The Fight for the High Ground

By Mansoor, Peter R. | Military Review, September 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Fight for the High Ground


Mansoor, Peter R., Military Review


Douglas Pryer's

The Fight for the High Ground

Most Americans view U.S. Army interrogations in Iraq in 2003- 2004 through the lens of Abu Ghraib. As Douglas Pryer points out in The Fight for the High Ground: The U.S. Army and Interrogation During Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003-April 2004 (CGSC Foundation Press, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 2009), this view is distorted and potentially dangerous. In this well written and thoroughly researched book, Pryer examines the shortcomings of U.S. Army interrogation doctrine, the deficiencies of its counterintelligence force structure, and the inadequate training that led to the promulgation of harsh interrogation policies and the abuse of detainees in Iraq during the first, crucial year of the conflict. Pryer, an active duty counterintelligence officer who served in Iraq during the conflict's first year, is well qualified to analyze these matters. The mistakes made in Iraq during this period, epitomized by the criminal actions of U.S. Soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison, have had long-term consequences for the international image of the United States and its military forces. Pryer reminds us that Americans should and must aspire to higher ideals. His excellent study is an essential step along a journey of understanding to repair the damage to the U.S. Army and its core values and to ensure that such policies and practices that led to prisoner abuse in Iraq do not occur again.

Intelligence is the coin of the realm in counterinsurgency warfare, and the best intelligence is normally gained from human sources. Yet despite the fact that a well-trained interrogator can elicit information willingly from most prisoners, far too many U.S. military personnel in Iraq thought that harsh treatment would somehow lead to better results. This attitude reflected outright ignorance of the basics of interrogation doctrine-a specialized area routinely ignored in pre-command courses and at the Army's combat training centers. Ironically, the one school that many Army leaders attended in this regard was the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE ) School-a course intended to teach military personnel how to resist interrogation by an enemy that did not follow the Geneva Conventions regarding the ethical treatment of prisoners.

America's political leaders were even less well informed in these matters. They increasingly advocated for brutality in the name of saving American lives, aided by the dubious opinions of a coterie of legal advisers who had spent the majority of their careers inside the Beltway. The administration redefined torture to enable interrogators to inflict temporary physical and psychological pain, and then adopted interrogation techniques used at SERE schools. These techniques were first used at Guantanamo Bay, soon migrated to Afghanistan, and from there transferred to Iraq.

Pryer details the moral descent of the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2003 as frustration and casualties mounted. In August 2003 Combined Joint Task Force 7, the highest military headquarters in Iraq, encouraged subordinate units to "take the gloves off" and treat detainees harshly in an attempt to pry additional and more useful information from them. The astonishing fact is that some interrogators approved of this order to engage in harsh interrogation practices despite reams of historical evidence that harsh treatment rarely results in good intelligence.

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