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May 24, 2005

Your Turn: Exhibit Q


Over the past week, the media has been full of reports of prisoner abuse at Bagram prison in Afghanistan. 

In an article and an accompanying multimedia report, NYT writer Tim Golden chronicles the plight of a frail 22 year old taxi driver named Dilawar.  With the recent release of 2000 pages of Army documents concerning the prison, it was discovered that Dilawar was detained on December 5th, 2002 and died on December 10th.  Besides detailing the treatment that lead to his death, the documents reveal a culture of violence at the facility involving torture, beatings and humiliation.

Among the Army documents are diagrammatic drawings. In his piece, Mr. Golden presents a number of these diagrams.  This one, for example, outlines the way prisoners were placed in 9 foot by 5 foot cages, hooded and then chained to the ceiling. 


The image that really caught my attention, however, was a drawing sketched by Thomas V. Curtis, a Reserve M.P. sergeant, showing Dilawar chained to the ceiling of his cell. This drawing not only provides us an unusual glimpse into Dilawar's plight, it offers a psychological window through which to consider Bagram's culture of abuse.


Apparently, this drawing captures his first day under interrogation.  (As I mentioned, he only lasted for five.)

According to the documents, new prisoners were often hooded, shackled and isolated for 24 to 48 hours.  If a prisoner was judged to have broken the rules, he could be handcuffed to a door or ceiling for a half hour to an hour, or even longer.  Records show that Dilawar had been shackled at the hands and feet almost the entire time he had been at Bagram. According to the autopsy, Dilawar died from heart failure caused by "blunt force injuries to the lower extremities." Both legs had been thoroughly battered -- akin to "having been run over by a bus." 

If there is one question that keeps coming up in abuse cases --such as those here and at Abu Ghraib --it is how a soldier can perpetrate this kind of treatment.  Perhaps this image speaks to some of that mindset.

Here are a number of things I found curious:

In the drawing, Dilawar's shoulders look somewhat muscular.  In reality, he was just 5' 9'' and 122 pounds, and described as frail.

Although hanging from the ceiling, the chains are slack.  If anything, it looks like he is in a standing position.

He has no feet.

If Sergeant Curtis used the whole sheet of paper (which appears the case given the cross mark near the bottom and the placement of the log-in notations), it's notable how small the drawing actually is.

Dilawar is drawn wearing a hood, but his head is outlined as fallen to one side. 

So, what are we to make of this? 

I have some some thoughts.  As always, however, I'm as interested in yours.

In the drawing, there seems to be a tendency to minimize the duress.  This might be see in the width of the chains relative to the wrists; the small size of the drawing relative to the paper size; and in the abbreviated ceiling line floating in space.

The slack in the chains and the absence of either tension or limpness in the body suggests a denial of the violence and its results.  The absence of external walls and the inability to determine any ground line also makes the situation less "scalable" and thus more abstract. 

I can think of a few reasons to "add muscle" to Dilawar.  Just like the neocons need to build up the threat of minor dictators, these soldiers had a need to see the prisoners as larger than they were.  This tendency makes even more sense considering that most of the detainees at Bagram had minor offenses at best, and were basically holdovers from those transferred to Guantanamo Bay. 

Here are some thoughts on the lack of feet: a) If you don't draw the feet, it looks less like he's hanging. a.) His legs and feet were so beaten up, they were simply omitted.  c) They don't show up because of the angle.

The fact Sergeant Curtis drew Dilawar's head beneath the hood might suggest some humanistic instinct.  Perhaps Curtis was less involved in the beatings.

What's your take?

(Revised: 5/24/05 8:45 am PST and 5/15/09 for clarity.)

(image 1 & 2: The Bagram File. May 20, 2005 in  image 3:  Army sketch by Thomas V. Curtis, Army Reserve M.P. May 20, 2005 in the


there is an imbalance to the entire picture....sloping, or slanted, to the left. Or, put another way, the viewer's (an drawer's) right.

The picture is unbalanced. The the figure of the man within the picture is unbalanced. It may be just the artist but......

As well, the so-called hood looks more like a way to make the head, the face of the victim, vanish. As in making the man's humanity vanish....all we are left with is a body.

As Jon St pointed out, the lack of human features dehumanizes Dilawar. He simply wasn't viewed as being a fellow human by his captors. Once you've taken away the victim's identity as human, torture becomes much easier.

As for the "muscular arms", I am not sure that is what we are supposed to think. Frankly, it's very possible that Dilawar's shoulders have disconnected, been pulled out of their sockets, which I imagine would happen if one is left dangling from a ceiling by chains for days.

A simple vertical line would change the second drawing into a crucifixtion scene.

Although the drawing does not indicate the prisoner is facing away from
Sergeant Curtis, the lack of a face on Dilawar's head suggests that
position, effectively denying his humanity, distancing him from the
observer. Further, even though a head has been drawn in under the hood, it
is scribbled in, suggesting hair, the back of the head. I fail to see
anything even remotely akin to a "humanistic instinct" in this drawing. And
perhaps there are no feet because the sketcher didn't know how to draw them,
or giving a prisoner feet who will never be able to use them to escape is
too absurd a detail?

This is a reach but maybe there are no feet because the feet had become unusable. Due to the beating of the legs. The feet, the ability to walk, was taken from him. Hence, the reason the Times makes reference (as I recall...and I don't have time to go back and find it right now)to Dilawar being dragged out of the room. The man's feet would not work anymore.

I have to semi-agree with Asta on the shoulders. My boyfriend is very thin, and when he stretches his arms in that position his shoulder bones are prominent as they are in the picture. When I saw it, I immediately felt that the figure was slight.

Thanks for running this, I think.

To try to get some context as to why someone would draw such pictures I followed your link to the article. On the 4th of 8 pages I encountered this: "Specialist Corsetti had pulled out his penis during an interrogation at Bagram, held it against the prisoner's face and threatened to rape him"
I stopped reading and went out for a walk.

This whole situation is going to put us all on the couch.

I'll add a couple of thoughts:

The line representing the top of the wall has been drawn twice. The way I read it, the longer line is the first thing Curtis draws, and then he adds the prisoner to it. The second line, which appears as a little upwardly-curving bit on the left of the wall, is added after Curtis completes the entire sketch. He turns the paper out of its slanted position on the desk and reviews his work. He notices that the ceiling line isn't long enough on the left side, so he adds to it, but because the paper is now at a different angle, the little line he adds doesn't match up very well. I think this shows that Curtis reviewed his work and made an effort to get the ceiling right, to make the sketch balanced. Also, he appears to have made no additions to the prisoner or the chains. I don't know what this suggests, maybe just that Curtis wanted to make sure he represented the prisoner hanging in the center of the room. Or, maybe Curtis corrected the wall just to make the sketch "better," which is an interesting motivation, considering the situation.

I believe that representing the hands as circles but not representing the feet at all indicates that Curtis is copying the technique of drawing hands from someone else. Perhaps he's copying the style of the stick figure sketch above?

These pictures were drawn from memory for the purpose of "sketching in" the treatment of the prisoners so the lack of details doesn't surprise me. And psychologically, such sketches are more likely to resemble the body image of the artist, not the reality of the subject. Based on the sketch, I would hypothesize that Sargeant Curtis's self-identity is focused on physical strength, not feelings not intellect. As noted, the torso of the prisoner is drawn quite elegantly in contrast to the rest of the body: the feet are missing, the hands are circles, the head is a circle in a darkened rectangle hood, the shackles and chains are circle and squiggles.

Of course, I have additional information about the artist. I know Curtis is a soldier. Knowing that I can predict that he is likely to enjoy physical activities, guns, being outdoors, action, manly stuff. As a soldier, he is also willing to follow orders rather than think for himself. He has drawn this picture under orders. The drawing suggests to me that Curtis has a good mental representation of the physical and a rather deficient, crude representation of other things--he doesn't understand how things fit together, the details. He lets others do the thinking for him because he doesn't think very well, for himself. He misses all those important details.

What caught my attention was how much this resembles the drawings of a child of four or five year old. It is primitive. The reasoning of a child of this age is "pre-operational", characterised by magical thinking, egocentrism and the tendency to focus a single thing, failing to comprehend interactions. They will focus on a dominant feature, rather than identify and focus on the most important element. They "see the forest, not the trees." In terms of Kohlberg's levels of moral development, the childlike nature of this drawing suggests reasoning stuck at a pre-conventional level: "Right" has to do with power. Something is right if you can get away with it. Something is wrong if you get caught. Does the picture suggest that Curtis is still like a child cognitively, morally?

PTate, thank you for bringing up the primitiveness of the drawings, and Kohlberg's levels of moral development. I couldn't remember Kohlberg's name to save my life.

I had begun my earlier post, "Considering the child-like level of artistic skill of Sgt. Curtis" then erased it when I realized I was writing from an intuitive POV and had no factual basis for what I wanted to say. Fortunately you do, and you said it so very well. Your points are much appreciated.

And I am sad to say that I think you are right, that Curtis is, as well as many of our soldiers may be, functioning from levels of moral and emotional development that pertain to early childhood.

i think everyone is way overthinking/overanalyzing the drawing. it just looks to me like a quick scribble by someone who doesn't draw much. the squiggles are a common non-artist rendition of chains, not of any slackness in them; the lack of feet only suggests to me that he couldn't really see them -- ditto for his rendition of the hands -- if someone is chained to the ceiling by the wrists and you're standing behind him, chances are you won't see the hands clearly as they will be slack and tilted forward -- away from you.

as far as the drawings being indicative of someone's moral development, i can only say that i'm highly skeptical. i challenge any non-artist to draw a quick sketch of a person in front of them, and see if they do better.

thoughts on the images, and not on the text of article.

Some have noted the developmental age one might attach to the Curtis exhibit.
If asked I would have not guessed a grown man made these sketches.

The level of attention given to the drawing is something expected from a child between 5 - 9 years of age. While a person needs time to develop drawing techniques, the images above exemplify something entirely different for me.

The distortion of anatomy, the flatness of plane, the lack of spatial awareness, proportional relationship between body and shackles and chains, are all issues of technique. I understand many people are not "gifted" when putting pencil to paper. Yet, I still am concerned about the level of attention, or lack of it, by the subject drawing the image. I am interested in this question: has the man regressed to latent years?

There is also a lack of descriptive detail. Not much for the room beyond crude description of size (9' tall, etc.). The interrogation of the subject (MP SGT), seems limited. Why was Curtis not asked to be more descriptive? Someone wanted a drawing of the abuse, and settled for such limitations? Basic questions needed by the interrogator as Curtis scratched out his lines: What was the victims (note Curtis labeled the victim: detainee) relationship to the walls in his cell, was he wearing clothes? Was he bleeding? where was his toilet? What was the color of the cell? Was there a source of light? Was it dark? Any windows?

(a lack of attention on the part of the interrogation and investigation of Curtis. There are the rules of interrogation of "others" and then there are the rules for "us." Curtis being an "us," he received a less strenuous Q&A?)

consequently, not drawing feet and hands are a common problem with figure drawings in general, and may simply be a lack of illustrative refinement. Even trained illustrators can leave out detail of hands and feet, just as people shy away from drawing faces: they reveal the human. A hand, face, or foot, can show personality, intimacy, and emotion. The drawn foot can simultaneously depict humanity in the specific and while also in general terms.

as far as the drawings being indicative of someone's moral development, i can only say that i'm highly skeptical. i challenge any non-artist to draw a quick sketch of a person in front of them, and see if they do better.

Hmm. Does a "better" drawing necessarily imply a higher level of morality?

I think the key is the level of detail in the drawing. To me, its overall looseness conveys not someone in a state of infantile regression or even primitive morality, but someone who would rather have been anywhere else doing anything other than drawing this picture at that moment. Someone displaying the very human impulse to provide as little detail as possible about acts with which we've been involved that we are not comfortable about.

It's such a grudging little sketch - almost the visual equivalent of an interrogation subject who answers in monosyllables. It's so cursory (squiggles for chains, circles for handcuffs, rudimentary hands, no feet) that it looks as if it took about 7 seconds to scribble down. It really suggests something done with extreme distaste - not necessarily in relation to the act depicted in the image, but in relation to being required to draw the image. It's almost as if the artist sketched it at arms' length, wanting nothing to do with the knowledge of the morally reprehensible act he knows he is depicting.

In this, he is (I'd argue) displaying the same impulse among us that has drawn the curtain of (media) invisibility over both the Iraqi and American casualties of the war in Iraq.

There is something about the analysis which is occurring here and the inserted pictures of the reporter within the pictures depicting the abuse of Dilawar, which is troubling me.

In a larger context, perhaps it reflects the way, on the whole, that this country is reacting (or not) to the experiences of abuse/torture itself. That is, the process (or the general lack of any process) by which the horrors of what has and is occurring; by fellow Americans, in our names, for our so called freedom. I know that this is what you asked for Bag. And I am troubled by the experience.

I am grateful for mugatea’s comments which seemed to expand more upon what I am feeling is missing in this experience. “…Thanks for running this, I think.” “This whole situation is going to put us all on the couch.”

Please, I am not judging anyone who has commented; I am just trying to understand, out-loud so to speak, within the framework of the Bag community, how to hold visual and written experiences of torture and suffering. Perhaps this is not the place to do so. I can only share that for me, I cannot separate the experience of Dilawars torture and subsequent death, from the analysis without losing some part of my humanity.

With respect and peace. Johanna

Putting myself in the shoes of another I can not say that this drawing tells you anything more than the artist was under duress and required to provide information that he neither wanted to tell out of fear and or out of a sense of duty to his troop and commanding officers. To me it’s almost an angry sketch of indignation.
However, he clearly does show attention to detail in the fact that he wanted to express that the detainee was hanging in the center of the space, not off to one side. I would also surmise that under questioning he was told that it did not have to be a lengthy or artistic sketch, but that he simply outlines the general nature of the situation. It also looks as though it was done in a hurry. If it had been me in his shoes, likely I would have felt not only scared because of who was questioning me and in what line, but aldo affronted on so many levels I wouldn’t have been able to muster much more than what is portrayed.

You go to a war, which you may not believe in, you use all your skills to “get the bad guys”, and you do what your told even though you may not agree with it. You are commended for following orders while doing it by your commanding officers and berated incessantly by everyone if you don’t. It becomes a tunnel vision sort of venue after a while, you are in the thick of things and can see nothing else. Its kill or be killed, or so it seems. Then once the smoke clears, the truth comes out and what you thought you were doing right all that time, isn’t, and or is being portrayed in such a way that you are a villin. You are questioned and ridiculed. You find out that you are a monster. Would you not feel indignant? That is what that drawing says to me.
*Personally I hate the war and I wish it would stop, all of it. But I can see or think I can see how certain people would feel in certain circumstances. On both sides of the war. Then again, maybe not.

I would agree with what PTate notes about child development adn the child-like quality of the drawing, so I will not reiterate that.

The reasoning of a child of this age is "pre-operational", characterised by magical thinking, egocentrism and the tendency to focus a single thing, failing to comprehend interactions. They will focus on a dominant feature, rather than identify and focus on the most important element.

Leaving out the face, I feel, is not a sign of being immoral or an indication of trying to dehumanize Dilawar. The person isn't facing the Sgt., his face is covered, so therefore why draw a complicated face? It is a detail, and not necessary to scribble out the facts for whomever requested the sketch.

A second thought is that if Dilawar was so thin, his shoulder blades may have protruded depending on how he was standing relative to the chains. I don't think those minor bulges are signs of "muscle". If his arm were stretched lightly forward, his shoulder blades would have protruded like wings which may have made an impression on Sgt. Curtis. Sgt. Curtis could also be adding the minor detail of a protruding muscles of the shoulder on a thin Dilawar who has his arms jacked at an acute angle. This is not to assert that his was 'ripped', but rather that they would be prominent if he was thin.

Other allusions I will not draw, as I feel analyzing it further would impress my own cultural and moral views into something I can have no complete understanding of. This is not to say it doesn't make an emotional impact on me, or I don't have an opinion on the entire matter, I'm simply not a psychologist.

I agree with laloca about many people reading too much into the sketch. If I had to make a quick drawing for my job it wouldn't look much better. The obvious emphasis was not on the artistic merit, but rather on the things that were being depicted.

What IS being depicted? Look at the elements.
- suspension from ceiling
- handcuffs and chains in both
- hood in both
- leg shackles in one picture
- stance (legs apart) in both

Sure, TVC didn't put feet in ... but he didn't put in a beltline or fingers or many other details either. They simply weren't an important part of the information being conveyed.

PTate makes some good points about things you could probably gather about the artist's psychological self-image, but I'd be careful about going too far with that either -- even that is only probabilistic and not certain. Things like that are indicators and not guarantees.

The stance might or might not be an important part of what's being depicted... many people draw legs slightly apart rather than close together. That's pretty typical for stick-figures.

This is probably too late for anyone to catch--this thread must be over by now, but I wanted to follow-up on my previous comments.

First, Drew Thaler is exactly right--one does need to " careful about going too far with [this kind of analysis] either -- even that is only probabilistic and not certain." I agree 100%.

The question that I keep asking myself is how did individual American soldiers start torturing people? What the drawing suggests to me is that minds that focus on power, obedience, that lack cognitive complexity, that miss details and the big picture are more susceptible, given situation pressures, to do things that under other circumstances they would find abhorrent. That is a working hypothesis. The next step is to test that hypothesis.

I often talk with a drawing and even as an artist I draw just the important points to me to make a point to who ever I am talking to. This may be childlike but it hits the points of what he was telling in his story. If there were no real hand's and feet they had lost the important point in his story. The rest tells us what is going on.

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