In January Army Specialist Charles Graner Jr. was sentenced by a military court in Fort Hood, Texas, to ten years behind bars. His crimes: assault, conspiracy, dereliction of duty and committing indecent acts.
Nearly a year after the infamous photographs of US military personnel abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad had come to light, the graphic allegations of sexual abuse, of guards forcing inmates to masturbate, of naked prisoners stacked into pyramids, of prisoners being hooded and draped with electric wires and of routine beatings, the 36-year-old Graner was taking the rap, labeled by prosecutors as the mastermind of the cell-block sadism.
Throughout his trial, the reservist had claimed he was only following orders, that his superiors had demanded the prisoners be violently “softened up” before being interrogated by military intelligence personnel. In the end the jury, four officers and six high-ranking enlisted men, all of whom had served in Afghanistan or Iraq, didn’t buy his argument. “I was only obeying orders” apparently didn’t cut it as a moral defense in 2005 any more than it did at the Nuremberg trials.
Whether Graner was actually following the orders of superiors–as Seymour Hersh and others have convincingly argued, and as the copiously documented book The Torture Papers suggests–is clearly critical to understanding the larger context of Abu Ghraib. Wherever one comes down on that question, though, there can be no doubt that Graner is guilty of torture. And so there remains the troubling matter of Graner himself: not just who he is–his biographical details are by now well-known–but how he formed his values and beliefs, what sorts of experiences shaped him. Where, in other words, did Charles Graner come from? And, moreover, what does the small world from which he emerged make of his newfound notoriety? In the answers to those questions may be a few additional clues to the Abu Ghraib atrocities: not only who is responsible, but what they show about American society–where its moral compass on torture lies today.
In 2004, as the macabre images flowed out of Abu Ghraib, the little coal-mining town of Waynesburg, in Appalachian southwestern Pennsylvania’s Greene County, was put in an unwelcome spotlight. For it soon came out that Graner, in his civilian incarnation, was a correctional officer at SCI Greene, a supermax prison that had opened in the town a decade earlier.
Like Graner, who served for several years in the Marines in the 1980s and early ’90s, most guards at SCI Greene have served in the military, hired by the department of corrections as part of a preferential hiring process for veterans that has turned many prisons into virtual preserves for retired military personnel. Over the past four years, dozens of SCI Greene’s staffers have been reactivated into National Guard and Army Reserve units and sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. As of this past summer, the prison administration estimated that of about 700 prison employees, twenty-nine staff, twenty-six of whom were guards, were currently on active duty. Another thirty-seven had been activated at some point since 2001 but had since returned to the prison.