Winning Hearts and Minds
Winning Hearts and Minds
"I'm not into the detainee business," said Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman of the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, and commanding officer of the
I was surprised even to be having an interview with Col Sassaman. Ten of us, members of the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) located in
Our team had traveled that morning to Balad, about an hour north of
No one is sure how many Iraqi civilians Coalition Forces hold in detention. Estimates range from 10,000 to 20,000 and sometimes higher. Most of these detainees are held in centralized prisons like the notorious Abu Grhraib near
Arriving at the HROI offices in Balad, we promptly found ourselves in a several hour long meeting with a large group of Iraqi lawyers. We were in a simple room in a plain brick building in the middle of the small, dusty city. About fifteen HROI lawyers sat facing us in folding chairs. An old man appeared several times to serve the small, obligatory glasses of heavily sweetened hot tea that greet all visitors.
To my American sensibilities it was a raucous meeting with loud voices and lawyers moving constantly in and out of the room. Although the room often quieted when one of the lawyers gave his testimony, more commonly several men would respond at once to our questions, often with raised, sometimes angry, voices. Our hapless interpreter Sattar Hatim Hasan did his best, but I'm sure we missed half of what was said.
Rashad, a local lawyer, told us that, despite promises, there had been no response from anyone at the military base on the subject of the two detained men; indeed, HROI lawyers had received nothing but disrespect when trying to represent clients. Other returning detainees, however, reported that the two had already been transferred to Abu Ghraib.
Anger and emotional energy filled the room. Each of the lawyers wanted to tell his story of abuse, so we went around the circle in a disordered sort of way. Mizha Rahanan Khalil, for example, lived 100 meters from the military base. Just after Ramadan, he claimed, US forces had bombed a friend's house, killing five and injuring eleven. Another friend had been shot and killed trying to pass a military convoy on the open highway -- one of several such stories we heard. (Just that morning our driver had startled us when he and many others crossed the wide median of the divided superhighway on our trip to Balad, tearing the wrong way at over 60 miles an hour down one of the two lanes on that side. Admittedly, we were passing an American military convoy, but it occupied only one of the two lanes on our side of the highway and there seemed plenty of room to pass. Now I understood. Our driver wasn't about to risk the chance that some young soldier manning a machine gun atop a Humvee would decide a passing vehicle was coming too close and mistake it for that of a suicide bomber!)
Although American planes have not been bombing, nor artillery shelling, within the central part of Balad (where the 60,000 Shias live), there have been cases of the shelling of civilian houses elsewhere in the surrounding areas (where those 60,000 Sunnis live). According to the lawyers, bombing and shelling have been especially severe after any insurgent attack on the base or a passing convoy. After such an attack, the military will indiscriminately bomb the place from which they believe the attack originated, even long after the attackers have fled. But other bombing in the area seemed to these lawyers random and so inexplicable.
The most vociferous complaints, however, concerned nighttime raids and detentions. Military people had previously acknowledged to us a policy of "45 seconds of rage and fury"on entering a house. They consider this necessary to obtain immediate submission and keep their troops safe. Soldiers break down doors, yell commands to lie on the floor, run through the house, and generally try to frighten the occupants into submissive behavior.
"Why do the soldiers break down our doors and smash our cupboards. We would give them the key if they just asked?" was a typical question from the outraged lawyers.
"When Saddam raided," said one, "he took only the person he was after. Now the whole family is taken, even when the soldiers know they have the wrong house."
The treatment of women infuriated some of these men. With embarrassment, one lawyer claimed that US troops had raided a house, found a couple naked in their bed and took them away in that state. "This is not acceptable in our culture," he said.
Accompanied by Mohaned, Sami, and a third lawyer, we then drove out to the Yithrib military base. Our Iraqi interpreter elected not to go because, he told us, he did not want to risk detention, a fear I -- mistakenly, it turns out -- interpreted as slightly paranoid. The military base -- actually a commandeered school building -- is located at the end of a flat, dusty road. Iraqi guards stopped us only briefly at the first checkpoint. At a second checkpoint, an American soldier manned a gun emplacement atop a small, heavily camouflaged brick house appropriated by the military. Another
Col. Sassaman ushered us in to a large room and introduced us to his two subordinates, Capt. Blake, a non-lawyer who attended to some legal matters on his own and assisted a military lawyer in others, and Capt. Williams, an intelligence officer. Thaana, an Iraqi-American from
Col. Sassaman talked expansively to us about his work. His unit, he began, engages in military action when necessary, but he is primarily interested in dialogue with local people. He acknowledged that when he first came in April, he felt "incredible sadness and incredible rage" at the plight of the Iraqis, especially since his unit had not been trained in reconstruction and there was "no help from the State Department." I was struck by the phrasing, since I assumed he knew that the State Department had been largely locked out of
Although they sometimes have to conduct military patrols at night, he went on, during the day they are working to rebuild the country's infrastructure. In fact, he said, there hadn't been any raids in several weeks. He himself tries to interact with Iraqis in the area as much as possible, he added. He even described how he got out to bake bread with a family.
Captain Blake chimed in, mentioning weekly meetings in Balad to hear complaints and problems. Col. Sassaman proudly described the election they had organized for a 60-member council, which had in turn chosen a new mayor, and he emphasized their hopes that, given the high voter turnout, Balad would become a model for all of
"I'm working to transcend family, tribal, and religious boundaries," said Col. Sassaman. "The only way we're going to get this thing really fixed is for Iraqis to work with Iraqis." They had set up a radio station and newspapers (subject to the criterion that nothing be written against the occupying military forces), reinforced the local Iraqi police, and developed an Iraqi Civilian Defense Corps of about 200 people that provided rural security, "sort of like a county sheriff."
We asked him about human rights abuses among detainees. He acknowledged that when his unit arrived in Balad, they had certainly been too harsh. "During the first few months we were here, we broke down doors and smashed things, and that was really a mistake. There's been a learning curve, and we know now we can ask for the key." He personally accompanies younger soldiers on raids and trains them in proper procedure. "Coming here," he said, "we've been trained to do only one thing [to kill], so I have to be constantly retraining my soldiers." He acknowledged, however, that on first entering a house, they had to get "submission," presumably through the 45 seconds of rage and fury. He added, however, that they could detain people only if the person fit into certain limited categories: presence on the list of "high value targets," possession of unauthorized arms, especially explosives (every house is allowed one AK-47), or possession of information about the insurgency (that is, connections to known terrorists). This last category, he later acknowledged, could be stretched to include "a male over the age of eighteen who is 'suspect.'"
He flatly denied that either men or women had been taken in without being allowed to clothe themselves fully, and he emphasized that he is not authorized to detain people just because they are family members of suspects. He assured us that his troops didn't usually handcuff the detainees. He preferred, he said, to leave them uncuffed, so that "if they run we can use any level of force necessary to control them. Once we cuff 'em, we can't touch 'em."
That phrase, "any level of force," left no doubt in my mind that he was referring to lethal force. But why would he deliberately leave people uncuffed, opening up the possibility of flight? His comment was so incongruous, given everything else he'd said, that I wasn't sure I'd heard correctly. As our group was large, none of us asked a follow-up question.
He then claimed that over half of the people he detains are released on his authority instead of being referred to the larger detention centers. They are supposed to be kept for less than 24 hours before being transferred. "I'm not into the detainee business," was the way he put it.
One of us asked about repeated firing into an area from which they'd received fire. "Yes," he replied, "we'll fire back ... heavy ... anytime." Again, I felt a chill. Did that mean that no one living in or passing through that area was ever safe? It sounded very much like collective punishment.
Col. Sassaman's frankness, however, impressed me, even if I was bothered by several of his responses. He answered questions fully and forthrightly. He seemed intelligent, knowledgeable, and ethical: a good man who spoke warmly and compassionately about the Iraqis even as he recognized that his troops had to do things that were harsh. He expressed a desire to reduce the necessary harshness to a minimum and assured us that he had largely succeeded. The
We then suggested that we wanted to open a dialogue between the military and the Iraqi lawyers so that they and the family members of detainees could get as much information about those detainees as possible. We asked if the three lawyers -- who had been listening to the interpreter but had thus far been silent -- could speak.
As soon as Mohaned began speaking, however, the mood in the room shifted dramatically, becoming cold and tension-filled. I ascribed the chill initially to the cultural differences between the easy way we Americans had been talking among ourselves and the way the Iraqis now proceeded to present their material. Like me, the Iraqi lawyers had probably not expected to be allowed in to see any officers, and they clearly didn't come with prepared questions to ask. From the moment they began, they seemed to be complaining about things over which Sassaman undoubtedly had no control. They brought up incidents that occurred before he arrived, and made general complaints rather than asking for things Sassaman could reasonably do for them. I assumed that their indirect way of getting to the point was so different from the American (military) idea of an efficient conversation that they were simply putting the colonel on edge.
The lawyers began to describe an incident in October when a car was shot up by American troops and children killed. Almost before they started, Sassaman interrupted them. "Yeah, I know about that. That wasn't our unit; that was somebody else, but we had to go in and clean up the mess, anyway. Do you think I like it that children were killed?" He was already angry, and I must admit I felt some sympathy for him.
It was quickly clear from his body language and his curt responses, however, that he was in no way disposed to listen to these lawyers. I was shocked some minutes later when he became particularly irritated and, turning to us, blurted out without preface or explanation: "You need to understand that these people are Muslim, and their values are just different from Judeo-Christian values. They aren't for doing things for other people like we are; they're only out for themselves."
Sassaman and Blake pointedly told us that they had met with every lawyer in town, and they didn't recognize Mohaned, Sami, or the other lawyer, nor had they heard of the Human Rights Organization in
At one point, Mohaned told Sassaman that he had taken the wrong person in one of his raids -- detaining the father when the son was the one he wanted. The implication was that if Sassaman agreed to release the father, they could arrange for the son to turn himself in. Sassaman, visibly angered, responded, "We'll just see who gets to the right guy first."
The communication between Sassaman and the lawyers degenerated so quickly -- in a matter of minutes, it seemed -- that some in our delegation feared he would detain the lawyers on the spot.
Col. Sassaman was clearly frustrated. "You're just being used is all," he said again. Although he made it clear that the interview was over, he tried to remain cordial, and we concluded the interview reasonably amiably under the circumstances. We then chatted with the three men as they escorted us to our car. On our way, one of our group suddenly pointed out a group of detainees in a pen behind the compound. The detainees were not exactly a vote of confidence in the colonel's version of events, since he had just told us that there hadn't been any raids in the past few days and that detainees were processed and released or moved on within 24 hours. Yet here they were, real as life.
Back in town, the three Iraqi lawyers took us to a simple outdoor restaurant and bought us lunch. I sat with Mohaned and tried to converse, which was difficult since I spoke no Arabic and he had only the most limited of English. One thing he said clearly, however: "Sassaman was lying. I don't trust him."
I was troubled by Sassaman's attitude, too, but he was visibly a man in an untenable situation, commissioned to engage simultaneously in "nation-building" (winning hearts and minds) and in military operations (losing hearts and minds), all the while making sure to protect his men to the best of his ability. He has lost two of those men, including the captain killed the previous week on the base, and so was predisposed to see anyone who gave him trouble as one of the "bad guys" (as everyone here seems to call the insurgents). And the lawyers weren't making it any easier on him with their complaints about things Sassaman couldn't control.
Most of my empathy for Col. Sassaman dissolved the next day, however, when Sami and Mohaned's father paid us an unexpected visit. Since phones still don't work in
How can one understand Sassaman's actions and what do they say about the
Was Sassaman lying to us about other things as well? Is he, in fact, interacting with Iraqis, meeting people on the street, baking bread in their homes, as he claimed? What about the elections they organized? The lawyers insisted to us that the local people did not recognize the new mayor. Was the election, then, just a sham? Did Sassaman really "ask for the key" when he raided houses? Was he actually retraining his soldiers to be kinder and gentler occupiers?
Perhaps Sassaman was just lying to us, but I suspect the answer is more complicated than that. My guess is that he was telling us the truth as he saw it. Occupying armies have to tell themselves (and so others) certain kinds of truth; they have to see their actions through certain lenses if they are to maintain a sense of themselves as good people helping others. If our delegation of Americans had interviewed Sassaman without the lawyers present, we would have heard only his truth and come home with his story. It would have seemed then that the occupation -- the American military itself -- was well on its way toward rebuilding
Only by holding the stories of the Iraqi lawyers next to the colonel's stories, only by placing the Iraqi lawyers physically next to the colonel did a fuller truth emerge, the truth of the violence of occupying forces. The lawyers not only told us a different truth; they, unfortunately, also pushed Col. Sassaman into enacting it for us.
"Under Saddam," one of the lawyers had said, "there were certainly many human rights abuses. So, at the beginning, we were pleased to receive the Coalition Forces and even welcomed the use of force to remove Saddam. But now they treat us badly. Now, things are no different from under Saddam. The Coalition Forces have become the dictators."
Virtually everyone I talked to in
There is an absolute difference between military occupation and peacekeeping. There is simply too much violence in an occupation for genuine peacekeeping to occur. As long as the
Postscript: Only on returning to the United States and Googling the name Nate Sassaman did I discover that the colonel already had achieved a level of notoriety here by commenting recently to journalists, "With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them."
Copyright C2004 David Hilfiker
David Hilfiker MD worked with both rural and inner-city low-income people for twenty-five years. He is co-founder of Christ House, a medical recovery shelter for homeless men, and founder of Joseph's House, a home and community for homeless men with AIDS. He is the author of three books, including Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen and numerous articles on poverty and other subjects. No longer in active medical practice, he is a writer, lecturer and teacher. He lives with his wife in
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]