The terrorists attacks in Brussels last week provided instant fodder for the U.S. presidential campaign. Republican front-runner Donald Trump had already boasted last month that he would order the U.S. military to "target the families of terrorists," also pledging to reinstitute waterboarding and "a whole lot more" as a tactic to extract information from terrorists.
With 35 innocent people dead in the Belgian capital, Trump wasted no time in doubling down on his support for torture, declaring in an interview that he would have used waterboarding to extract information from Salah Abdeslam, the suspect in November's Paris terror attacks who'd been arrested just four days before the Brussels attack.
"Frankly, waterboarding, if it was up to me, and if we change the laws or have the laws, waterboarding would be fine," Trump said. "We work within laws. They don't work within laws. They have no laws. The waterboarding would be fine and if they could expand the laws I would do a lot more than waterboarding."
Perhaps the most notable response to Trump's virulent pledges have come from Michael Hayden, the retired Air Force general and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. "If he Trump were to order that once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act," Hayden said during an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher. "You're required not to follow an unlawful order. That would be in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict."
Gen. Michael Hayden when he ran the CIA
There's only one problem with that statement: Soldiers almost always follow orders.
I know because I was a soldier once, a good soldier. I did as I was told.
When I enlisted at the age of 17, I was a high school dropout with few prospects other than the military. In 2005, at the height of the Iraq War, the Army was more than willing to give me a job fighting overseas. I knew nothing about international law or human rights.
The moment you enlist, you swear an oath to "obey the officers appointed over you." During basic training, the obligation to follow orders is physically and mentally drilled into you. No military tolerates dissent among its ranks. That's how armies have functioned for thousands of years. It's how they must function. Without discipline, an army becomes a rabble, easily defeated by a well-organized enemy.
When I failed to follow orders, it inevitably led to physical suffering or public humiliation.
An example of a minor infraction was when I neglected to get a haircut. My platoon had been in the field all week training, and I was frankly exhausted. But my platoon leader said, "I won't have any fucking Elvises in my platoon. Get it trimmed."
With every intention to get a haircut, I headed back to my barracks. Once I arrived, my roommate offered me a cold beer, and I happily accepted. One led to another, and then another. Before I knew it, the barbershop had closed for the day. I could've had a fellow soldier cut my hair in the barracks, but I decided to forgo it and enjoy the rest of my night. I could always get a haircut the next day.
Next morning's formation proved otherwise. I was dealt a quick and severe punishment by a dog-faced sergeant via "corrective training," which is a euphemism for punishment.
Throughout the day I was forced to perform various physical exercises meant to degrade me, such as crawling on all fours everywhere I went. To add insult to injury, the sergeant also shaved my head with a razor. Exhausted, humiliated and bald, I swore never to disobey another order.
I fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I arrested countless military-age males with no little or no cause. I happily turned over those prisoners to Iraqi and Afghan Army or police units, whom I knew routinely tortured and even executed their prisoners.
It wouldn't be a surprise if some of the "high-value targets" I assisted in capturing are now in Guantanamo, where they perpetually languish, without charge. I abused my authority, ransacking homes as I "searched" for contraband in Iraqi and Afghan houses.
Scandal of U.S. military torture in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison â€" Source: Wikimedia Commons
My fellow soldiers and I are not sociopaths, and you wouldn't even consider us bad guys if you met us. We were just following orders. We're programmed from the first day of basic training that if a superior instructs you to jump, your only response will be, "how high?"
So, when that same platoon leader who told me to get a haircut told me to "tear this fucking house apart!" I did. I was a good soldier, they said.
Follow orders â€" get rewarded. Disobey â€" be punished. Worse than punishment, you'll be seen as weak. Speak out, and they'll call you snitch.
A more severe infraction, such as abandoning your guard post in Iraq, could warrant death by a military court martial. Â§890 of Article 6 (link) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) states: "Any person subject to this chapter who â€" (2) willfully disobeys a lawful command of his superior commissioned officer; shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may directâ€¦"
The operative word in the section is "lawful." As long as what your superiors tell you to do is lawful, you are legally bound to follow orders. Your life may even depend on it.
Therefore, General Hayden is correct: Service members are not required to obey "unlawful" orders. The problem is they almost always do.
I'm thankful I was never ordered to torture a prisoner, because I would have done as I was told. If the military followed the illegal orders of one bad president, we would follow the orders of another. That's what good soldiers do.
*The author is a retired U.S. Army staff sergeant, who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Robert Christy is a pseudonym.
This is Worldcrunch"s international collection of essays, which includes pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any other language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble address in eastern Paris that we call home. Send ideas and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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