Thursday, December 16, 2010

A caring look at torture

None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture by Joshua E.S. Phillips.

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.

    "You would see people... get frustrated," said Nowlan. He remembered troops bringing in people they thought were guilty, "And I was the guy who said, 'I don't know anything about this guy. I don't think he's done anything -- there's no evidence. We need to let him go.' And the younger soldiers were very frustrated with that."

    Soldiers sometimes took their frustrations out on their prisoners.

    "It's not like I'd ever seen some guys go in and tell them to get naked and stack up on each other -- l think that's gross," said Sandoval. "None of us were that stupid. But there were other times when you wanted to pull out a pistol and put it to the back of their head. Everyone had that sort of tension. It was very uncomfortable, it was miserable."

    Several soldiers from Battalion 1-68 said they were numbed, almost dulled by their monotonous wartime routines. Shifting to more mundane work, such as patrolling and detaining prisoners, could make a soldier "bored ... so eventually you start to lose those feelings," said Keller. "And the only thing that really does excite you is when you get to ... torture somebody."

    Then Keller added, "Honestly, a lot of the things that were done to the detainees were... just someone's idea of a good time." ... "We were doing things because we could. That's it," said Keller. "And the objective just got less and less important."

  • 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.

    Jane Mayer's article on the television drama 24 was published on February 19, 2007, in the New Yorker. ...The article also considered the impact of 24 on American culture and the military.

    Shortly after the article came out, Stock met with fellow teachers during one of their regular, informal faculty meetings on campus. She gave her colleagues a pop quiz to see how many of them knew about Jack Bauer, the main character in 24 who played a prominent part in the show's torture scenes. Only a few instructors had heard about him, so she circulated Mayer's article to her colleagues and asked them to poll their students about Jack Bauer. To her surprise, all of their students seemed to know about Jack Bauer and frequently cited the counterterrorism tactics that he and the other characters employed in the TV thriller.

    "They developed arguments based on what they (saw) on the show," said Stock. ...

    I told Stock how surprised I was to hear that West Point cadets would fall for such reasoning. Given the academy's strong reputation, surely most students there would have a more informed understanding of military events -- both historical and fictional -- and would therefore approach what they saw on the screen with more skepticism.

    "Okay. Wait a minute. Hold on, hold on," she replied. "They're just like everybody else at any college in America."

  • Soldiers wanted Phillips to know that the reality of torture was both more casual and more vicious than the Abu Ghraib revelations would suggest.

    Jonathan Millantz saw and took part in detainee abuse during his time at FOB Lion's jail. A native of western Pennsylvania, Millantz spoke in a low voice and often mumbled. He found it hard to describe what he had witnessed and what he himself participated in. As a medic, he was responsible for checking detainees' vital signs in their makeshift jail. "My job was actually to do their blood pressure," he said. "And make sure we weren't killing them."

    He remembered hearing officers say it was all right to break a detainee's arm if he touched any of the US troops, and he recalled how he and other soldiers pinned down prisoners while pouring water from five-gallon jugs into their mouths and noses. Prisoners had been subjected to long nights of sleep deprivation, beatings, and mock executions. Millantz routinely heard yelling and screaming, often witnessed men break down and cry, and saw prisoners soil themselves,

    "There's plenty of stuff out there that hasn't been put on the media that would make Abu Ghraib look like Disneyland," he said. ... "There were plenty of people who wanted to report these acts of misconduct through a higher chain of command, but were discouraged by many high-ranking people."

    Phillip's book ends with news of Millantz' suicide.
  • 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.

    A young group of GIs clad in beige fatigues encircled Qaissi, cut his plastic flex cuffs, and ordered him to strip.

    They must be joking, he thought. Nudity is unbearably shameful in the Middle East. These Americans must understand. I cannot.

    When he would not undress, they threatened him, then kicked and punched him so hard he fell to the floor. Eventually he stood upright and removed his clothes with quivering hands. The soldiers cuffed his wrists behind him, fastened leg restraints around his ankles, and ordered Qaissi up a flight of stairs. He had to crawl on his knees and chin as the guards laughed. Qaissi heard voices screaming in the background. ...

    "You must help us to help you," a translator told him. "Work with us, answer our questions. Give us the names of all the people that are dangerous to us. We'll fix your hand if you help us. We'll try to make your hand work again. American doctors are good."

    "I don't know anyone. How can I name people that I don't know or know anything about?"

    And so the questions continued, coupled with regular dousings with cold water and beatings with a car antenna. While he was hanging by his wrists from the overhead pipe, they forced a rifle barrel into his rectum.

Phillips questions whether these horrors are really over under the new administration. Only ten U.S. personnel involved in "abuse" have been convicted and sentenced to as much as a year in prison.

And for many returned vets, the trauma doesn't go away. Jonathan Millantz' mother tries to put his suicide into some perspective.

"Their rage and the fact that they were given too much power, and the detainees were powerless, and the fact that there was no one protected them... that's how the abuses occurred," said Millantz's mother. "People might think, 'Oh, I would never do anything like that.' Wrong. It takes a very, very mature, moral, strong person to not abuse power... They are very young and they make very unwise choices, which they regret.

"And it is all for naught."

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.


Anonymous said...

Read the book, and also felt EXACTLY the same way. I wasn't sure about whether I'd get into it, and started to questions the structure. But in the end, just like the reviewer wrote, I thought the author did an amazing job of weaving together a bunch of highly illuminating disparate points. Two big thumbs up!

Anonymous said...

just spotted this review after reading the book. thought it was incredible. haven't read anything like it before. i hear you about the way it started out, but it actually worked for me. was wrapped until the last page. wish this book had a strong presence. it surely deserves one. liked your review very much.