm thinking, Oh fuck. I tighten my grip around my weapon, and then I feel a hand on my foot. So I swing up with the nine as fast as I can and grab the guy by the shoulder, and he goes, "Jesus Christ!" It was my friend Layton, completely blasted. He just wanted some help with his computer. Thank God he didn't remember in the morning that I had pulled a gun on him. I don't think he would've realized why I had the gun, but Layton was the type of guy that wouldn't have let me forget it. He would've teased me about it, and somebody else might have heard the story and put it together.
The day after that, I was working at my office in the Operations building when Graner came in. You could tell he hadn't slept, he's all unshaven and everything, and he's still got his weapon—an M16 with a grenade launcher. Takes it off and sets it on the desk. He just looks exhausted, and he's acting funny. He's talking to my boss, Sergeant Coville, but he keeps looking at me. At one point, he says to Coville, "You don't know who your friends are." And then he looks at me and says, "Do you, Darb?" I froze. But then he just laughed and started talking again, and I realized then that he didn't know. He trusted me enough to believe it wasn't me.
Eventually, after about a month, somebody finally had the sense to take them off the compound. That was a huge relief, but I still wanted to make sure nobody found out what I'd done. One of the things you have to understand is the mentality of where I grew up, in western Maryland. It's a small town, and there's not a lot of work. So most people are either in the military, in the Reserves, or they're related to somebody who is. They're good people, but I knew they weren't going to look at the fact that these guys were beating up prisoners. They were going to look at the fact that an American soldier put other American soldiers in prison. For Iraqis. And to those people—who basically are patriotic, socially programmed people who believe whatever they're told—the Iraqis are the enemy, and screw whatever happens to them. So I knew if I wanted to go back to my civilian life, if I wanted to integrate back home, nobody could know what I'd done. They'd never forgive me. And I was assured by the army that nobody would know. I would remain anonymous.
Well, it didn't work out that way. About a month after Graner and the rest of them left Abu Ghraib, we were up in Camp Anaconda, and I was sitting with ten other guys from my platoon in the dining facility. It's a big facility, packed with like 400 other soldiers, and I'm sitting there eating when Donald Rumsfeld comes on during the damned congressional hearings. It was like something out of a movie. I'm sitting there, and right next to me there's a TV, and Rumsfeld is on it when he drops my damned name. Almost nobody in my unit knew what I'd done until he dropped my damned name. On national TV. I was sitting midbite when he said it, and I was like, Oh, my God. And the guys at the table just stopped eating and looked at me. I was like, Fuuuuuck. And I got up and got the hell out of there.
AFTER MY NAME got out, I knew I had to get home. The media was swarming all over the house like vultures. They were taking pictures every time my wife came in and out, the phone was ringing nonstop, and they were coming to the door one after the other with presents and flowers, even after she told them to go away. Most of the neighbors didn't support her, either. Some did, like the postmaster—he's a Vietnam vet, and he told my wife that he understood. But as soon as somebody else walked in, even he stopped talking to her. Because a lot of people up there view me as a traitor. Even some of my family members think I'm a traitor. One of my uncles does, and he convinced my brother not to talk to me anymore. So my wife had to hide in a relative's house, and when the media tracked her there, she had to be taken into military custody. I still have a lot of bad feelings toward the press.
I was stuck in Iraq, powerless to help her. I needed to get home. I asked for emergency leave, and at one o'clock in the morning they came to my room with a two-hour warning. They said, "Get out of bed, get what you need, turn in your flak vest. You're getting out of the country." So I grabbed everything I could fit into two duffel bags, gave my weapons to a friend, and went down to wait for the plane. It's a long flight, and I managed to sleep for most of it. Finally, we land in Dover, Delaware. We're taxiing on the runway when all of a sudden, the plane stops. You can hear the hissing of the hydraulics, and the plane door is opening up. But we're still on the runway. The loadmaster of the plane looks at me and says, "What the hell are we doing?" And then these three guys in suits come on, and they point at me and they're like, "Let's go."
There was a van sitting there on the runway, and I was saluted by a colonel, who said, "Your family's waiting. We'll take you to them." I couldn't believe it when I walked through the doors and saw my wife. I had no idea she was actually going to be in the airport. I was just hugging her and crying. Then they took us to a house on the post for the night, and after a while, I went outside to talk to Major Chung, the provost marshal for my unit based in Cumberland. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, "I just want to go home." And he said, "You can't go home. You can probably never go home."
HE WAS RIGHT. I never went back to my home. I've only been back to my town twice: for my mother's funeral and for a wedding. Even then, I was only in town as long as I needed to be. I'm not welcome there. People there don't look at the fact that I knew right from wrong. They look at the fact that I put an Iraqi before an American. So we've relocated, and I've been working as a military mechanic for the past two years. My orders were extended through the trials, so I have now served ten years on an eight-year contract. My last day in the military is August 31. I'm done. I have a job lined up, working for a medical-equipment company. It's a nice job, a lucrative job. At first it might be hard for me to adapt to civilian life. You hear this from everybody who's out of the military—if you're a supervisor over a civilian, you can't bark at them like you do in the military, so you have to learn to do things different. I always treated my soldiers well, but if I wanted something done, it better be done now. It'll be different in civilian life.
But I don't regret any of it. I made my peace with my decision before I turned the pictures in. I knew that if people found out it was me, I wouldn't be liked. That's why I wanted to be anonymous. I knew what the mentality is up there. But the only time I have ever regretted it was when I was in Iraq and my family was going through a lot. Other than that, I never doubted that it was the right thing. It forced a big change in my life, but the change has been good and bad. I liked my little quiet town, but now I have a new place, with a new job and new opportunities. And I'm going to live my life like anyone else, and raise my family.