(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