On 10 November 2003 an Iraqi major-general called Abed Hamed Mowhoush presented himself at the gate of Forward Operating Base Tiger, a small US facility in the western province of al Anbar, near the Syrian border. He was there to find his four sons – the youngest was 15, the others in their twenties – detained about a week earlier in a pre-dawn raid at their home, an event that had involved a tank, explosions, shouting, confusion and fear. General Mowhoush was not at home at the time.
Immediately after the raid, the general had paid a visit to the 82nd Airborne Division headquarters in the provincial capital to find out what had happened to his sons. Whatever transpired there, he walked out a free man. Two of his sons, with whom I have been in contact since last summer, insist that their father was told in the course of the visit that he could travel to FOB Tiger to collect his children.
But when he got there he was taken into custody and interrogated. Over the following 16 days he was beaten repeatedly by various uniformed and non-military personnel. He was slapped, punched, kicked, and beaten with sticks and hard rubber tubing. On the morning of 26 November, General Mowhoush was stuffed head-first into a sleeping bag, which was then bound with inch-thick electrical cord. The soldier who had overseen Mowhoush’s interrogations, Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer, sat on his prisoner’s chest while asking questions about his role in the burgeoning insurgency.
Welshofer, by his own admission, clamped his hand several times over his captive’s mouth through the sleeping bag, in order to prevent him from invoking the name of Allah. Between twenty and thirty minutes into the interrogation, the general became unresponsive, prompting Welshofer to peel back the sleeping bag. The general, Welshofer said, had a half-smile on his face. He thought Mowhoush was ‘messing’ with him, and he poured water on his face. Mowhoush remained unresponsive. Welshofer, by now realising that something had gone wrong, called for medical assistance, and began applying chest compressions, in vain. General Mowhoush was dead.
The court martial began on 16 January, two years and three months after Mowhoush’s death. It was held at Fort Carson, Colorado, the home base of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, to which Welshofer was attached. Welshofer was charged with assault, wilful dereliction of duty and murder; if found guilty, he faced the possibility of life in prison without parole, as well as a dishonourable discharge from the military. In the six days that followed, the defence tried on two occasions to have the judge throw out the case; another motion, had it been successful, would have prevented the trial from proceeding. The prosecution argued that the cause of death was asphyxia, while the defence argued it was heart failure brought on by extreme stress and ill-health: the general’s heart was almost twice normal size, he weighed at least 250 pounds, and suffered from several ailments.
The legal battle involved a great deal more than a medical argument over the cause of death. Was Welshofer a ‘cowboy’ or was he merely following orders? What were the orders, and what were the rules for interrogators in the field? Were they clear and consistent or confusing and contradictory? Did the chain of command, stretching from the upper reaches of the Pentagon (and even higher), fulfil its responsibilities to the American soldiers operating in a war zone? As these issues were debated in the courtroom – sometimes with military understatement, sometimes with rhetorical flourishes – the case of General Mowhoush and the trial of Chief Warrant Officer Welshofer came to seem emblematic of the larger argument about detainee treatment that has been raging in America ever since the invasion of Afghanistan.
At 11 p.m. on Saturday 21 January, after six hours of deliberation, the six-officer jury, consisting of four men and two women, returned its verdict: Welshofer was not guilty of murder, he was guilty of negligent homicide; he was not guilty of wilful dereliction of duty, he was guilty of negligent dereliction of duty; he was not guilty of assault at all.
With that, Welshofer no longer faced the possibility of life in prison: he faced a maximum of 39 months in jail. Two nights later, his already vastly improved prospects again improved vastly. The jury decided Welshofer’s sentence, as is the rule in military trials: a letter of reprimand would be placed in his file; he was confined for 60 days to his home, his office or his place of worship; $1500 would be deducted from each of his monthly paycheques for a period of four months. He would not go to jail.