I found it hard to get into this book. It seemed a little incoherent, jumping from the fate of Sgt. Adam Gray, an Iraq Army vet who apparently killed himself after finding he could not reintegrate himself into civilian life, to a narrative of the Bush administration's (and the successor Obama regime's) growing enthusiasm for torturing people who it designated as enemies in the war on an adjective, to Phillip's efforts to get the victims of these policies to recount what had been done to them and the long term consequences.
Then I finally got it. Phillips cares. He cares about U.S. soldiers who, happily or grudgingly, did things to fellow human beings that will scar their humanity for life. He cares about miscellaneous Iraqis, Afghans and other designated Muslim "enemies" who suffered indignity, injury, and even, perhaps inadvertent, execution. He cares about what the gleeful brutality of U.S. policy does to our nation. Such a broad concern doesn't make for neat categories or neat organization.
But it did make for insights into the U.S. post 9/11 torture regime that I haven't seen so clearly spelled out in other sources.
- Occupying Iraq, especially for troops who had been trained for tank warfare that never came and then were put to patrolling hostile towns, seemed simply meaningless. Phillips got some to talk about being detailed to manage Iraqi captives.
- Ever since our rulers decided to make us a torture regime, I've been impressed with how many of our soldiers and officers questioned and even resisted their trashing of the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions. Their proud professionalism did credit to the country. Phillips interviewed a West Point professor, Margaret Stock, an experienced national security lawyer and former Military Police officer -- she tells how the casual adoption of torture at the top of the command chain coupled with pop culture programs like 24 shifted attitudes among her students.
- Soldiers wanted Phillips to know that the reality of torture was both more casual and more vicious than the Abu Ghraib revelations would suggest.
- Phillips interviewed the same Iraqi victims of abuse by U.S. soldiers that I met in Jordan in 2006, including a man with a crippled hand who claims to be the guy connected to electrical leads on the box in the Abu Ghraib photos. He does a better job than I did of conveying the horror of the sexual humiliation that seems to have been a routine part of detentions.
And for many returned vets, the trauma doesn't go away. Jonathan Millantz' mother tries to put his suicide into some perspective.
None of Us Were Like This Before is a very painful book. But even if the Obama administration refuses to "look backward" U.S. citizens must, if we are to have any kind of chance to look forward to a better future.