America’s Heart of Darkness: Comments on <em>Taxi to the Dark Side</em>


damien corsetti.jpg(A shorter (very well edited) version of this article appeared on The Guardian‘s “Comment is Free” website.)
Damien Corsetti may be the Ron Kovic of our time. Corsetti is one of the featured commentators in Alex Gibney’s powerful, Oscar-nominated film, Taxi to the Dark Side.
Unlike Kovic, Corsetti was not visibly, physically maimed and hasn’t yet become a full-fledged anti-war radical, but he’s someone whose soul seems to be struggling hard to cope with the ugliness of America’s Darkness-at-Noon style treatment of combat detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq. And he’s letting you and me — those of us who remain distant from and have subcontracted out the task of crushing bad Muslims — see into his nightmares.
Corsetti was a military intelligence interrogator at military detention facilities the US managed at Bagram in Afghanistan and at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. He and some of his comrades in arms had a hand in torturing and eventually institutionally murdering a young, hopeful Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar who had just purchased his first cab as a way to help earn hard cash for his family. Corsetti was nicknamed “Monster” and the “King of Torture” by his fellow soldiers. He deployed a technique that many interrogators asked him to use titled “Fear up, harsh.”

I met Corsetti recently during an event I helped organize and moderate a few months ago at a screening of Taxi to the Dark Side that award-winning producer and director Alex Gibney was kind enough to let the New America Foundation and The Washington Note assemble.
In the darkness of the theater after Gibney’s emotion-crunching film had finished rolling before 200 people who braved a full force snow storm to attend, Corsetti’s hugeness, his blunt honesty about his prison interrogation experiences — his words said and not said — offered up before us a man struggling with morality, afraid in a way to clearly blame his commanders for the hell he, other guards, and their wards — the prisoners — of whom he said about 99% were completely and entirely innocent. . .but still beneath his cautious words was a gasping that it was them — that it was Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush, Addington, and others without saying their names.
In that low light, the head-shaven Corsetti was Kurtz sharing what he could about “the horror”. He is Brando’s Kurtz — or Brando was Corsetti and all the others who find themselves to be the instruments of institutionalized inhumanity by societies who pretend not to be capable of such debased behavior.
I had one of my colleagues tape Corsetti and some of the other speakers in the dim light.

Watch this five minute YouTube clip with FBI Special Agent and interrogator and Damien Corsetti talking about torture and going over the line. Others who participated in the post-screening discussion were filmmaker Alex Gibney, and former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson who is also featured in the film. While the entire segment could not be taped, here are segments of moving commentary from them:

Short interview of Taxi to the Dark Side director Alex Gibney by Steve Clemons
More comments by Alex Gibney after film screening: “Bush and Cheney ran on torture. . .”
Military Interrogator Damien Corsetti and FBI Special Agent and al Qaeda interrogator Jack Sheehan comment about torture and detainee interrogations
Former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson compares Vietnam and today’s conflicts and talks about the “Code of Conduct” card every soldier use to carry with him or her. (Wilkerson has some strong comments about the highest levels of the chain of command being complicit in the promulgation of torture and harsh, abusive tactics in the field.)

There are a number of films out now capturing the dark side of our times and lives. While mass media seems to be becoming more and more homogenized and trapped in confines of political agenda, independent films are becoming an increasingly important part of our civil society and democracy.
Michael Moore’s Oscar-contending Sicko articulates what almost everyone knows but can’t quite accept about the failings of American health care. Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace captures the complete insanity of young American soldiers with no language or culture training policing the streets of Baghdad. Charles Ferguson’s also-Oscar nominated No End in Sight investigates and documents the decision-making process — or absence of one — that led to one of the arguably most catastrophic decisions of the early Occupation — to disband Iraq’s military forces.
None of these stories are ones that Alberto Gonzales, Scooter Libby, Richard Cheney, John Bolton, David Addington, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, or George W. Bush would want told — and yet they are all vital discourses on what is really happening in our country and in the world.
Taxi to the Dark Side is practically a legal brief on a homocide perpetrated not by Corsetti and other guards — but by those who gave them no instruction on the management and interrogation of detainees. Gibney captures commentary from commanders who were practically begging for guidelines and clear parameters for dealing with the massive stream of prisoners coming in. They got nothing. They kept asking — and what they got instead of the clear terms outlined in the now Congressionally-demanded Army Field Manual parameters were whispers — not codified — but spread by word of mouth, by innuendo, by seeing that those who tortured and brutalized prisoners got promoted and those who played by Geneva or other such standard were pushed out — they got the clear, blaring instructions to “take the gloves off.”
There are significant, well respected studies that look at what happens when ordinary, untrained people are put into stressful environments where one person has control over another — particularly in prison circumstances. The outcome is always dark — and the intel spymasters know this.
After seeing this Alex Gibney masterpiece of documentary investigation, I’m convinced that America’s highest generals and their civilian authorities wanted to produce the extreme behaviors that led to Dilawar’s death — and to the death and torture of many other innocents. 9/11 flipped a switch in Cheney and his team to abandon the norms that made America the democracy it was; they wanted payback, wanted info, and didn’t really care how many uninvolved Muslims had to be crushed and ruined and maimed to give us an edge in this new war.
I am conflicted in the race for the Oscar in documentaries this year — because Taxi to the Dark Side and No End in Sight both tell similar stories — almost parables — of good people doing bad things because of the strings pulled and not pulled by despicable people above them who deny their own complicity in the horrors unleashed. I want both of these films to be given the recognition that would help others to come into contact with Corsetti’s nightmares and Charles Ferguson’s and Alex Gibney’s exposure of hyper-arrogance, insidious policies, incompetence, and lack of accountability at the highest levels of our government.
Corsetti and many soldiers in his unit were charged with crimes by military prosecutors when the Pentagon realized that Dilawar’s death could no longer be covered up. They were to be the fall guys taking the hit for the disturbing interrogation techniques and sinister prison ecosystem cultivated by commanders above. As Taxi to the Dark Side recounts, many of these young people did some short prison time.
Corsetti said “no way.” He admits to smoking mountains of pot and doing a lot he shouldn’t have done through his entire tenure at Bagram and “Abu” as he calls Abu Ghraib — but he knows that the young rank and file in the military were not the ones really complicit in these tragedies — and he refused to take the hit. He got a lawyer, fought back and was acquitted.
Kurtz in the guise of Corsetti is now on the side of those who see that the horror came from those in Washington — and that they should be held accountable for this tragic collapse of American moral credibility in the world.
Damien Corsetti is a complex man — perhaps emotionally unstable given all that has happened. He is someone without a lot of current job prospects. He’s entertaining the idea of becoming a bouncer for a night club at the moment. . .but when there are few heroes in our time given the terrible mess we are in — he is a hero in my estimation. So is FBI interrogator Jack Sheehan who spoke out early against torture and the criminal environment he saw developing under American military watch.
Gibney, Corsetti, Wilkerson, Sheehan, and others in Taxi get what is right and what was terribly, astonishingly wrong in America’s proscution of the war and management of people taken into custody. And now they want to help Americans see into what was done — and work to correct it.
Recently Corsetti sent me this email:

Mr. Clemons this is Damien Corsetti we meet at the screening for taxi to the dark side I found your card in my wallet yesterday and remembered you wanted me to contact you. Please pardon my tardiness, just wanted to let you know that I would be happy to help the cause in any way possible.

People from the Obama and Clinton campaigns read my blog and comments every day. I hope they consider having a public meeting with Sheehan, Gibney, and most importantly — Damien Corsetti.
Barack and Hillary should “experience” him — and not the homogenized, all is well soldier that the Pentagon manufacturers for politicians.
We need an airing out of these stories, investigations, and serious hearings — and we need accountability pinned on those at the top of the crime chain, not skapegoating those at the lower tier doing what they were instructed — or whispered — to do.
— Steve Clemons


15 comments on “America’s Heart of Darkness: Comments on <em>Taxi to the Dark Side</em>

  1. hello says:

    I found this page by using – it is easy to find everything!


  2. Mr.Murder says:

    Is he familiar with “John Israel” who did interrogations at Abu gharib?


  3. Tom Wright says:

    This week’s New Yorker looks at our use of waterboarding in the Philippines, first under McKinley, and then under Roosevelt.


  4. karenk says:

    So, knowing all this, what makes Bush and Cheney NOT war criminals? They should be tried in Den Haag to find out, no? If anyone else did this we would be calling for just such action, no?


  5. sdemetri says:

    When terrorists were in our employ…
    by former AP and Newsweek reporter Robert Parry


  6. Mike Treder says:

    What got me more angry than anything else as I watched “Taxi to the Dark Side” was that the ONLY persons who have been held accountable for the abuses at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan are the lowest ranking soldiers and MPs.
    Our government and our military brass put those young men and women (some of them little more than children) into an impossible situation, gave them NO clear instructions on how to behave, and then when things went badly wrong, as they inevitably must, brought those kids to trial and put them in JAIL!!!
    Meanwhile, the leaders got their Bronze Stars and their Medals of Freedom and NO ONE but the least responsible may ever pay any price for the atrocities committed in our name.
    It makes me furious.


  7. sdemetri says:

    Actually, Carroll, my cat, before eating its prey, usually “plays” with it. I don’t think it is purely out of malice. It seems to be more as “play.” For what it is worth.
    I can’t say in strong enough terms that the advocacy of the type of culture those in power appear to have actively created in the “war on terror” depicted by Corsetti’s narrative, the “total war” mentality, that the gloves are off and the ends justify whatever means, however despicable, to reach those ends, is perfectly consistent with operations that sacrifice “friendlies” to reach those “good” ends. This consistency does not prove that “friendlies” may have been sacrificed in a total war mentality, but that possibility is certainly consistent with that mentality.
    Listed on the site:
    are about 40 direct referenced quotes of officials, engineers, and rescue workers who witnessed and knew about the molten iron that persisted in the rubble of WTC 1, 2, and 7 for up to five months after the collapses. The molten metal is a “smoking gun” phenomenon, achievable only by extremely high energy means, not by low energy hydrocarbon fires. Eyewitness firefighters; seismic evidence of explosions well prior to the collapses; photographic and video evidence of explosion characteristics; the complete explosive pulverization of hundreds of thousands of pounds of concrete, and office material; the nearly identical, symmetrical, free fall collapses of TWO massively framed steel buildings, and the unexplained symmetrical, free fall collapse of a third on the same day; are all consistent with an hypothesis of controlled demolition. An hypothesis ACTIVELY rejected and ignored in ALL official investigations in the face of prima facea evidence to the contrary.
    A question to be asked is, Did a trip to the dark side and torture result from 19 incompetent Saudi pilots and a guy in a cave, or was there an ideological agenda that pre-dated 9/11 that required a “new Pearl Harbor” to jump start the program? The evidence strongly supports the latter proposition.


  8. Mr.Murder says:

    Ask him if he’s ever met Nicholas Berg. You might be surprised at the answer….


  9. via says:

    Pelosi and Conyers should sit down with these men, too.


  10. Carroll says:

    I am curious how the US can call itself a civilized society when we haven’t demanded the heads of those like Cheney, Yoo, Addington and Feith and all the others who set this up.
    We have become docile animals. I take the animal description back, animals don’t torture their prey.


  11. Carroll says:

    Excellent post.
    Make the real monsters accountable.


  12. dqueue says:

    Thanks for this post. Too, I’m thankful to have caught the DC premiere you arranged. I’m recommending the film to many I meet.
    Following the screening, my initial reaction to Damien was harsh, quite judgmental; I was still thoroughly disturbed by the film. After he spoke a bit, I warmed to him; my perception shifted. I sensed some of his complexity. As he spoke, he became very real to me.
    I hope the candidates do talk with Damien Corsetti. Not only Clinton and Obama, but McCain, too. McCain’s capitulation on torture continues to sicken me, and I wonder how he may confront one such as Damien.


  13. Forest Ranger says:

    Thanks for the post, TWN. I don’t know which is worse…the actual crimes that have been committed by our leadership, or the lack of outrage by the American people.
    I think any reasonable person would agree that extremist elements want to destroy the United States, but how we confront that type of threat is paramount to maintaining our way of life. In other words, we cannot allow the rule of law to be circumvented in an effort to “protect” us.
    In addition, pursuing our enemies and obeying the law do not have to be mutually exclusive ideals. We can use justifiable force, when necessary, but we must also maintain our dignity in doing so. Otherwise, our actions would be more destructive than any terrorist act.


  14. DonS says:

    I’m glad that the Hillary and Barack folks monitor this board. Actually, I hope they derive some realism from it
    I am left with a schizophrenic impression as to what the “colleague” was trying to accomplish or convey in his interview/extrapolation of Corsetti.
    Part of the commentary seemed downright pandering to some segment of some audience, as if to convince that he was indeed a real “Murcan” and — sad to say — the “be afraid, be very afraid” message was reinforced rather that thrust in a more reasonable context. I.e., Osama and company’s concept of revenge being long term. (much was in the inflection — perhaps I misread — rather than the words per se).
    This is a longer post than most on TWN. I believe that reflects the seriousness of the mess that the necons have visited on us.
    Can the candidates respond, or only offer bromides?


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