The High Price of Abu Ghraib Truth
Editor’s Note: On Thursday night, former Army Sgt. Sam Provance received a letter of commendation from Common Cause – signed by former President Jimmy Carter and 15,000 others – for his “uncommon courage in defending the rule of law and standing up against torture.”
In 2004, Provance was the only uniformed military intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib who broke the code of silence and challenged the Bush administration’s insistence that the grotesque prison abuses were simply the work of a few “bad apples.”
After military policeman Joseph Darby turned over the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs to investigators, Provance spoke out about the role of intelligence officers and other higher-ups in encouraging the humiliation and torture of prisoners. He gave statements to the Army’s internal investigation, at a congressional hearing and to the press.
For his brave integrity, Provance was punished, threatened with a court martial and pushed out of the military. Since then, Provance has faced severe financial and family pressures, struggling to find work that pays enough for him to meet child support obligations and other basic needs.
So, when Provance accepted Common Cause’s commendation, it was a bittersweet moment that illuminated the grim reality of trying to tell important truths in this American era:
I wish I could share with you a “success” story as a result of my being a “whistle-blower,” but the reality of things simply do not presently allow it.
I admit to you that at one time I did believe that my life would eventually turn for the better, in spite of it all, especially fighting under the banners of “doing right,” “standing up for others” and “speaking the truth.”
But it has been a very long and arduous path I have found myself upon with no end in sight. Rather than a karmic “good” winning in the end over “the forces of evil,” I have experienced what I feel like is a slow and intimate wrath in response to my actions.
However, I have sometimes thought perhaps it has been best. Perhaps I might have grown enthralled with the ensuing drama or seduced by the attention garnered. But I have been humbled many times and kept humble nonetheless.
Others I have seen in this and other scandals took the bribes of some media or gave in to others' insinuations that they embellish their testimony for a better “copy.” Still others got lost in drugs or, more tragically, had mental breakdowns under the unique stress.
Their efforts in this regard were effectively sabotaged, losing their credibility, if not their lives.
Perhaps I could have much to gain from indulging in the spotlight or kill a lot of the pain in the fantasies of inebriation, but I know that if what I have said or done is to maintain its meaning – what I have been sacrificing so much for – I have to stay true. I have to stay the course.
I realized that one cannot allow others to take away their credibility or the integrity of the act itself, otherwise, all will be for naught. Sometimes, as in my case, my credibility is all I have left.
At one time, a new First Sergeant I had, having inherited me and my “luggage” from the Abu Ghraib scandal, looked at me and said that no matter what were to happen to me, I was to blame; that I brought this upon myself.
And as bad as that sounds, he's right. I knew full well what I was getting into and the potential consequences. Like clockwork, I was stripped of everything I felt that defined me as a person and have been emotionally peeled like a banana.
But I realized something when wrestling with whether or not I should say or do anything as opposed to nothing at all like everyone around me. And it is this; this world does not exist for me alone. Who am I to put my own interests, health and welfare before everyone else?
The world is too vast and diverse for such delusions of grandeur. The world does not belong to me, but I to it; and in a time when I saw a part of that world in distress, crying out for someone, anyone, to say or do something, anything, I saw this as my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help and serve a purpose beyond just living and dying.
To have shrunk back from that, to have played the coward and ran...yes, I have had many powerful enemies since blowing the whistle, but if I didn't have them, I would've had to contend with the most formidable enemy of all; myself.
Yes, I lost my friends, family, and home...but what about the friends, families, and homes of others? I do not believe even Heaven itself could be enjoyed if you knew by getting there you had to leave everyone else behind.
It was well worth being a voice for the voiceless, speaking into fearful silence, and going down with those others whom the world had forsaken. If I could give them all that much more of a chance – to be an inspiration to those who were that much more capable of doing something more than I – it has to be worth it.
If and when we do the right thing, we may not ever know to what extent our words and actions are ever used by other people, or even God, but you can be sure that they will be. It's really not for us to know such things, but it is for us to act.
It will have an effect somewhere on someone, in the near or far future, that will make that much more a difference.
Everyday I am tempted to give up or give in. But something I have held onto, written by a literary friend of mine, Virgil, once wrote:
"It is easy to go down into Hell; night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide; but to climb back again, to retrace one's steps to the upper air - there's the rub, the task." - Virgil, (The Aeneid)
[To read the Common Cause citation and see the list of signers, click here. To read two articles by Sam Provance about fallout from the Abu Ghraib scandal, click here and here. To read Robert Parry’s explanation of how the Bybee-Yoo torture memos cleared the way for the Abu Ghraib abuses, click here.]
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