Ithaca College Quarterly 2005/1
South Hill Today



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So, flash forward 35 years. I'm doing [stories on] Abu Ghraib, and I think I did three stories in three weeks for the New Yorker. And if you know anything about [that magazine], it's insane [to do so many stories on such a complicated subject] -- not only the fact checking, but you also have to go through the grammarian. Let me tell you: parallelism faults, comma faults. Anyway, it's taken very seriously. There are a lot of arguments about antecedents. I'm more newspaper-y. [Laughter] So we have some testy times, but it's okay.

Let me just tell you what I'm doing. I know [the Abu Ghraib situation] goes to Rumsfeld, because my buddies are telling me. I've got buddies in there, I know what's going on. I can't prove it all; I know it goes to the top. You've got a president who said after 9/11 -- what did he say? -- "You're either with us or against us." And he said, "I'm gonna drive Bin Laden out of his snake hole."

And who's doing it for him? Rumsfeld.

Anybody who thought Rumsfeld would ever get fired for any of this didn't understand how that team worked. They're in it all together. Who will get him out of the snake hole? Rumsfeld will. Is he going to do it legally? Even now he's not doing it legally. He's operating without any authority, all over the world. Even now.

The word they call it: "rendition." "Rendition": I describe as grabbing somebody by his hair and taking him to a part of the world where the sun don't shine and you never see him again. They call it rendition. I call it taking somebody away to kill him. That's what happens, much more than you know.

The Argentines and the Brazilians, we have nothing on them when it comes to disappearing people. Will we ever get a full accounting? No. I mean, nobody even wants one; can't get the Congress to investigate it.


So, anyway, I'm doing this stuff and I get a call from a woman. "I gotta talk to you," she says. "I got a 'close relative,'" she says, who was in that unit that was at Abu Ghraib. She lived in this part of the world, the Northeast, a very devout Catholic. Supported the war, I guess. The relative was in the reserve unit that was also at that place, the 372nd. They sent everybody home. I have no idea whether this was to get them out of the way. Remember I told you that the report came in January, this young kid brought the photos in January of 2004. My stories are in May of 2004, and CBS also went public with the pictures, to their everlasting credit, causing an enormous furor too. All of the kids in that unit were sent home. I'd like to tell you they were sent home to get them out of the way. It makes sense to me, but I don't know. Most people were being extended forever, and they sent them home.

So she showed up in March, the mother tells me over lunch in some restaurant somewhere, the daughter comes home and she's different: despondent, silent, angry, leaves her husband -- doesn't divorce him, just walks away from the marriage, a young marriage. She's very young, early 20s. Moves to another city, gets a night job. Doesn't want to see anybody; she's inconsolable, unreachable. Nobody knows what's going on.

Abu Ghraib comes out. The mother goes over to the apartment, knocks on the door, shows her, I guess a New Yorker cover, or one of the pictures, one of the stories, or maybe a newspaper story about it. And [the daughter] slams the door. So the mother says to me that she remembered at some point after the Abu Ghraib stories came out that she had given her daughter -- or whatever the relation was, the woman -- a portable computer to take to war, because what they did in that war, which was really a good idea, they'd take a portable computer and they could play DVDs, they could watch movies and play games in their down time. Makes sense to me. And so she had given her one, and when the kid came back she had left it in the house. And gone off.

So the mother takes the computer and opens it up. She said she was simply going to reclaim it. She hadn't used it in months. She was going to take it to her office, as a spare computer, and clean it up. And there was a file labeled "Iraq," and she opened it up. She's telling me this over a cheeseburger.

Out pop maybe 60 or 70 or 80 digital images of an Iraqi man, terrified, naked, standing in front of a jail cell, two huge German shepherds three feet away -- the iconic picture that the New Yorker did run that ended up going all over the world. But in the rest of the sequence, that she watched and we all saw and that no mother should see, the dogs attack the man, at the groin, right below the groin. Lots of blood, big pools of blood. No soundtrack, thank god.


And so, at the New Yorker, it was agreed. I mean, how much do you humiliate the man? We've already done two or three stories about it. Let's just run this picture and let it go.

So [the mother has] changed her mind about the war, and so she gives it to me. And later she tells me this; we stay in touch. She says, What I didn't tell you is this: when my daughter came back from Iraq, a very pretty girl, every weekend she began to go and get tattooed. Large, black tattoos that filled up her whole body.

She said, It's as if she wanted to change her skin.

And so I suggest to you that we are sitting on a time bomb of returning people, of guilt. You can't do what, god knows, has been going on there. It can't be good. And there are going to be a lot of people, no matter how much braggadocio or bravado they have, that are going to need a lot of help.

We learned in the early '80s, that Vietnam vets, 10 years after the war, were coming in to the Veterans Administration outpatient psychiatric clinic at the rate of 7, 500 a month -- 90, 000 a year -- for help. And I think we're going to pay a huge price. We all know about the horrific casualties we have, but there's also going to be the psychic scarring.

And so, there we are. The cheerful message is over.

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Photo by Thomas Hoebble

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