n the fall of 2007, after more than ten years of service to the U.S. government as a soldier, police officer, intelligence analyst, and interrogator, I enrolled in divinity school in order to pursue ministry in the Presbyterian Church. Like all second-career graduate students, I struggled to reorient myself to a life of reading, research papers, and exams. The real struggle, however, came as I worked to erase the unforgiving memories of conducting interrogations in places like Baghdad, Fallujah, and Abu Ghraib.
I’m often asked to explain how my experience in Iraq led me to seminary. There is, I suspect, an expectation that my story is one of redemption, in which something good comes out of something bad. But there was nothing good about war, nothing good about my time in Iraq.
In 2004, as an interrogator for a government contractor, I utilized or witnessed a variety of aggressive interrogation techniques designed to solicit the cooperation of Iraqi detainees. All of the techniques were officially sanctioned. They included sleep deprivation, stress positions, diet manipulation, exposure, and isolation.
My experience as an interrogator led me to a place of anger and shame. I returned home in a panicked state, unable to reconcile my values with what I had done. I was unable to put the building blocks of my Christian faith back together. As the chaos of war faded, the reality of my actions settled in. I became desperate for a return to chaos. Prayer, devotions, worship, and fellowship were replaced by depression, seclusion, nightmares, and alcohol.
These are the unspoken consequences of our interrogation policies. There is no escaping them. Both victim and perpetrator carry them in silence. For one it is a great injustice, for the other, a fitting punishment. With the help of trusted friends and a caring family, I’ll strive for improvement, and seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Some scars will never heal.
But the scars of guilt are no longer mine alone. They are carried now by this entire nation, its people, its institutions, and its leaders. The failure of men like me to prevent these egregious acts is now eclipsed by the failure of the nation to bring “enhanced interrogations” to an immediate end.
In defense of such tactics, we hear impassioned arguments about tough decisions that must be made in the face of a ruthless enemy. Those arguments are made by individuals who insulate themselves from the consequences of their own decisions. They have neither suffered interrogation’s humiliation nor wielded its destructive power.
We have waited too long to bring this horrific chapter in American history to an end. Someday soon, our children and grandchildren will want to know more about the war in Iraq. But instead of questions about the heroic battles we fought or the campaigns we won, they will ask us why, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States of America endorsed the use of torture.
With a deep sense of shame, I’ll tell my children about what I did. But I’ll also tell them how I eventually addressed my transgression as openly and honestly as I knew how. I’ll tell them how I appeared before Army and congressional investigators, answered every question, admitted to every mistake, and never dreamed of destroying evidence. We must ask of those who hide behind the doors of secrecy, who refuse to give direct answers to difficult questions, who destroy the proof of their involvement, and who support and direct this shameful policy: What will you tell your children?