None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Tortureby Joshua E.S. Phillips
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None of Us Were Like This Before recounts the dark journey of a tank battalion as its focus switched from conventional warfare to guerrilla war and prisoner detention. Phillips’s narrative reveals how a group of ordinary soldiers, ill trained for the responsibilities foisted upon them, descended into a cycle of degradation that led to the abuse of detainees. The book illustrates that the damaging legacy of torture is not only borne by the detainees, but also by American soldiers and the country to which they have returned.
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NONE OF US WERE LIKE THIS BEFOREAMERICAN SOLDIERS AND TORTURE
By Joshua E. S. Phillips
VERSOCopyright © 2010 Joshua E. S. Phillips
All right reserved.
IntroductionTWO STARK SENTENCES wedged in the center of a military document curtly summarized the demise of a twenty-four-year-old soldier: "SGT Gray was found dead in his barracks room at 1921 hrs on 29 August 2004. Subsequent investigation by CID (Exhibit 5) found that his death was accidental." An autopsy report provided a few more details about the deceased: "He spoke at length of many positive experiences in Iraq, such as rebuilding schools and eating with Iraqis. However, he also made reference to events that bothered him and that he could not speak ... about."
Sergeant Adam Gray rarely spoke of those "events that bothered him." He shared these experiences with loved ones during one tearful evening, telling of one incident that involved an accidental shooting that claimed two Iraqi lives. But there were other events that distressed him and other soldiers from his unit as well. After military sweeps, they detained Iraqis in a makeshift jail in Iraq and occasionally roughed them up. Sometimes the roughing up took an extreme turn. Friends and family noticed that Adam seemed "troubled" by those events and witnessed his struggle against anger, substance abuse, and depression after his tour in Iraq. Military documents show that he even professed to have attempted suicide at his Army barracks room in Alaska. The documents also reveal that "Gray said that [his] problems were due to the way he felt about what happened during his deployment." But there is no indication that the military genuinely tried to understand the source of those problems from his tour in Iraq, namely what happened during his deployment.
Three weeks after that attempted suicide, Sergeant Adam Gray was found dead in the same room. The circumstances leading up to his death led Adam's friends and family to question whether it was accurately summarized as "accidental." Some also puzzled over how ordinary soldiers like Adam Gray-a tanker, not an interrogator-became involved in detainee abuse and torture.
Understanding how and why US forces have engaged in detainee abuse and torture is a difficult and uncomfortable inquiry. It forces us to examine who we are as a nation and what has compelled us to choose such a path. This issue does not involve only the soldiers who abused and tortured detainees, but also the government, military, and intelligence officials whose policies enabled it and sometimes ordered it, the doctors and psychologists who oversaw it, and the agencies that failed to investigate the abuses, among others. Among those "others" is us, the American public. Even though Americans have consistently opposed torture in recent years, as evidenced by polling data, the myths surrounding torture (e.g., its effectiveness for questioning terrorist suspects) have influenced its acceptance and use.
This book contains several expository narratives to illustrate the causes and costs of US torture and detainee abuse during the war on terror. The central story is about members of an Army unit that turned to torture, and the toll it took on them all. That is the story of Sergeant Adam Gray and some of his fellow soldiers from Battalion 1-68. One story cannot wholly explain the disparate factors that led US forces to engage in detainee abuse and torture, nor can it fully address the total costs of that experience. But it does help illuminate many critical issues that have been overlooked in the discourse about US torture-some of which involve enormous human tragedies.
Overall, the CIA has held far fewer detainees than the military; by most estimates, there have been roughly a hundred detainees held in CIA "black sites," compared with the tens of thousands of detainees that the US military has held in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. This book does not cover Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operations such as "extraordinary renditions" or the black sites, in which US personnel (aided by allies) have abducted and sent terrorist suspects to secret foreign prisons. While investigative reporting in this area is critically important, those CIA programs are an enormous subject that deserves the attention of another book. Moreover, the CIA's programs and the agency's involvement in torture during the war on terror have been different than, and separate from, the experience of US military forces (the former being more directly managed by Bush administration officials, as evidenced by recently released legal memos and documents). However, military and intelligence forces have shared some similar associations with torture, and operations by CIA and military personnel sometimes overlapped on the battlefield.
As for torture carried out by US soldiers, President Bush and his supporters have narrowly referenced the Abu Ghraib detainee "abuse" scandal (never called torture), claiming it was an isolated incident and attributing it to the actions of "a few bad apples." By their account, these perpetrators were swiftly investigated and punished, and the problem of detainee abuse was thus eliminated. But this position was dishonest. Even if we were to accept this account, it doesn't explain what enabled those "few bad apples" to engage in torture.
The other problem with this analysis is that it myopically focuses our attention on one high-profile case: Abu Ghraib. To be sure, the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib was notorious and deserved much scrutiny. Yet it represented just one example. Reports by journalists and human rights organizations have shown that US detainee abuse and torture spread far beyond that single prison during the war on terror. This is consistent with the military's data. In 2006, the Department of Defense investigated 800 allegations of detainee abuse, 600 of which were criminal investigations. As for accountability, in the case of Abu Ghraib, eleven soldiers were convicted (nine of whom were sentenced to prison), while five officers received administrative punishment.
The question "How did US forces turn to torture?" may even be too broad. To properly answer the question, one has to break it down further. That means asking: Why did US forces and officials think torture would be effective? Why did they think it would be permissible and necessary? How did they turn to certain techniques? Where did their ideas about the effectiveness of torture come from, and why were they so pervasive? And what other factors led US forces to engage in abuse and torture?
Recent films and books about US torture have referenced some social and psychological explanations to make sense of cruel behavior. Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram provided one paradigm in what was later termed "the Milgram experiment." In 1961, Milgram set up a "learning" scenario wherein an "experimenter" instructed participants to deliver a series of electric shocks of increasing voltage to a concealed but audible victim, even as the victim's screams grew in volume. Unbeknownst to the participants, there weren't any actual electric shocks and the screaming victims were merely pretending. Nonetheless, Milgram's experiment revealed how normal participants can be lured by an authority figure into carrying out sadistic acts.
Ten years later, in 1971, Stanford University professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo conducted another kind of social-psychological experiment. Zimbardo hired ordinary students to play the roles of guards and prisoners in a mock prison scenario. As in Milgram's experiment, Zimbardo set out to see if simple situations could move normal actors to do things they would not otherwise do. Within a week the guards brutally abused their captives, and Zimbardo had to abruptly call off the experiment. Zimbardo's "Stanford prison experiment" is often referenced to show how situations can move normal people to become depraved and abusive.
Both experiments are revealing, but neither can fully explain how and why US forces abused and tortured their prisoners. Milgram and Zimbardo set up specific conditions-volunteers, participants, instructors, equipment, and oversight-in order to generate behavior they could analyze for one case of violence within each of their lab experiments. The narrow scope of the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments makes it difficult to extrapolate from them to real-world examples of violence. In other words, one cannot take the carefully constructed lab conditions as a given, and so it is crucial to understand the particular circumstances-such as pressures, orders, resources, and oversight-that led to US prisoner abuse during the war on terror.
Perhaps the rage over the September 11 attacks could have fueled abuses. Gary Berntsen, a CIA agent who fought al Qaeda troops in Afghanistan in late 2001, voiced a feeling that seemed to be shared by many Americans after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. "One word kept pounding in my head," Berntsen said. "Revenge." Festering anger over September 11 could have contributed to a desire for violent retribution, leading to torture and abuse. But most soldiers who handled detainees served with honor and distinction, and never tortured. Moreover, troops who did engage in torture have cited many reasons and explanations beyond lingering anger over the September 11 attacks. For instance, some soldiers have said that their rage and frustration about combating Iraqi insurgent groups contributed to prisoner abuse. Others provide far more mundane reasons, including boredom.
Many critics (and apologists) of US torture have pointed to inexperienced interrogators and violent conditions to explain how abuse took root. But this doesn't explain why other inexperienced interrogators who worked in violent areas in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo didn't abuse or torture detainees. There are also cases in which experienced interrogators have worked in far less dangerous environments and have turned to torture (e.g., Guantanamo).
A common explanation for the spread of detainee abuse during the US war on terror runs as follows: White House and Pentagon officials drafted memos sanctioning coercive techniques for interrogation in Guantanamo; many of these methods were used, turned abusive, and sometimes led to torture. Officials from Guantanamo, most notably Major General Geoffrey D. Miller, were transferred to Iraq and "Gitmoized" the military facilities there, namely Abu Ghraib. This combination of events allowed the horrors of Abu Ghraib to take hold and spill out elsewhere in Iraq.
But this fails to explain how and why troops turned to torture in Afghanistan and elsewhere prior to this string of events.
As this book will make clear, some US forces tortured and abused detainees even before government officials drafted and disseminated memos permitting coercive interrogation and certain "harsh" techniques. (There were, however, early cases of US abuse and torture after the Bush administration lessened certain provisions of the Geneva Conventions by refusing to classify detainees as prisoners of war.) This poses a predicament for those whose theories of US torture stem from the so-called "torture memos," along with the personnel who drafted and dispatched them. Solely ascribing the rise of torture to the Bush administration memos that sanctioned harsh techniques is inadequate.
In the course of my reporting, I tried to find a straightforward interpretation for the development of US torture during the war on terror. But I failed to find a one-size-fits-all explanation for the myriad cases in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo. As one human rights lawyer told me, "There isn't a grand theory of US torture that encapsulates and explains all the different abuses that have taken place in the war on terror." The more I learned about cases of detainee abuse, the more I have found myself agreeing with that sentiment.
There are several explanatory narratives for US prisoner abuse. Yet they share many common threads-some are woven together, some hang as loose strands. Collectively, these threads offer an account of US torture and abuse, and it is possible to discern in them patterns that have been replicated throughout the war on terror.
American soldiers, interrogators, generals, psychologists, senior Bush administration officials, and lawmakers shared many of the very same compulsions and beliefs that led US forces to assume that torture was effective, permissible, and necessary. There has likewise been a pattern in the costs incurred through the abuse of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo. The toxic dividends of torture are shared by victims and victimizers, and have shaped the legacy of US torture during the war on terror.
Excerpted from NONE OF US WERE LIKE THIS BEFORE by Joshua E. S. Phillips Copyright © 2010 by Joshua E. S. Phillips . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Joshua E. S. Phillips is based in New York City and has reported from Asia and the Middle East. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Newsweek, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Atlanta Journal–Constitution, among other publications. His radio features have been broadcast on NPR and the BBC. In 2009, Phillips received the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and the Newspaper Guild’s Heywood Broun Award of Substantial Distinction for his American Radio Works documentary What Killed Sergeant Gray.
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None of Us Were Like This Before is a remarkable book. I expected it to be tough to take, and indeed it was in parts, but the book is engaging and sensitive. The author, Joshua Phillips, succeeds in being nuanced and fair but also deeply moving in examining the causes and consequences of prisoner abuse and torture by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Achieving this delicate balance is no small feat given the divisiveness of the issue of torture. Torture and abuse raise a number of questions that will hopefully be addressed as the nation reflects on the lengthy and costly military engagements o f the past decade. To what extent did torture and abuse occur? How and why did they occur? Did they yield useful intelligence as apologists maintain? What were the tactical consequences of torture and abuse for U.S. forces in terms of the "battle for the hearts and minds" of Afghanis and Iraqis? What were the human consequences for the victims? What were the human consequences for troops involved in abuse and torture? What adjustments are being made to avoid counterproductive (or any) abuse and torture in the future? It will take a small canon of literature to address all these questions but None of Us Were Like This Before is an important read for anyone serious about reflecting on what happened and not just sweeping the issue of torture by U.S. forces under the rug. The book touches on a number of questions but addresses two with depth: how and why abuse and torture occurred and the human consequences for troops involved. Phillips' approach to these questions is commendable. In looking at the causes of torture, he avoids the simplicity of pinning blame on "a few bad apples" in the military or Bush Administration or positing another formulaic, "one size fits all" explanation of why torture and abuse occurred. From extensive interviews it becomes clear that there is no easy answer. Incidents were numerous and the causes varied, including factors such as lack of training; the stress of facing a deadly insurgency; desire for revenge following 9-11; the prevailing belief that torture is effective (even in the face of evidence suggesting otherwise); senior commanders encouraging it, turning a blind eye or just failing to assert control of the situation; the influence of TV and movies; lack of accountability and boredom. Phillips is also careful to point out that while many of our troops were exposed to several of these factors, the vast majority served with distinction and honor and did not engage in prisoner abuse or torture. The human consequences for our troops are conveyed movingly in the stories of Sergeant Adam Gray and medic Jonathan Millantz, their friends and families. The struggles of Gray and Millantz after their return from duty painfully illustrate the damage that can be done when we ask or permit our soldiers to do things in conflict with their own mores and those of society. Phillips' reporting excels in the telling of their stories. He clearly devoted a great deal of time and care to this and treats Gray, Millantz and their families with sensitivity and without judgment. His reporting compels us to grieve for them and in so doing, moves us beyond pointing fingers to a more enlightened sense of collective responsibility.
I wasn't sure I wanted to read a book about detainee abuse and interrogators. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo happened years ago and Iraq is winding down. Nearly a decade after 9/11, I thought it would have all been covered already in the press. I was wrong and this book provides a lot of insight by talking with soldiers who have been involved in detainee abuse and some of the victims of that abuse. Family members of both are also interviewed. This book doesn't shy away from the brutality of American torture and the author's accounts from victims of torture is searing. It's impossible to not to be angry at the injustices suffered. But this book is not a "hit piece" on the military or soldiers and the author has a surprising amount of empathy for the sufferings of both the victim and victimizer. It alternately made me very sad and very mad for all the persons affected by it. Understanding the situation that some of our soldiers found themselves in and what some of them did to detainees and what they went through after really forced me to give sympathy to persons I had previously thought of only as "bad apples" guilty of monstrous crimes. The truth is much more complicated. Other parts of the book give overviews on the subject matter, the history or detainee abuse, the decision-making of the higher ups and so on. Much of the book is written in the first person which helps give a lighter touch to a very heavy subject matter. I learned a lot from this book and highly recommend it. You'll think about it not only around the issue of torture but generally on any story about soldiers returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder.