Morality and Morale: The experience of U.S. soldiers inside Guantánamo Bay

Camp X-Ray, now abandoned, where the first detainees were held in 2002

The hunger strike that involved more than 100 detainees and captured international attention was still on when I landed on the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It was July 16, 2013, and my arrival coincided with that of John F. Kelly, a four-star Marine general who is commander of U.S. military operations in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Although our visits were similarly timed, our missions were decidedly different. I was on assignment for America to tour the detention camps, interview staff and bring to light what was happening in a place typically veiled in secrecy. General Kelly was at the base to install a new commander for detention operations.

Public affairs officers escorted me to the Windjammer Ballroom for the change-of-command ceremony. The “high liturgy” included processions, music and an invocation. Flag bearers on the stage represented each branch of the military. At the podium, General Kelly said he would do something “a little unusual” for this type of event: speak directly to the troops about this “incredibly important mission.” The detainees’ hunger strike, then in its sixth month, had attracted a lot of unwanted attention and criticism, not only from human rights groups but also from the commander in chief. General Kelly seemed resolved to boost the morale of the 2,000 U.S. troops responsible for detention operations.

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Competing Narratives

A morale boost was needed because of a crisis that arose quickly in early 2013, following three relatively quiet years at the detention camps. Despite the fact that the U.S. government had several years earlier approved the release or transfer of more than half of the remaining detainees, the process of emptying the camps had essentially halted because of congressional restrictions. Between October 2010 and early 2013, only five men left Guantánamo: two made plea bargains and served out their time; two found freedom in El Salvador; and one left in a coffin.

Frustration and desperation among the detainees intensified, especially when they received news that President Barack Obama, who had promised to close the detention camps, instead closed the state department office responsible for finding countries to take detainees. A hunger strike ensued, and more than 100 of 166 detainees joined the effort. As some became increasingly malnourished, military officials decided to force-feed as many as 46 detainees on a given day. Though the practice is considered unethical by the American Medical Association, the Pentagon defended it as a humane attempt to save lives.

In an article on the op-ed page of The New York Times (4/15/13), Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, held at Guantánamo since 2002 and never charged in a military or civilian court, described the first time a feeding tube was shoved up his nose, down his throat and into his stomach. “There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before,” he wrote. “I just hope that because of the pain we are suffering, the eyes of the world will once again look at Guantánamo before it is too late.” Many took notice. Several elected officials, public commentators and newspaper editorial writers denounced the status quo at Guantánamo and called on the president to renew his commitment to closing the facility.

At a press conference on April 30, 2013, President Obama finally addressed the hunger strike and force-feeding. He said he did not want any detainees to die, but as a country we should ask, “Why exactly are we doing this?” He also said the indefinite detention of individuals in Guantánamo Bay is “contrary to who we are” and “contrary to our interests.” Then, in a major security speech at the National Defense University on May 23, he said, “History will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to stop it.”

At the change-of-command ceremony, General Kelly delivered an aggressive and unapologetic 13-minute rebuttal to the critics of Guantánamo. At the outset, he emphasized the distinction between U.S. policy and the troops on the ground. “We in uniform are responsible for one thing here: detention operations. We don’t make policy,” he said.

General Kelly praised the troops as “world-class professionals” who endure “endless hours” of verbal and physical abuse but do not retaliate. He said this professional conduct reflects “the truth of this effort.” Defending the troops from what he called “unwarranted and most often fabricated criticism,” General Kelly took dead aim at what he called the “champions” of the detainees, the “agenda-driven chattering class” and the “self-serving, misguided pundits.” He expressed particular frustration with anyone who implies that the troops participate in a “shameful and illegal undertaking.” Meanwhile, he said the detainees “are among the most violent and hateful men on the planet: terrorists, extremists, Al Qaeda leadership, who are, in most cases, still at war with our country.”

It is not uncommon for public officials and military leaders to characterize the detainees broadly as “the worst of the worst” terrorists in the world; and yet the Bush administration released more than 500 of these men from Guantánamo. In 12 years only eight detainees have been convicted of any crimes, and half (77) of the remaining detainees have been cleared for release or transfer, most in January 2010 by a task force of top U.S. security and intelligence officials.

The troops in Guantánamo Bay have a demanding job and do it exceptionally well, but the moral evaluation of the detention operations cannot be reduced to the professionalism of the guard force. Soldiers do not create policy, but they do implement detention practices widely criticized as illegal and immoral. This raises several important questions. Beyond the rhetoric, how do the troops experience and understand their work? How does the political debate, especially the words of the commander in chief, affect them? And do they wrestle with the moral questions of Guantánamo?

Tough Reporting

Last summer the Pentagon approved tours of the detention operations for only a few reporters. America was granted rare access to Camps Five and Six (where most of the detainees are held), the detainee library, food preparation center, hospital and behavioral health unit. My request for a tour of Camp Seven, the top-secret facility for the “high-value” detainees, was ignored. During my five-day visit, I interviewed two chaplains, a defense attorney, a watch commander, a member of the guard force, the Muslim cultural adviser, the senior medical officer, the head psychiatrist, the director of public affairs and General Kelly.

Before arriving on the naval base, reporters must agree to 10 pages of ground rules, including a strict prohibition on communicating with any detainees. The military’s motto at Guantánamo Bay is “Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent,” but the whole operation is so lacking in “transparency” that it is difficult to assess whether it is “safe, humane and legal.” The tours were carefully choreographed. In the course of five days, we observed just a few detainees for a total of 10 minutes. In each interview, staff repeated the same talking points: Detainee noncooperation is their way of “staying in the fight”; detainees are held in “single-cell lockdown,” not solitary confinement; detainees routinely splash guards with cocktails of feces and urine; the hunger strike is exaggerated. The media restrictions, however, made it impossible to verify these claims, and requests for documentation were never fulfilled. For example, General Kelly claimed that many detainees only “pretend” to be on hunger strike. I asked to observe the detainees at a meal time. That, I was told, would not be possible.

After several requests, the public affairs office did allow me to visit Camp Iguana, a special housing facility originally built for juvenile detainees as young as 13. In recent years the camp housed Turkish Uighurs classified as “exonerated residents” because they had release papers from a U.S. federal court. Once we arrived at the camp, set on the edge of a rocky stretch of Caribbean coastline, the officer allowed me to photograph only the opaque fence surrounding the camp. When I walked toward the gate to peer inside, she yelled, “Stop!” Camp Iguana is the least restrictive housing facility in Guantánamo. What is there to hide? And how do these restrictions reflect on the stated commitment to transparency?

Spencer Ackerman, national security editor for the web publication Guardian U.S., told an audience at New York University in November that it is harder to report in Guantánamo than in Afghanistan or Iraq. “It is very controlled,” he explained. “Never once in a war zone did I present anything to a censor.” At Guantánamo, however, every photograph and video clip is carefully reviewed before it leaves the base. Sometimes late into the night, public affairs officers scroll through hundreds of images, cropping and deleting any prohibited items, like naval assets, entry procedures, pathways or even coastlines. Never mind that satellite images of the facilities are available to anyone with access to Google Maps.

Soldiers’ Stories

Though access to many places and people was restricted, there were many opportunities to listen to the experiences of military personnel through formal interviews with members of the guard force, testimony from chaplains and daily interaction with the public affairs officers responsible for escorting members of the media from place to place on the naval base.

Army Sgt. Vernon Branson, 33, had no experience working in a detention facility before he arrived in Guantánamo. Now he is a watch commander. He received two weeks of training before taking on this assignment, but it hardly reflected what he actually experiences each day. Once in Guantánamo Bay, he shadowed his predecessor for a week, was observed for a week and then took over. He works 12-hour shifts, but has gotten used to it. “It’s not really that stressful,” he said. In two months of duty, he had not seen a single incident of detainees splashing troops with urine or feces. “The way you treat detainees is how they are going to treat you back,” he said. “The respect factor goes a long way.” He told a story about a detainee who moved into his camp but did not have sneakers, so he found him a pair. The next day the detainee said thank you. “If you help these guys out,” Sergeant Branson said, “it goes a long way.”

Army Spc. Andrew Stark, 22, after seven months on the guard force, said the job can be stressful at times. Everyone, he said, experiences intimidation and hate from the detainees. “I have seen biological assault, verbal assault, people struck with items,” he said. On a couple of occasions, he had feces and urine thrown at him. He sees it as just part of the mission. “You get tested [for communicable diseases], and go back to work,” he explained. A person needs to be resilient, he said, but also to know one’s limits. “Everyone has different ways to cope,” he explained. “I go outside, smoke a cigarette, and then I come back in, and it’s like nothing ever happened. I’m a new man.”

Army Cpt. Brady Frederick, chaplain of the 525th Battalion, has listened to many guards talk about personal and professional struggles. Since they are separated from their normal support system of family and friends, Captain Frederick said, guards have to find another a way to work through moments of frustration and anger. “Life is paused while they are here,” he explained. Soldiers miss weddings, birthdays and even funerals. Many are worried about the survival of their marriage, and how to be a good father or mother when separated from their children. National Guard Cpt. Loneshia Reid, who worked in the joint operations center, said that her biggest worry is the well-being of her family. “I pray for the safety of my family, and that they’re O.K. in my absence,” she said.

Part of the challenge for troops, Captain Frederick explained, is that only 1 percent of Americans serve in the military. Friends and family typically have no reference point for what the soldiers experience on deployment, especially in a place like Guantánamo Bay. Soldiers have to come to grips with the fact that most people will never know what they did, or the sacrifices they made. “There will be no parade” when they return home, he said.

Moral Questions

The troops experience a strong sense of duty to faithfully execute the mission. They value the chain of command and follow orders. Yet it can be hard to maintain morale. The commander in chief referred to the prison as unnecessary, contrary to our country’s interests and not who we are. When soldiers hear this, they might naturally wonder: Who is giving the orders? What is the mission? Why are we here? Such questions do not change their daily reality of waking up, going to work and doing their job. But at the same time, they inevitably live in the shadow of the political and moral realities of Guantánamo, a heavy weight to carry—so heavy that most people try not to think about it.

Whenever I asked soldiers about the president’s characterization of the detention facilities, they would often smile, lean back, take a deep breath and say it does not really help to think about it. Specialist Stark tries to separate himself from politics as much as possible. “I don’t want anything getting in my brain that is going to give me any sort of prejudice against this job,” he said. Captain Reid said she has a personal opinion, but when she wears her uniform, President Obama “is commander in chief and is entitled to say what he wants to say.”

The military personnel simply try to get through each day, and they have other things to worry about. There does not seem to be much room for critical analysis or moral discernment. “Once you accept the duties of this uniform, you kind of have to make your own way, spiritually,” said Captain Reid, who completed a master of divinity degree immediately before her deployment. “I feel God understands that this is my job, and if I were called to do something else, I would be somewhere else.” Therefore, she said, she will do this job to the best of her ability.

I asked General Kelly whether President Obama’s comments have affected the morale of the troops on the ground. “One of the great things about being in the U.S. military is you don’t have to worry about that kind of stuff. You just do what you are told,” he explained. “My troops know they are doing a noble thing here, because our country sent us here to do this. Our country wouldn’t send us anywhere to do something that wasn’t noble, honorable and legal.”

Many others, however, do not have the same level of certainty as General Kelly. The U.S. Catholic bishops, for example, have criticized the indefinite detention of detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

In a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hegel on June 25, 2013, Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote that detainees in Guantánamo Bay “have the right to a just and fair trial held in a timely manner.” The United States has charged fewer than 20 of the 779 detainees in the history of Guantánamo. Bishop Pates explained, “The indefinite detention of detainees is not only injurious to those individuals, it also wounds the moral reputation or our nation.” Stephen Colecchi, the director of that bishops’ office, explained to America last June that experts can debate the legality of indefinite detention, but legal is not the same as moral. “Is it moral? Absolutely not,” he said.

The Next Step

The policies in Guantánamo Bay affect not only the detainees but also the soldiers stationed there. Soldiers do not decide policy, but they operate within and help sustain a system of indefinite detention. President Obama has offered a litany of reasons for why the detention camps at Guantánamo should be closed. Here is another: It is unjust to subject military personnel to these circumstances. It unnecessarily places them in a compromising moral and political situation that none of them asked for.

One year since Mr. Obama’s recommitment to closing the detention facility, 12 detainees have been transferred, admittedly a small number of the overall population but the largest step toward closing the facility since his first year in office. Tensions have cooled, but not disappeared. As of March, about two dozen detainees continued to refuse meals and were being force-fed.

President Obama does not bear responsibility for creating the problem of Guantánamo Bay, but now he owns it. As commander in chief, he must fix a situation that, in his words, is “not sustainable” and “contrary to who we are.” When he issues an order, the military will execute it. General Kelly told me, “We in uniform have no dog in the fight.” A day earlier, he had met with Cliff Sloan, the U.S. official appointed last June to find countries to take detainees, and told him, “You give me a name, and you give me a country, and it’s a machine after that.” The military is just taking orders. They need to be the right ones.

Click here for America's full coverage of the detention operations at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mark Mitchell
4 years 5 months ago
Thank you for the good article. Mr. Hansen is pointing in the right direction of soldiers' moral dilemma. At one time , maybe such moral questions weren't raise because of the clarity of a 'just' war but certainly today I see soldiers in the Los Angeles area and the returning who will be struggling with their spiritual wounds.It is an area of focus that we offer in our workshops here at LMU.
William Atkinson
4 years 5 months ago
The real reality of Guantanamo Bay (for ever to be remembered as GITMO) is that in Roman Times, this is where Jesus would be located, as it was the Roman Justice to exile all rebels and troublemakers, radicals and terrorist, to other lands, such as Spain and England.
Robert Koch
4 years 5 months ago
When you join the military, you obey orders. If you feel that you cannot obey, then get out of the military. Period. -Millet
Ed Gangemi
4 years 5 months ago
I was morally offended by the overall rhetorical tone of Luke Hansen's observations, here, beginning with his trivializing and mocking characterization of "'the change-of-command ceremony. The 'high liturgy'". Does this sort of sniggering commentary mark some observable level of "moral discernment" in Jesuit circles? When Hansen goes so far as to say that: "The military personnel simply try to get through each day, and they have other things to worry about. There does not seem to be much room for critical analysis or moral discernment." the author's lack of moral discernment and plain insight about the job these soldiers have been given is flat shocking. To be willing to serve one's country, knowing one may be required to do difficult jobs, jobs that, so long as the orders are in place, must be done, is not an abnegation of "critical analysis" or "moral discernment." On the contrary, just getting through such a day, as Hansen's article does make clear, is a constant moral endeavor, involving moment-to-moment critical analysis of what one's responsibilities are. Given Pope Francis' recent comments about the need for all Catholics, and especially clergy and religious, to get real, and be real about, with, and for the people they interact with, Luke Hansen S.J.'s sense of "duty" as a "news reporter" could use a dose the moral scrutiny and critical analysis he so glibly disavows in others.

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