Murderous Maniacs, PUCs and the Geneva Convention

9-27-05, 9:54 am

On their day off people would show up all the time. Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent. In a way it was sport. The cooks were all U.S. soldiers. One day [a sergeant] shows up and tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the guy's leg with a mini Louisville Slugger, a metal bat. He was the fucking cook. He shouldn't be in with no PUCs. -- 82nd Airborne sergeant, describing events at FOB Mercury, Iraq

The respected human-rights monitoring organization, Human Rights Watch, has recently issued a startling account, based on the testimony of three Army officers, which confirms the widespread, systematic use of severe physical and mental torture against detainees at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Mercury in Iraq. The officers were members of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry regiment, one of the Army’s elite units. Surviving residents of Fallujah, nearly levelled by the savage U.S. onslaught in November 2004 called these soldiers 'the Murderous Maniacs' – a name the regiment wears with pride.

According to the detailed accounts of the three officers, conducted on a number of occasions under conditions of anonymity, the torture of detainees was systematic. It was also known about and actively encouraged at the highest command levels.

Soldiers were urged by Military Intelligence 'to subject prisoners to forced repetitive exercise, sometimes to the point of unconsciousness, sleep deprivation for days on end, and exposure to extremes of heat and cold.' The methods the soldiers employed were specifically directed by Military Intelligence officers. Daily beatings of prisoners were routine. Furthermore, civilian operatives believed to be from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted their own interrogations out of sight from the regular soldiers. According to the officers’ testimony, these CIA interrogations, although they could not be seen, could definitely be heard as the victims screamed in pain.

As is the case in Afghanistan where the same methods are employed, and where the three officers served prior to coming to Iraq, many of the detainees are not combatants at all, but petty criminals or the innocent victims of police dragnets in which they were unfortunately swept up. They might be a cabdriver, a street vendor, a laborer, or the victim of a tribal vendetta. The soldiers interviewed by Human Rights Watch consider that half the detainees at FOB Mercury were released because they were not involved in the insurgency. The rest were sent on to Abu Ghraib after three days in the camp. But many of them simply 'disappeared,' their paperwork purposefully destroyed. When they got to FOB Mercury, all detainees became a PUC, a sterile legalism that means 'person under control.' While there, soldiers, often totally untrained in police work, were let loose on them to vent their frustrations by 'Smoking a PUC' or 'Fucking a PUC.' Thus designated, the detainee was in a category separate from that of a prisoner of war (POW) and not subject to the legal safeguards that apply to POWs. To 'smoke a PUC' was to subject a detainee to 'forced physical exertion to the point of unconsciousness.' To 'fuck a PUC' referred to delivering a physical beating. Military physician assistants were on hand to provide witnessed documentation that any broken bones (which occurred weekly) were the result of accidents. 'Smoking' occurred for 12-24 hours prior to interrogation, to break the will of the detainee and force him to cooperate. Only crackers and water were given, and even water was often withheld. Needless to day, the value of information extracted under such circumstances has been widely questioned by intelligence experts. Most people will say anything if brutalized long enough.

All of the soldiers interviewed expressed confusion about how the Geneva conventions applied. The contradictory statements made by U.S. officials regarding the applicability of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan and Iraq directly impacted on how the prisoners were treated. No hard and fast rules applied. Since 9/11 the whole concept of rights in wartime has been challenged at the highest levels of the Bush administration, including the advocacy of torture techniques by US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, now widely touted to replace Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court.

When the revelations about Abu Ghraib burst on the scene back in April 2004, the response of the Bush administration was to pin the blame on 'a few rogue, poorly trained reserve personnel at a single facility in Iraq.' Since then, there have been hundreds of other cases of abuse, torture and outright murder, reported from both Iraq and Afghanistan, as described in U.S. government documents, reports by the International Red Cross, the media, and legal documents filed by Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations. The feeble investigations by the US military, which have been compelled by the public outcry, have resulted in the scapegoating and prosecution of low-ranking individuals such as Private Lynndie England, while in most cases the military has used closed door administrative hearings to 'mete out pay reductions and reprimands, instead of criminal prosecutions before courts-martial.'

The three officers who have lately come forward to expose the conditions at FOB Mercury, which they describe as ongoing to this day, report that the abuse of detainees is known about and encouraged at the highest levels. These three men of conscience were constantly thwarted by their superiors when they tried to call attention to the abuses, and the Army only agreed to investigate when the officers contacted US congressmen and senators with their shocking first-hand evidence. This was after 17 months of unavailing efforts to get their own command structure to investigate! Therefore, though welcome, it remains highly dubious what the results of any self-investigation by the military will be.

Human Rights Watch is calling on the U.S. Congress to create a special commission, along the lines of the 9/11 commission, to investigate the issue of torture and abuse by U.S. military and civilian personnel abroad, including the incidents described here. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan is sponsoring legislation to this effect. They are also calling for the U.S. Attorney General to appoint a special counsel 'to investigate any U.S. officials – no matter what their rank or position – who have participated in, ordered, or had command responsibility for war crimes or torture, or other prohibited ill-treatment against detainees in U.S. custody.'

The use of torture and prisoner abuse as a matter of U.S. policy has been constant in recent decades since the Vietnam War, when the U.S. military and CIA murdered and tortured thousands of Vietnamese. It has taught these methods to officers at the School of the Americas, with well-known and tragic consequences for the people of Central and Latin America. In Afghanistan and Iraq, as part of an ongoing policy of torture and abuse, many prisoners, held without charge or trial for lengthy periods of time, are being daily brutalized. Allowing such methods to continue further degrades our own democratic traditions of respect for human rights and civil liberties. If torture as official U.S. policy is not eradicated, even the tattered remnants of our own democratic freedoms may soon be gone.

--Peter Zerner can be reached at