Good torture has to be both physical and psychological. For detainees of the strongest will, pain is not enough; the spirit must be broken, as well. One good way to do this is to keep the timing, duration, and degree of torture completely random. This type of schedule doesn’t allow the detainee to subconsciously log the pattern of their captors, which gives them absolutely no time to return to an emotional equilibrium and recenter. Once the spirit is broken, the detainee resigned to a lifetime of suffering, they need to be given a minute shard of hope. Once this hope – be it a hope of escape, death, an assurance that their family will be left alone – takes root, the detainee will cling to it with more fervor and fanaticism than even the most deeply held religious ideologies. It is at that point that I get the information I’m paid to retrieve.
I was an independent contractor based in the Sandbox during Operation Iraqi Freedom. My services were used extensively by Coalition forces, but I also took contracts from the Iranian government, Hamas, and several organized crime syndicates. My role in my organization is to compile a psychological profile of each detainee from intelligence gathered by my field assets and use that profile to construct an effective plan of torture. A pair of former soldiers are the ones who actually get their hands dirty. I know the best way to implement my plans is to carry out everything myself, but I can’t stomach it; I don’t like to see people in pain. I’m not a sadist like the torturers in my employ. If my detainees would tell me what I want to know after nothing more than a strongly-worded question, I would be happy. Torture, however, is a necessary evil. I was a necessary evil.
One morning in 2009, I awoke to the chirping of one of the many burner phones in the footlocker near my bed. A National Reconnaissance Office satellite had pinpointed four targets associated with the Chaldean Mafia in Tikrit. My CIA contact was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get a team on the ground before the group concluded their business. My installation in Samarra was the closest semi-friendly group he could think of. To sweeten the deal, he offered to let me hold on to all four criminals after getting information about a shipment of possible chemical weapons they had recently sold to Hezbollah. This group was also wanted by the remnants of the Fedayeen Saddam – who were occasional clients of mine – in retaliation for some sort of gun deal gone sour. Flipping the four mafia guys would mean a huge payday. Maybe enough to close up shop and head back stateside.
I drove north to Tikrit with my two ex-military employees. Four against three wasn’t great odds, especially in a place where having white skin immediately made you the enemy. Still, surprise, bean bag rounds, tasers, zip ties, and black bags helped us get the job done with no major incidents. The drive back to camp was similarly uneventful. I spent the remainder of the day looking through intel and working up “treatments” for each member of the Chaldean Mafia. We started with the two low-ranking bodyguards, trying to get some basic questions answered so we could hit the lieutenants with pointed questions. The screams of their underlings also helped put the lieutenants into a more talkative mood.
A week and a half in, we had learned a lot. But not enough. The bodyguards were completely tapped. The big men sat huddled in their cells, hugging their knees, crying themselves to sleep. It was a sad sight. I had to limit my time in the detention area. One of the lieutenants had died during a simple interrogation method. It was troubling, but that sort of thing happened from time to time. The damage done to the mind sometimes seems to take away the will of the body to persevere through normally survivable events. That left just one detainee who could give me what I needed. And he just wouldn’t break. Nine days of torture, psychedelic drugs, and sleep deprivation had left the man calm and composed. I had never seen anything like it. Even detainees who never broke showed signs of extreme fatigue and intense, even psychotic, anger. The bald man in cell 3 just stared at us with his piercing gaze.
I moved the man to our off-site location where the more heinous methods were carried out. Disguised as an abandoned sulfur mine, the bone saws, bathtubs, caustic chemicals, and insect tanks broke that façade once inside. We worked for an hour, then let the broken and bleeding man lie in the sun, his flesh stretching and cracking on his forehead and lips. Just as he had done at my camp, he turned to stare at us. Looking at just his eyes, it was impossible to tell what he had been through. He could have been looking out the window of a train.
Without warning, dust began to swirl. I clenched my eyes shut, expecting the dust devil to move on quickly as they are apt to do. The stinging, howling grit only grew stronger. I fumbled my way to my pack and fished out my goggles. The clear, calm day – it would have been beautiful if not for the grizzly work we were doing – had turned to a sphere of tan. The point at which ground turned into sky was imperceptible; fused by the rushing dirt. Strapped to a wooden table with leather restraints, the detainee showed no sign of alarm. He lolled his head lazily around, assessing the strength of the storm. When his circumspection intersected with my gaze, he held it. And smiled. A particularly dense column of sand blew through the camp, completely obscuring the man. I was a little relieved; the man’s unfaltering stare had started to become less infuriating and more unsettling. When the column had passed, the man was gone.
Gone. The leather straps were still attached to the table. I rushed over to inspect them. Not only were they still attached to the table, they were still clasped together as they had been around the man’s wrists. The neck and ankle straps also remained clasped.
“What the fuck?” Gorman, one of my ex-military employees asked. He had found his goggles, as well.
I honestly couldn’t think of a better question to ask at that point, myself. Hell, I can’t think of better way to describe the whole situation now, five years later. What the fuck?
I shrugged my surprise to Gorman and watched Reyes paw his way around the ground looking for his dropped goggles. As he did that, an arm reached into the camp out of the dust and hauled Reyes out from under the tent. I stopped. There’s no way I had seen that. He must have slipped and stumbled out. My eyes were playing tricks on me in the quickly thickening skies. I hurried over to Gorman, shouting to be heard above the wailing cries of the wind.
“What happened to Reyes?”
Gorman glanced around. Shook his head. He hadn’t seen.
“Maybe he went back to the truck. Not a bad place for us to be now,” Gorman yelled through cupped hands.
A hand came out of the dust again and wrapped around Gorman’s wrist. The detainee that had been on the table stepped into the tent, revealing himself as the owner of the arm. I pulled my sidearm and fired five shots into the man’s center of mass. He looked at me again, calm complacency giving way to an eerie, almost imperceptible grin. He turned his attention back to Gorman. As I impotently emptied the rest of the clip into the man, he wound razor wire around Gorman’s neck, armpits, and groin. I tossed the useless gun aside, now just a thousand dollar piece of oiled metal. I tried to run back to the truck, the thick sand swirling around my ankles turning my run into more of a trot. The dust ahead of me grew thicker and the detainee stepped through, the space between us calming. It was almost like the storm had made a room around us; walls and ceiling comprised of thick rushing sand.
“What do you want?” I yelled, panicked. Though I knew bullets did nothing to this man, I wished desperately for a gun in my hand. Anything to form a barrier between us.
For the first time, the detainee spoke, “I’m here to punish you. I’ve been watching the effects of your work. You are directly responsible for enough pain, death, and hardship that it creates a palpable cloud.”
He spoke those words, his death sentence, with the cold disinterest of a waiter reciting the daily specials. He seemed to be waiting for some sort of response. When I had none, he continued.
“I am here to end the bloody trail your torturous caravan leaves in its wake, but I am also here to mete out punishment for your deeds. The other two take pleasure in watching blood arise from wounds at their hand. They crave the power that comes from murder because they are afraid of pain and death. And so that’s what I brought to them. As we speak, this storm is steadily whiling away the flesh of one of your compatriots.”
As he spoke, he extended one hand into the tempestuous grit to his side. His fingers disintegrated into a cloud of blood and flesh, leaving only bones. Before they, too, could be eaten away he pulled his hand back in. With a flick of the wrist, his ruined digits were whole again. He continued.
“The other, as you know, is fading quickly under the tent. The more he struggles, the deeper the wire cuts and the faster his blood soaks the earth. From watching you, I know this would not be an appropriate punishment. You are haunted by your work. You can’t torture the lives you ruin with your own hand, nor can you meet the gaze of the human shells that walk away from your camp. The things you’ve seen live in your memory, hanging there to remind you of what you are. Pain would dull that emotional wound. Death would end it.
“Your punishment is to live and to experience, with perfect recall, the faces and pleas of your victims. Since you attempt to limit your direct involvement, and since they won’t be needing the memories, you will also remember those tortured under your direction, but not your hand.”
The walls of the “room” broke, filling it with a swirling, stinging Hell. The storm hastily cleared and, within minutes, there was no trace that it or the detainee had ever been there. Gorman and Reyes’s bodies had also disappeared, though the blood stained razor wire remained tangled in the tent. I trudged back to the truck and drove. I ended up at my camp with no memory of the journey there.
That night, as I tried to sleep, the screams began. Every time I closed my eyes, the contorted faces of hundreds of men, women, and children filled my vision. It has been the same every night for the last five years. I’m able to sleep only out of pure exhaustion and, when I do, my dreams are filled with spilled blood. I’ve tried alcohol, drugs, suicide. Nothing stops the memories. Nothing ends my life.