URING HIS CAPTIVITY, Peter Moore vowed to himself that if the end ever came, he wouldn't grovel or beg. He would stay calm in the face of death. He would fixate on a happy memory — of when he was a boy in England, walking the family dog.
One day in the summer of 2007, somewhere in the sun-bleached warrens of the Iraqi city of Basra, the end seemed finally to have arrived. A guard blindfolded Peter, cuffed his hands behind his back, took him outside, and shoved him to the ground.
He felt the cool metal of a pistol pressed to his head, heard tense conversation in Arabic. He broke out in a sweat and began to shake. As he knelt in that nameless alley, Peter was sure he was going to die. The gun barrel dug into his scalp. He heard a click, and felt a pop against his skull.
"So this is what it's like to be dead," he thought. "It's not so bad. It doesn't hurt much." For a few moments, he remained kneeling in the dirt, waiting for his body to rise into the spirit world. But then he heard laughter, more voices speaking in Arabic. Finally he realized that this was just a grim hoax designed to shatter his psyche: a mock execution.
He fell to the ground, shivering, anguished, and spent. He was less frightened than he was annoyed at himself. He'd forgotten his vow not to show fear: "I was supposed to think about walking the dog." But as Peter returned to his darkened room in the upstairs of some unknown house in Basra, he was more adamant than ever that he would make it out of Iraq alive.
PETER MOORE IS a shambling bear of a man with a booming laugh and a ready smile of crowded teeth. A 38-year-old bachelor, he hails from Lincoln, an ancient cathedral city in the East Midlands region of England. His background is normal enough: Boy Scouts, college, a master's in computer science. He's a mild-mannered type who fidgets with his iPhone like anyone else. But make no mistake: Here is a man with resilience.
Peter's job as an international IT consultant brought him to Baghdad in the spring of 2007. On May 29, 2007, he was kidnapped by a group of some 40 Iranian-financed Shiite militiamen who called themselves Asaib Ahl al-Haq — the League of Righteousness. Four British bodyguards who were assigned to protect Peter were quickly overpowered, abducted along with him, and eventually killed. Videos on YouTube showed a resolute, raccoon-eyed Peter Moore pleading with British and U.S. authorities to answer his captors' demands.
All told, Peter Moore was held for 947 days. Then, on the morning of Dec. 30, 2009, Peter's guards stuffed him in the rear of a car, drove him blindfolded across Baghdad, and released him to the British Embassy. Disheveled, sallow, and disoriented, Peter was so overcome with emotion that he couldn't face the ecstatic embassy staffers who greeted him. He went straight to the bathroom and stood for a long time looking at himself in a wall of mirrors, incredulous at his own good fortune. "I just put my hands on the wall and told myself, 'You've done it. You beat the odds! You made it out!'"
More than two years later, Peter still doesn't precisely understand how he beat those odds. Figuratively speaking, he's still studying his face in the mirror, trying to find meaning in a harrowing and surreal experience. He has since returned to international IT work at a post in Guyana, but Iraq is never far from his mind.
"It still feels strange," he says. "I feel like I've lost years that I have to catch up on. I've tried to get on with my life. But I have to say, it was an incomparable feeling to wake up in the morning and think, 'Is this going to be the last day that I live?' And to think that every single morning for two and a half years."
Though he has been praised as a hero, Peter is more inclined to point to the element of luck than to anything he did correctly or courageously during his captivity. As far as he's concerned, the four now-deceased British bodyguards who were kidnapped were the true heroes. "Really and truthfully," he says, "I feel that whether you live or die in these hostage situations has more to do with the toss of a coin than any sort of practical things that you do."
Still, in his own unassuming, cerebral way, Peter escaped the negative behaviors that psychologists point to as the common pitfalls of the hostage experience. Luck was on his side, to be sure. But going purely on instinct and common sense, he seems to have done nearly everything right — both during his captivity and in its aftermath.
FROM THE OUTSET, it's common for hostages to blame themselves for their predicament. "If only I hadn't gone down that alley," they'll think; "if only I hadn't been so stupid." "Men will sometimes show a certain shame and guilt," says Melanie Hetzel-Riggin, an associate professor of psychology at Western Illinois University. "They'll say, 'I should have been more of a man and acted accordingly.'"
Except for that moment after the mock execution, Peter seems to have avoided this line of thinking. "At first I thought I would do a MacGyver and break my way out," he says. "You know, 'I'll use a paper clip and a bottle of water to escape! I'll grab him by the throat, I'll bite his ear off, I'll kung-fu kick the guy!' But it doesn't work like that. Only in Hollywood does Indiana Jones win. The reality is, we never had a chance of escape."
Instead Peter endured. For months he was beaten, subjected to psychological torture, interrogated, and humiliated. The cruelty seemed to come in random gusts: One guard would beat him for standing, and then another would come along 10 minutes later and beat him for sitting. Once a guard cuffed his hands behind his back and then ordered him to stand on a chair and hang his arms over the top of an open door. Another guard pulled his arms down while a third guard kicked the chair out from under him, leaving Peter to dangle awkwardly over the door until he finally fell to the floor in agony. They repeated this three times.
Despite the torment he endured, Peter concentrated on small ways he could connect with his captors. He listened sympathetically when they explained their hatred of the American occupation of Iraq. To appeal to his captors' professed respect for family, he invented a spouse. "I've never been married," Peter says, "but I felt I had to come up with a wife — that's what they wanted to hear." Because his guards seemed to value religion — any religion — over atheism, he claimed he was a devout Roman Catholic and started to pray. "I actually found it quite relaxing," Peter says. "If nothing else, it felt like I was complaining to someone about the day." His guards found his religious zeal so convincing that they brought him prayer beads and seemed pleased to see that he used them every day for the rest of his captivity.
PETER HAD SEVERAL recurring fantasies that kept him sane, especially during the first 12 months, when he lived shackled to a wall grate, blindfolded and handcuffed. For example, he would often find himself at an imaginary motorcycle shop, trying to decide among a brand-new Harley-Davidson, a Ducati, or a BMW. In his mind he would linger over the bikes, running his hand over every contour, lavishing his attention on every tailpipe, saddlebag, and pinstriping detail.
But he never lost touch with the reality of his situation. Near the end of his first year of captivity, Peter took stock and decided to push back. His guards kept insisting that he was a military operative and not a civilian contractor. One day, following their line of reasoning, Peter said, "If you want to keep me as a prisoner of war, fine. But I want to be kept as a prisoner of war, not an animal. Look at the way you're treating me. You've kept me in chains for over a year. I am a human being." Something he said resonated with his guards: Immediately, the chains came off for an hour a day. Over the next year, his treatment steadily improved.
By that point, however, the months of uncertainty and terror had already done their damage. The trauma of the beatings — and particularly the mock execution — seared itself into Peter's psyche. He has suffered from nightmares, loss of appetite, and vivid flashbacks. Sometimes he'll be at work and suddenly the adrenaline will start flowing: He is actively reliving something one of his guards did to him. "It's a bit embarrassing," he says, "because someone will come over and say, 'You okay?' And I'll say, 'Yeah.' But I can just feel my heart going doof-doof-doof!" Other times, in his bedroom in Guyana, Peter will be drifting off to sleep to the screech of the tropical bugs when he'll suddenly jerk himself awake, thinking he's still shackled to that wall grate in Iraq. He'll look down and realize it's just the mosquito net, wrapped around his foot.
While PTSD is a very real possibility for Peter, as it is for all kidnapping victims, the research is also increasingly peppered with references to something called "post-traumatic benefits." "I've talked with hostages who have declared that the experience was in some ways beneficial," says psychologist James Campbell, the author of Hostage: Terror and Triumph. "After this, they'll say, 'It got me rethinking things. Life is finite; let's not waste it. Am I living it the way I should be?'" Frank Ochberg, professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University, notes that some individuals come out of their captivity experiences feeling wiser. "They say, 'I'm going to shift my priorities. I'm going to spend more time with people I enjoy and love.'"
This has certainly been true for Peter. Nowadays he works less, travels more, spends more time with friends. He's stopped drinking, exercises more, eats healthier. He calls his captivity "a test of faith and an interesting life experience, but not one I want to repeat."
Peter is quite aware that he lives in an unstable country where kidnapping, though uncommon, is a possibility. He's decided that he can't let what happened in Iraq rob him of his career or rule his life. "I'm not going to do anything stupid," he says. "I'm not going to any more war zones. But who knows? Iraq might be a perfectly nice place to go on holiday in 20 years' time."
For now, however, Peter is sticking with a safer vacation destination. Next year he's planning to do something he's dreamed of most of his life — take a motorcycle trip across America. He's still mulling what to buy for the journey. Harley-Davidson? BMW? He's looking forward to spending some quality time in a bike shop trying to decide.
From a Men's Health article, "Hostage," by Hampton Sides. ©2011 by Hampton Sides. Reprinted by permission of Rodale, Inc.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Who are the real gay marriage bigots?
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Why is American internet so slow?
- Don't worry: World War III will almost certainly never happen
- The new bride who had a horrifying allergic reaction to her husband's sperm
- What the collapse of the Ming Dynasty can tell us about American decline
- Watch The Daily Show mock Fox News' confused man-crush on Vladimir Putin
- 22 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Religious liberty should be a liberal value, too
5 surprising facts about left-handed people
Subscribe to the Week