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The American Military and Iraq - One Woman's Unique Perspective

Cholene Espinoza is the military journalist for Talk Radio. She was an embed with a Marine unit during the invasion of Iraq and returned once more to Iraq in June (she may have been there even more than twice). She has an enormous amount of experience in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. Oh yeah, she was also a Air Force Captain piloting U-2 spy planes.

She wrote a thoughtful letter about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, to her Congresswoman - Representative Anna Eshoo. It is a unique perspective because the letter is based on Ms. Espinoza's own military and embed experiences, and she offers recommendations to fix some of the problems.

I received this from Ms. Espinoza's uncle who emailed it to the Marine All Hands network. He thought that this was something that you won't see in the media. He's right.

I do not know if my insight will be of help to you, but I feel compelled to share my perspective on the prison abuse situation in Iraq. I view this from the vantage point of having served in the military, and also having spent time in Iraq with our troops and with the Iraqis.

As soon as I saw the story on 60 Minutes II, I thought of the Air Force Academy scandal. I am concerned that this is also a systemic problem rooted in the occupation of Iraq.

Purpose of Iraqi incarceration from my vantage point:

    To detain insurgents or accused insurgents and criminals
    To extract information from the prisoners via interrogation
    To entice prisoners to become informants for the coalition

Complaints from the Iraqi People:

Arrests are often arbitrary. It is up to the soldier or marine on the ground to determine via his/her judgment who gets arrested or not. I asked if there were a criteria for arrest and the soldiers told me, “No, we just decide.” Another soldier said, “If someone gives us a rough time we throw them in jail for a few days and then let them out or not.” The soldiers almost arrested man during a neighborhood raid who was living in the home of a former guard for one of Saddam’s top men. The house was full of Saddam clocks, pictures of Saddam, a monument to Saddam. The soldiers were going to arrest this man and then realized that he was one of the neighbor’s cousins who had simply found a nice place to live.

Due Process:

To my knowledge and to the knowledge of the Iraqi people, there is no form of due process or representation or way to get out of jail other than perhaps good behavior and/or cooperation. The perception is that this is severely unjust. The secrecy feeds resentment and conspiracy theories among the Iraqis.


Lack of training: I did not go to a prison while I was in Iraq in June. But my experience while embedded with the Marines during the war led me to believe that there was no formal training for the treatment of POWs (keeping in mind, the people in the Iraqi prisons today are not POWs). My unit, the TOW Missile Platoon of the 1st Tank Battalion had some Reservists who trained as many as they could in the handling of prisoners (based on their experience as Texas Highway Patrolmen). They yelled at their fellow Marines when they were too harsh. They kept saying, “We are liberating these people. Treat them with dignity.” It struck me as being very odd that our troops had no formal training in the treatment of prisoners, especially given the predictions before the war that so many Iraqis would surrender.

Personal stress on the part of soldiers: I went back to Iraq last June, and it was apparent that the stress of being shot at by “civilians” had taken an enormous toll on the good will these Soldiers and Marines could extend to Iraqis. One solider told me “I’m scared all the time.”

I think we all need to take a step back and realize the impossible mission we have handed over to the US military. They are supposed to be social workers by day and commando by night with no way to determine friend from foe. As an airline Captain after 9-11, one of my biggest challenges was convincing passengers and flight attendants that Arab looking people should be allowed to ride on the same plane with them. Try to imagine what a solider goes through each day given the number of them who have been attacked by “ordinary looking Iraqis.” Supervision is the key here.

Examples of my formal training in the Air Force: While in the Air Force I went through two simulated “POW” courses. I was put into a POW camp and treated accordingly. I was put in a small box, interrogated, deprived of food and sleep, forced to do labor, thrown around, had my urine dumped on me and put in solitary confinement. After I was assigned to fly the U-2, I attended an advanced course where they were allowed to hit me. I learned a tremendous amount about “resistance.” The Air Force put me in a training environment in order to teach me the skills to resist the enemy if I was shot down. The behavior of these soldiers was of no surprise given what I had learned in the Air Force training. It is a brutal environment that brings out the worst in people.

As a senior cadet, I was in charge of the same POW camp. We learned how to interrogate and how easy it is for abuse to creep into operations. We were shown a documentary on the “Stanford Syndrome.” It is a true story of a sociology course, I believe, at Stanford that conducted a prison experiment. The class was split up into inmates and guards. The abuse became so bad that they had to stop the experiment. The Air Force emphasized supervision and a continual sanity check to guard against such behaviors. I am told that the Air Force still uses this training film for its interrogators so that they do not fall prey to the Stanford Syndrome.

Unfortunately, the Air Force Academy had to discontinue this training due to some abuse cases. It is now conducted by official Air Force Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) personnel.

Troop Strength: The senior staff of the military claims that this abuse has nothing to do with a lack of uniformed personnel in Iraq; however, every time we had a break down in discipline in the military I served in for 13 years, it was due to a lack of supervision and/or training. I suspect that you will find that the ratio of prisoners to guards or guards to supervisors was not consistent with norms in other prisons.

Rules and Regulations Governing Iraqi Prisons:

I have researched while in Iraq and while at home to find what rules actually govern Iraqi prisons while under occupation. The problem is that soldiers do not know what rules they are operating under. One of the individuals who was part of these pictures said he had not seen a copy of the Geneva Conventions. This abuse stems in part from not having a clearly defined set of governing rules. The Bush Administration has put Iraq, Afghanistan and, Guantanamo into the all encompassing, perpetual war on terror. In reality, Iraq should be considered to be governed under the law of occupation under the Geneva conventions. This law puts the health and welfare on the back of the occupying force. If we were held accountable for this, we would be found severely lacking. The administration does reference “Geneva Conventions,” but they do not seem to be applying it across the board.

Essentially, I think the abuse comes from the second and third mission of these prisons which is stated above, “to extract information and entice prisoners to be informers.” I am confident that he soldiers who performed these acts had those two missions in mind.


The prison problem is symptomatic of a larger issue. Our soldiers have tried in many cases, but failed by the very nature of their job to preserve, let alone restore Iraqi dignity. House to house searches, tearing down fences, ruining roads (some eventually fixed but still destroyed), intrusive checkpoints, etc. has engendered immense ill will. Iraqis pulled me aside on raids and said, “This is not the way.” In America, we complain if we have to take our shoes off while going through security. We honestly have no concept of the level of humiliation. You win wars with the military, not hearts and minds.

Some Possible Actions Steps:

Transparency: 50% of restoring relations in high risk, low trust situations is giving the ones with low trust as much information as possible. I think the investigations accomplished to date need to be released to the world. I also recommend that we investigate the systemic failures in the overall occupation just as the Air Force Academy did in the wake of its sexual assault scandal. The Air Force initially behaved just like the administration is behaving (claiming that the abuse is isolated) and it turned out that the problem was much bigger than anyone imagined and rooted within the institution itself.

Mission: There is a 30 June “hand over,” but I have not seen anything about what the mission of the US military will be at that time. I think this a train wreck waiting to happen. After the 30th, the Iraqi governing body (whatever that might be) will be technically responsible for Iraq. How will the US military fit into their governing structure? What does it mean to “govern” if you are still occupied by 130,000 troops? I think this is a “lose lose” for the US military and the Iraqi governing body. It was clear from the beginning and clear from my trips to Iraq that the DOD leadership wanted FULL control of Iraq. The CPA was held captive in the Green Zone due to security concerns. Our military tried to do it all and was doomed to fail given the enormous “mission creep” that was brought on by the DOD itself, in my mind. What is their new roll and who will exercise control? They are doing so many missions now, when and how will their mission be tailored to the new government? Having been a member of the military, I never thought I would say this, but I think that given the DOD’s mismanagement, I think there needs to be more civilian control and oversight of the entire US mission in Iraq.

War: It is clear that we are still fighting a war in Iraq by the admission of this administration. This makes defining the role of the US military all the more necessary as we move into June.

Personnel: US troops are ill-suited to do reconstructions work for the psychological reasons stated above on the part of both the Iraqis and the soldiers. In my opinion we need to hire and empower Iraqis to rebuild as well as people from the local nations. I was in Jordan prior to the war, where I met several Iraqis who were working in Jordan (I was told there were about 250,000). I also met Jordanians who had worked and trained in Iraq. Why not formalize this exchange? We were very quick to privatize the Iraqi economy. This resulted in mass unemployment as the Iraqis saw it. They lived in a Soviet/Centralized economy where everyone had a job, even if it was a lousy job. Now they have no job and are sitting around complaining about the US and in some cases doing more than complaining. I would recommend putting Iraqis and locals back to work on the government payroll and get the non-security US military out of Iraq.

Training: First redefine what the mission of the Iraqis prison system is versus what it should be and review the cases of people in prison to expedite release. Then train the personnel to support that mission and include Iraqis, (what will happen after 30 June?). And insure that they personnel are supervised and there are enough personnel to do the job commensurate with incarceration standards elsewhere. A lack of training and supervision have historically been at the root of abuse.

Perspective: The only positive sides to this are that our nation is not burying this in secret investigations (thanks to Congress). Also, we should remember that yes, US soldiers did this, but it was also a US soldier who gave these pictures to his/her commander and to the press. This distinguishes us from the former Iraqi regime.

One last note, when I was sitting on the border of Iraq with the Marines waiting to invade, I turned to the 19 and 22 year old I was with and said, “The future of our country is in your hands.” They asked, “Why do you say that?” I replied, “Because your judgment and your conduct in this war and after the war will dictate in the end whether this war was just or not in the minds of the world.” There was a long silence after I said that. Today I feel like these men were sold short with too much mission, too few people and too little training.

Of course, time will tell if her worries are well-founded (my opinion is that they are correct). But that doesn't mean that the military and the government shouldn't start looking at her recommendations immediately.

Hopefully, Representative Eshoo will take Ms. Espinoza's letter, temperment, and balanced evaluation to heart. Our troops deserve no less.