Ryan Berg, a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran deployed twice in Iraq. In 2004, he was with 2/24 Echo Company, Weapons Platoon, in the Triangle of Death. In 2006, he served with 1/14 Task Force Military Police and was in Fallujah, Ramadi and Al Asad. He earned a bachelors in rhetoric from UC Berkeley and an MA in Leadership Studies at Saint Mary’s College of California. He is married to his wife Nataly and lives in the SF Bay Area.
Editors note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own.
When I was in Iraq, I saw a man being tortured. It was 2004, and I was at the police station in downtown Mahmudiyah — an actively lethal city a few miles south of the capital, and one vertices that made up the “Triangle of Death”. The area is also known as the Gateway to Baghdad, and at the time, because of the major push into Fallujah to the north, it was rich with angry insurgents who came south. They were angry because we moved into their neighborhoods, disrupted supply routes, and all methods of escape were cut off — with the help of our counterparts, the British Black Watch. Not to mention the fact that we’re American invaders through their eyes. The insurgents imposed a militant strain of Sunni Islam, also known as Wahhabism, which offered rewards for the execution of Iraqi police, National Guardsmen, Shiite Muslims and foreigners — and they often carried out killings in the street, which we saw the horrible aftermath of on a few occasions. Our supreme goal was to establish conditions for a fair and free national election on January 30, 2005. And so, we waged the full spectrum of combat operations against them. As a young marine, I didn’t understand all of this when I was on the ground, but surely felt it. My squad was constantly patrolling the area, raiding homes, performing surprise checkpoints, making arrests, and taking part in special regional missions, like Plymouth Rock – a battalion wide anti-insurgent sweep on November 23rd, 2004.
This day, I was with my platoon and Iraqi security forces. My squad leader and I were roaming the light blue halls of the small compound, and heard screaming coming from a room in the far back. We entered and witnessed a man being violently caned and shouted at in Arabic. He was crying, pleading in agony as he sat with his back up against the cold, scarred concrete wall in a dark room with no windows. A room designated for this type of horror it seemed. With each whip he convulsed and pleaded, torquing and turning his body in a futile effort to avoid the strikes. His hands were tied. Literally.
Standing a few steps into the room, we both watched in horror, yet were mesmerized as we traded smirks. We’d never seen anything like this before. “If this person was responsible for plotting to kill us”, we reasoned, “perhaps he’s getting what he deserves.” We walked out feeling concerned and debated whether to tell someone. We returned a moment later to see that one of the interrogators was urgently fumbling with a small battery and one long red wire. “What are you going to do with that?” I asked the young Iraqi Army soldier. “We’re going to electrocute him” he replied. “Then, he will tell us everything.” I felt a knot form in the pit of my stomach. “This is not a good idea, but I want to see” I thought — as my desire to tell our captain strengthened equally.
Wires ran from each port on the battery to the Iraqi soldier’s left and right hand as he sparked the two together, and a brief blueish glow zapped lit. He then placed the live wire near the man’s chest, the other on his foot, and the current instantly sucked through his body to the tips of his toes as it sped for the ground. Loud screams. An upgrade over the whips. He was prodded multiple times as Arabic that I couldn’t understand, and the man’s agonious shrieks, bounced off the hard walls, creating an unbearable chamber of suffering.
My squad leader and I had to do something. We told our platoon commander and he made the moral case for why it needed to cease, and so it did. The Iraqis concluded that he was ultimately innocent, and that this was a case of mistaken identity. I went to the roof and watched as the man in the white robe, staggered and limping, broken and hurting, disappeared into the open market of downtown Mahmudiyah. My stomach turned as I realized that this man was tortured by accident, and felt a consuming sorrow fill my heart. I paced around and surveyed the ocher colored structures below, felt the cold come on as the sun set, and shivered as I listened to the ominous call for prayer.