The year was 1951. The Korean War was raging. I was drafted into the Army and sent for basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. After basic, I was assigned to a military police company based at the then First Army headquarters on Governors Island in New York harbor.
Since I had a college degree and had worked for a couple of years in journalism, it was, of course, logical that they should make me a cop. My MP company had three missions. It directed traffic on and off the ferries that connected our Island with New York City. It sent teams of MPs to patrol dangerous combat zones like Times Square looking for soldiers who were AWOL, drunk, or otherwise mischievous. And it patrolled the Island itself looking for similar types of miscreants.
They gave me several weeks of MP training. This consisted mostly of lectures on the Code of Military Justice and demonstrations and exercises in making arrests and subduing over-athletic detainees, learning proper dress and radio code numbers like civilian cops have, and completing the paperwork required for each detainee. I can’t recall any mention of the Geneva Conventions, perhaps because they had been ratified only a year or two earlier. Then they gave me my MP armband and an enormous .45 caliber sidearm. I looked like George Patton!
My company commander was the Superintendent of Schools in a smallish city upstate New York. But my chain of command, as I understood it, went from me to my desk sergeant – the man who ran our police station. Sgt. Duffy, we’ll call him, was regular army. He was a caricature of a Georgia redneck. Like many of the regular army people I met, he was rabidly anti-black (called Negro back then), rabidly anti-Semitic, rabidly anti-Northerner, rabidly anti-university, and a big off-duty drinker.
But the scariest thing about Sgt. Duffy was his barely concealed rage. Sgt. Duffy was just plain sadistic. “You find a GI messing up -- I don’t care what he’s done -- and you treat him rough, and he won’t be back. And no exceptions!” Sgt. Duffy admonished his young MPs. Repeated often enough, Sgt. Duffy created an environment of revenge, retribution, and, most importantly, power and domination. We were the bosses. We were empowered!
That bizarre message resonated among the frustrated young MPs in our squad – all draftees, all angry at the Army for drafting us, all angry at the regular army drill sergeants who had made basic training a living hell, all angry at the thought that any day we could get orders to ship out to Korea to become combat MPs, the most dangerous job in the Army.
Mercifully, that anger rarely surfaced among the young MPs – there weren’t that many ‘bad guys’ to for us to arrest. But one night I was on car patrol around the Island when I spotted a car parked where it shouldn’t have been. I took my flashlight and approached the car. In the back seat, a GI and a WAC (that was the Women’s Army Corps) were doing what girls and boys usually do in back seats of cars.
I knocked on the window and called out “you need to move this car, right now!” No response. I used my flashlight to knock on the window again. The window now opened and the GI inside yelled out “I have permission to park here”, and closed the window again. I now banged on the window more aggressively. A door opened and a Staff Sergeant got out. “Piss off, Private!” he shouted. I could smell the booze as he approached me. “Piss off”, he shouted in my face.
I felt myself getting angry at having my power questioned. “Look”, I said, trying to calm this very drunk soldier. “Let’s not get you into trouble. You could lose a stripe. Why don’t you just move your car to a parking space, and we’ll both be on our way?”
Next thing I knew an arm was coming toward me. I ducked and did what I had learned in basic training. I grabbed his hand with both of mine and twisted it downward, forcing his body to go in the same direction. Then I forced the arm I was holding behind his back, and clicked on one handcuff. I pushed him toward the railing where the car was parked, and used it to attach the other cuff. I told the WAC to stay in the car. Then I called Sgt. Duffy for backup. Just like NYPD Blue!
It was 20-or-so minutes before my backup arrived, and all the while my ‘prisoner’ was shouting unprintable threats and insults, and I was getting angrier by the second. It would have been so easy to, as the TV cops say, ‘tune him up’, and I was seriously tempted. After all, this was all about control and domination!
Thankfully, I managed to restrain myself, and I’m glad I did. That’s what I was trained to do. But I have to wonder: How would I have behaved in Abu Ghraib prison?
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