In February 2004, Army Specialist Benjamin Thompson’s unit was rushed into Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. They were assigned to replace the unit that would soon find itself at the center of a worldwide media scandal with the release of photographs documenting the assault and sexual humiliation of prisoners under their guard. But what Thompson, who was recently given his honorable discharge, wants people to know is that the crimes exposed by the Abu Ghraib photos were not isolated incidents but symptoms of the system-wide inhumane policies of U.S. detention facilities in Iraq.

While stationed for a year at Abu Ghraib, Thompson—equipped with his Buddhist training to recognize suffering and to act with compassion—forged an unlikely friendship with a prisoner named Yunis Abbas, an Iraqi journalist who had been falsely accused of plotting to assassinate Tony Blair. A new documentary film, The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, featuring interviews with Thompson and Abbas, recounts the untold story of prisoner abuse and neglect at Abu Ghraib. I spoke with Thompson in late March at the Tricycle office while he was in town for the New York premier of The Prisoner.

—Ian Collins, Managing Editor

Benjamin Thompson on his last day at Abu Ghraib © Benjamin Thompson
Benjamin Thompson on his last day at Abu Ghraib © Benjamin Thompson

How did you first become interested in Buddhism? Before I went to Iraq, I was just kind of a book Buddhist. When I got my mobilization orders, I knew that year of my life was gone, that I wasn’t going to be in school or working or moving forward in any way. So what could I do? I could commit myself to actually exploring the spiritual path. The first person I ever told that I was a Buddhist was some Army person while I was processing onto active duty. We were going through the records review—height, weight, age, religion—and the form listed “no preference” under religion. She asked if it was still no preference, and then I said, “Well, I’m a Buddhist.”

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