Behind the Wire: An Insider’s Reflections on Gitmo

After having been deployed for six months as a member of the medical team assigned to the detainee population at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, I can easily say that Gitmo is the most hate-filled place I have ever experienced. The animosity I felt in the “camps” on a daily basis was almost palpable, and it often required a very conscious effort to not escalate the hostility.

Because of the powerful emotions involved, it has taken me more than a year to finally identify the key factors that prevented me from previously being able to question the justification of Gitmo. During the six months in which I saw other human beings confined to cages, I began to undertake an intense study of the concepts of liberty and natural rights. Over the course of the year that followed, this investigation led me to the wholehearted conviction that war is immoral. Amazingly, even after such a distinct transformation, it took still more time to apply my new understanding to my own role in Gitmo.

Honestly, I cannot imagine what the outcome would have been if these beliefs had crystallized while I remained on the island. How could I have coped with the motto “Honor bound to defend freedom” while I daily worked in support of restricting others’ liberty? Thankfully, in coming home, the intermittently reinforced pattern of adrenaline, heightened emotions, and hyper-vigilance has subsided. I believe it was only well after this emotional roller coaster had leveled out that I could even begin to understand the meaning of all that I had seen and experienced.

Initially, one of the largest obstacles to evaluating what happened in Gitmo was my own natural instinct to be personally defensive instead of objectively analytical. To this end, I generally maintained a policy of avoidance. For the most part, I wouldn’t talk about my experience unless prompted by others to do so. My wife recently confirmed this as my modus operandi when she told me that she learned more about Gitmo from hearing me talk to others than she ever did from what I volunteered to her at home. Thankfully, this policy of avoiding the issue wasn’t easy given all the news stories, op-ed pieces, and many people’s eagerness to get on a soapbox in conversation.

As a result, I passionately and sometimes heatedly defended the fact that I hadn’t tortured anybody. Furthermore, when pressed, I expressed how very unjust I thought it was that I had been expected to serve at the beck and call of “detainees." My talking points on this aspect of Gitmo revolved around the audacity of “detainee” complaints. After all, I had repeatedly brought them medication on their whim, and we had been so careful not to make noise during their call to prayer.

I used to express my outrage at having felt forced to cater to the “detainees” because I had been taught to see them as an enemy that would stop at nothing short of the annihilation of my entire culture. Throughout these conversations, I gave innumerable illustrations of what I felt were the many unjustified actions in favor of the “detainees." One example was that the “detainees” had complained that the coffee was cold by the time it arrived from the galley. To my chagrin, the guards were given a coffee machine in the camp from which to directly dispense coffee for the “detainees."

Because the dehumanization that took place was so effective, I was most infuriated by the caged men’s ingratitude for the exceptional services that we provided. Of course, I felt this way despite the fact that I was helping to keep these same men so completely confined that many no longer had the will to live. In stark contrast, I can now at least theoretically understand how insultingly inconsequential such matters as coffee and Advil are in comparison to the isolation the “detainees” experience everyday. How appreciative can you expect someone to be when he is confined to a concrete cell? I think that this is an even more apropos question when the confined person was abducted by individuals who speak a different language and are of a different race, who came to his country armed with true weapons of mass destruction, who kidnapped him for being uncooperative or even resistant, and who all the while claimed they were only doing what was best for him and his neighbors.

For months, even the formation of such a poignant question was impossible for me. Instead, I remained blinded, in part by my dehumanized view of the “detainees," but also as a result of having an obedience-based understanding of morality. Since then, my study of Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison study, through his book The Lucifer Effect, as well as Stanley Milgram’s shock experiment, as analyzed in "The Perils of Obedience," has provided significant insight into how I became part of such an evil system so easily.

With the understanding I’ve gained from these social psychologists, I no longer see it as surprising that I didn’t question the true dynamics at play in Gitmo. After all, I’d been indoctrinated since childhood to obey authority, and I’d been specifically programmed for more than two years in the Navy to follow orders. Additionally, those in my chain of command further subdued any skepticism I had by inducing fear and dehumanizing those involved. This continues to happen through the indistinct labeling of those detained as “deadly enemies” who are collectivized under the heading “detainees” and are only individually referenced by their assigned "internment security numbers."

In "The Perils of Obedience," Stanley Milgram offers an excellent summary of the total effect such factors can have on people in situations similar to Gitmo when he writes, “The most far-reaching consequence is that the person feels responsible to the authority directing him but feels no responsibility for the content of the actions that the authority prescribes.”

This replacement of personal responsibility with the excuse of obedience is why I so adamantly clung to my defense of my role in Gitmo. Even after I accepted that war is immoral, I knew that if I were to admit to myself that I personally had not acted morally, there would be an extremely high price to pay within my own conscience. To dispel any lingering doubts, I repeatedly tried to console myself with the fact that I didn’t have a choice, since I was following orders, and that even if war is immoral, surely the confinement of criminals doesn’t violate the concept of liberty that I now cherish. Nevertheless, my objective moral analysis of my role in Gitmo has led me to the following three questions that I think should be used to decide this issue once and for all.

  1. Are the “detainees” in Gitmo, or anywhere else for that matter, guilty of crimes that merit the past and continuing restriction of their liberty?
  2. Are there objective grounds upon which the guilt referenced in the first question has been established? If not, is evidence to this end being sought? Also is it unjust to restrict their liberty while the question of their guilt remains unanswered? The previous question references the commonly recognized feature of the American judicial system that the accused are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty in a trial. Does such a principle apply to all humanity, or should it only apply to the citizens of a country in which the government enumerates it, as in the United States?
  3. The final question is much more subjective; however, I believe it is no less powerful or important to understanding the issue. What would you do if tens of thousands of people, armed with deadly force and from a completely different culture than yours, suddenly moved within miles of where you lived, worked, and raised your children?

Having established these three questions as my standard, I admit that I do not have, nor am I aware of anyone having, all the information necessary to determine the guilt or innocence of each person detained in Gitmo. Therefore, I honestly confess that I have no basis on which to claim justification for my actions in continuing the confinement of fellow human beings while I was there.

With what I have related about my experience in Gitmo as context, I encourage you to read the request I have filed with the Navy to be classified as a conscientious objector and discharged. As I state in my application, “Overall, I wish to live my life in accordance with what I believe to be morally right.”

Author: Daniel J. Lakemacher

Daniel J. Lakemacher is an active-duty sailor who currently bears the title of petty officer second class, USN. On May 4, 2009, he filed a request to be classified as a conscientious objector and discharged. Daniel does not claim to speak on behalf of the Navy, nor does he wish to continue his non-consensual employment as a member of the Armed Forces. He posts regular updates on the progress of his request at his blog.