Because We Could

David Simpson

  • BuyNone of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture by Joshua Phillips
    Verso, 237 pp, £16.99, September 2010, ISBN 978 1 84467 599 9

Last July David Cameron announced a judicial inquiry into Britain’s alleged participation in acts of torture and rendition in the years since 9/11, though he also said that it wouldn’t begin until the current round of civil lawsuits had been resolved. The emphasis, he implied, would be on Britain’s role in condoning or assisting foreign agencies rather than on our own independent behaviour. There were (and are) already two other inquiries taking place, one into the death in British hands of the hotel worker Baha Mousa in September 2003, and another into incidents that occurred in May 2004 at a British army base north of Basra, while a third inquiry has been requested on behalf of 102 other Iraqi citizens.

Since Cameron’s announcement WikiLeaks has suggested that there may well be 15,000 hitherto unrecorded Iraqi deaths, leading the Guardian to request, under the Freedom of Information Act, the release of documents concerning civilian deaths involving British forces. Did they, like the Americans, have a habit of handing over detainees to Iraqi torture squads? There has been a renewed call for information on the Baha Mousa case, and evidence has emerged which suggests that, between 2005 and 2008, British training manuals continued to recommend interrogation techniques that fulfil many of the accepted definitions of torture. But most of the WikiLeaks, of course, concern the record of US troops.

Nothing suggests that we are anywhere near having a complete record of the torture carried out by coalition troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; it seems likely that the Abu Ghraib incidents, far from being exceptional, have only seemed so to a media industry prone to accepting reality in small doses. It’s probable that we will hear a lot more about the all too familiar practices most of us recognise as torture: exposure to prolonged and unbearable noise, life-threatening beatings, stress positions, sexual threats and humiliation, waterboarding, sleep deprivation, electric shock, the use of dogs and so on. Since the widely circulated accounts of Abu Ghraib and of the official toleration of what went on there, these tactics have taken on a dismal proto-universality. American researchers found British interrogations in Northern Ireland used as at once source and analogue of the behaviour of their own troops, thereby raising some very basic questions. How does knowledge of torture techniques pass from one set of interrogators to another, and why do people choose to apply them? The ‘few bad apples’ theory was widely discredited from its very first utterance by Donald Rumsfeld, so it is disheartening to see it replicated in some of the statements still coming from the MoD. But at the other extreme, the idea that a coherent mandate condoning torture runs all the way along the chain of command is also hard to credit, if only because of the prevalent culture of deniability governing powerful organisations exposed to public scrutiny.

We have been here before. Think of the disputes that followed the publication of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men (1992), a study of the behaviour of a German reserve police battalion deployed in Poland in 1942, and the aggressive response to that book by Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996). Do people not given to introspection tend simply to obey orders, however heinous they might be, or should we look to the wider national-ideological climate to explain, in this instance, the willing participation in the mass killing of Europe’s Jews? Why do individuals agree to do cruel and horrible things even when they are offered the chance to opt out? What does it mean to turn a blind eye to atrocities, not carrying them out oneself but doing nothing to stop those who are? Famous experiments, such as the Milgram experiment, have seemed to show that people would obey authority even to the point of torturing and killing others. In 1971, the Stanford prison experiment, set up by Philip Zimbardo to study the interactions of students assigned the roles of prisoners and guards, had to be stopped after six days as the guards’ behaviour became more and more brutal and the prisoners became more and more vulnerable and traumatised. Given such outcomes, it’s hard not to conclude that the disposition to torture is the rule, not the exception.

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