Guarding the gulag

Christopher Brandon Arendt was a guard at Guantanamo detention camp from January to October 2004. He now is a full time volunteer for the advocacy group Iraq Veterans Against the War, campaigning against the 'war on terror'. He spoke to Kate Ferguson
February 2009

What led you to sign up with the National Guard?
I actually joined the National Guard as a means of escaping deployment. In America the National Guard was an exclusively domestic force until the Iraq war - it was a way of joining the army and getting the college benefits without going further than the Mississippi.

How did you and the other army recruits feel when you were told you were being deployed in Guantanamo?
Well we were artillery guys, what did we know about detention centres? We had just one week of training, which was a total joke. Two days of that was taken up with us stabbing each other with little rubber knives while we had to repeat to ourselves over and over 'I have been cut but I will not die.' They were obsessed with knives there.

What was your experience of being a guard at Guantanamo like?
Guantanamo is a 21st-century concentration camp, which I have to accept I was a part of. They were ten of the worst months of my life. I tried to kill myself. And whenever I was not actually in Guantanamo I was sleeping or staring at a wall. Numbing is probably the best word for what my state was. It was a bizarre place ... there was a $10,000 fine if you killed an iguana, but we could do whatever we wanted to the detainees. People could beat the shit out of them. But the iguanas were a totally different story.

What was your relationship with the other soldiers there like? Could you talk to anyone about your feelings about the camp?
My relationship with the military was definitely tense. The atmosphere was this 'I'm gonna kill me a raghead' kind of attitude. I felt way uncomfortable with that. I got threatened. I got my ass kicked. I was harassed by the leadership constantly.

I remember when we were demobilising we were talking about the possibility of George Bush getting re-elected. I was a pretty hardcore anarchist at the time and I said something along the lines of 'Why do we have to have a state at all?' That caused some problems. I did hang out with two other guys at Guantanamo who thought the whole thing was a waste of time.

Did you see or were you personally involved in any torture at the camp?
I never personally instigated any torture, but there were times I participated in things I should have stopped. I remember I was dragging a detainee to an interrogation cell with another guy and between the two of us we smashed his head into a metal pole. You might not call it torture but I definitely did things I shouldn't have.

How difficult was it for you to leave the army and speak out in the way that you have done, and how have people reacted to you back home?
My family are really supportive of what I'm doing. But honestly, I'm indifferent to those people who are critical because I've been dealing with their prejudices for so long. For the most part the reception to what I've been doing has been phenomenal, but I live mainly in cities now where the bar of empathy and understanding is a little higher.

What would you like to see happen to Guantanamo?
What I think we need to focus on is detention policy, not a particular camp. There are camps everywhere which aren't getting the coverage they need. The world needs to know who these people are and they need to have some recourse to the legal structure.

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