Because We Could

David Simpson

  • None 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.

The title of Joshua Phillips’s book is a quote, not an assertion. Those who find themselves acting as torturers really do think, when they speak about their actions, that they underwent some radical change of personality. It would have been possible to write a book entirely given over to telling stories of the torturers, not the ‘professionals’ but the rank and file military men and women who did terrible things in Iraq and Afghanistan and came home to relive them, to regret their behaviour and talk about it. Phillips wisely chooses not to do this. Had he done so he would have risked writing a book all about us and us only, like Dexter Filkins’s applauded but compromised The Forever War (2008). Embedding oneself with one’s country’s troops, or in Phillips’s case with traumatised soldiers, tends to limit empathy with or understanding of those designated as enemies. But Phillips also spent time with Iraqi and other detainees who are given names and life stories. He interviewed Haj Ali Shalal Qaissi, who may or may not be the hooded man of the Abu Ghraib photos. He met Najeeb Abbas Shami, who broke down in tears as he told his story; the Iraqi Chaldean Catholic Rami Khalid Mousa, who worked as an interpreter; and the Syrian businessman Ali Said.

This gives him some perspective, and pre-empts any feeling of sameness, even if the stories of those American soldiers he does discuss tend to follow the same sequence: homecoming, deep regret, depression, sometimes suicide. His two principal homecoming narratives certainly follow this pattern. Adam Gray was a sergeant in the tank regiment in which his friend Jonathan Millantz was a combat medic. There is strong evidence that both committed suicide, although their deaths were ruled accidental by the military. Both talked about their experiences, Adam to his mother (whose memories constitute most of the account of his life given here) and Jonathan to the author of this book. Millantz died at the age of 27, Gray at 24. Neither of them exonerates himself or even tries to claim that he was just obeying orders. Indeed, one of the book’s most troubling findings is that there usually were no such orders. Gray and his friend Tony Sandoval report a rather different trigger: boredom followed by frustration. Gray went to fight in a tank, only to find that the enemy had disappeared: ‘everyone pretty much turns ass and runs like a son of a bitch. I’m so freaking bored.’ ‘We got there ready to flex our muscles,’ Sandoval says, ‘and nothing happened.’ Sergeant Oral Lindsey agrees: ‘we were supposed to be out there blowing stuff up, not stopping traffic, trying to interpret the Iraqi language – it just wasn’t what we were trained to do.’ Throwing rocks at the detainees was one way to relieve the boredom. Another was torture. According to Daniel Keller, ‘the only thing that really does excite you is when you get to … torture somebody.’ They were not ordered to torture people, and they didn’t plan things that way: ‘We were doing things because we could. That’s it.’

This may sound like a trivial or reductive explanation of a series of events in which Phillips finds ‘common threads’ but no ‘one-size-fits-all explanation’, but it isn’t. Detainees were tortured to death in Afghanistan in 2002, long before the much discussed torture memos were circulated. The story of the torture and death of a man called Dilawar at the hands of American soldiers is unforgettably distressing, so horrible that his friends and relatives lied to Dilawar’s parents about how he died. What happened to him, and we’re told it was not untypical, was not a response to orders, or to the tensions generated by an increase in attacks on American bases. The prototypes for torture, Phillips surmises, lie in ‘myths and memory’, in a shared sense of what to do and how to do it, something akin to ‘urban legend’. Torture happened before the memos, and happened in lots of places.

So where did these urban legends come from? Phillips finds two principal sources. The first is evidence of a fearful symmetry: the training routines undergone in boot camp by soldiers themselves. Recruits who ‘screw up’ undergo stress punishment: they’re forced to hold heavy weights, to stand for prolonged periods, complete demanding numbers of push-ups, to crawl. When interrogating prisoners, soldiers turned to techniques they had experienced themselves. There is also the influence of courses run by the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape unit (SERE). This, as Phillips tells it, was formed after the Korean War to train elite US troops in survival skills, including how to withstand torture. To this end, troops would experience carefully monitored doses of sleep deprivation, noise, sexual humiliation, exposure to extreme temperatures and simulated drowning. These tactics were adapted and used on detainees in the early days of Guantánamo and elsewhere, and then became part of the informal information network governing the treatment of prisoners. The culture of torture thus encompasses both prisoners and guards. It must be hard to preserve self-control when one has suffered from or been threatened with some of the treatment one can now hand out to those assumed to be enemies.

The second source is more banal and even more frightening: the influence of movies and television. As one interviewee puts it: ‘there are no smart interrogations on television.’ There was a noticeable increase after 9/11 in the use of torture scenarios, in which heroic law enforcement figures extract information from enemies of the homeland. A West Point professor, Margaret Stock, claims that her students invoke media examples as justification for the adoption of tougher attitudes towards the gathering of information from detainees, although these examples have nothing to do with experiences in the real world. Jack Bauer, hero of the TV series 24, doesn’t just figure in the classwork of West Point cadets but is cited by the Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Bush’s head of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, who claimed that Bauer provided a model of how to interrogate prisoners. The movie Rules of Engagement was another common source of populist legalism, invoked to exonerate those who use extreme measures to extract ‘vital’ information. And then there is the notorious ‘ticking time-bomb’ scenario, used often in 24, given pseudo-credibility by the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, and produced time and again as an example of the ‘what if’ situation in which lives can be saved only by getting vital information out of a terrorist before a set period has elapsed. Phillips reminds us that the first use of this scenario was in a novel set in the French-Algerian war, and that the one or two attributed ‘real world’ examples have been discredited.

One should not simply blame Hollywood. The studios did not wait until the end of the conflict to start making movies, as they did with Vietnam. Four challenging films about the Iraq war were released in 2007: Redacted, Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah and Rendition. All of them are complex, relatively non-judgmental and morally dark. They offer no heroes, no redemptive narratives, and no simple cause and effect explanations for the violence inherent in military life or the cynicism and self-deception of politicians. But they were greeted with almost unanimous critical disapproval and were box-office failures. Brian de Palma’s Redacted – in my view one of the two masterpieces among the four, along with Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah – failed even to cover its modest production budget. There was no lack of star appeal in the films: Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Redford and Charlize Theron. The negative reception will inevitably be taken as a demonstration that complex and self-examining films are not welcome in a time of war. So the problem is not so much what Hollywood produces as what audiences (and critics) will tolerate. The recent success of The Hurt Locker (2009) can be seen as a reversion to type: the loner as hero, the narrative pseudo-clarity of ‘telling it like it is’, the depiction of the enemy as implacably ruthless.

Phillips does produce one fascinating story I had not previously come across: that of Hans-Joachim Scharff, one of the most successful interrogators of World War Two. The Hollywood Nazi comes dressed in a leather coat and wielding a pistol, pliers, bright lights and burning cigarette ends: he has ways of making you talk. Scharff apparently never used violence. His methods involved ‘a combination of language proficiency; relaxed, casual conversation over the course of several weeks if time permitted; and above all other things, empathy’. Did we know about his methods? Yes, we did. After the war Scharff was invited by the US Air Force to lecture about his experiences, and what he taught them should have found its way into the manuals. A number of other interrogation experts agree that non-violent procedures are by far the most effective way of obtaining information. But no one has made a movie about them.

We are now fairly sure that a very high proportion of the prisoners taken by American and British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were dragged into custody merely because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They had little or no information to hand over. Here again the manual becomes important: it interprets silence as the mark of a hardened terrorist, someone trained (as by the SERE unit) to keep mum under pressure. There is a name for this: ‘advanced resistance’. The typical response to it is to apply more and more pressure, a cycle known as ‘force drift’. The result in the prisoner is either inarticulate panic and physical breakdown or ‘false’ information resulting from the need to say something to stop the pain. Mild force leads to extreme force, even to death.

This is the common pattern of what the soldiers themselves came to call ‘monstering’, a term whose unconscious reflexivity applies not only to those treated as if they were monsters but also to those behaving like monsters. Monstering must be a weirdly inarticulate spectacle. The Hollywood Gestapo agent speaks impeccable English, albeit with a heavy accent and from the throat. The interrogator in Iraq or (especially) Afghanistan typically has no knowledge whatsoever of the language of his or her prisoner. More seriously still, the interpreters may also be out of their depth: how many are fluent in all the languages of Afghanistan? ‘Bagram’s Afghan translators’ apparently ‘had difficulty understanding the prisoners from Khost’. An army specialist called Tony Lagouranis described some of his co-workers to Phillips as ‘pimply 18-year-old interrogators who don’t even know what the Baath Party was’. Margaret Stock also notes the lack of linguistic competence: ‘Hollywood ought to be doing a show on how important it is [to know] foreign languages.’ A frequently noted deficiency in the American and British school systems has life and death consequences for combat soldiers and their prisoners. (Schools and colleges can’t teach everyone all the languages spoken in current war zones but they and we collectively could do more to instil respect for the complexities of translation and risks of mistranslation.)

Those who do witness or participate in torture are under immense pressure to keep quiet about it afterwards. Things that, according to Millantz, would ‘make Abu Ghraib look like Disneyland’ are thought better forgotten or repressed. The pressure is partly personal – many prefer not to remember these things – and partly institutional: reports of brutality have invariably been ignored by the chain of command and have often exposed the whistleblower to the anger and retribution of his fellow soldiers and superiors. Sergeant Joseph Darby, who broke the Abu Ghraib story, needed government protection when he returned to America, and was advised against returning to his home town, where his family’s house had been attacked. (The US Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who passed classified documents to WikiLeaks, looks likely to be next in line for such treatment.) Neither military investigators nor the Department of Justice have proved at all zealous in following up on accusations of brutality carried out by American personnel. A report by human rights organisations claims that as of 2006 only ten people had been sentenced to more than a year in prison for abusing detainees. Meanwhile, a former US Marine called Ilario Pantano, charged with premeditated murder (then dubiously acquitted for lack of evidence) after firing 60 rounds into two unarmed Iraqi detainees in April 2004, has just stood for Congress in North Carolina’s Seventh District (he lost).

Phillips’s failure to discover a one-size-fits-all explanation of torture might make one feel it would be sensible to suggest some practical recommendations that would apply not only to the current coalition of the willing but to all soldiers everywhere. Given that spontaneously cruel behaviour is highly likely among untrained personnel in positions of power living in conditions where stress alternates with boredom, a primary component of military training should be an education in avoiding it. Soldiers should also be taught not just that torture is known to be completely ineffective in producing useful information, and contributes to alienating those who are not already enemies – a number of those interviewed by Phillips claim that the bad press from Abu Ghraib and similar incidents greatly contributed to the recruitment of real terrorists – but that they should themselves be prepared to face up to and resist the possibility of monstering.

Soldiers should be trained to cope with the problems of mutual linguistic incomprehension, a situation made more difficult when the competence (and neutrality) of interpreters can’t be assumed. Some sort of film studies course could also be useful so that soldiers can learn to read the ideologically loaded representations of war disseminated by movies, TV and video games – the very things they watch during down time on the base. Here it seems reasonable to suspect that ordinary Americans might do better than Supreme Court justices and secretaries of state when it comes to figuring out what divides fantasy from reality.

There can be no full atonement for the deaths of Dilawar and Baha Mousa and hundreds like them, nor for the deaths of Adam Gray and Jonathan Millantz. The suffering will never be equal. The hundreds of thousands of innocents who have suffered and died, and who are still suffering and dying, as a result of the reckless adventurism of America and its allies, will always exceed the sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder in the homelands. But steps can be taken to change the future. It is possible to support Margaret Stock and others like her, perhaps even the members of Cameron’s forthcoming judicial inquiry, in their attempts to direct the system towards addressing the harm it does to its own personnel and to its own objectives. Above all, Phillips shows that the recourse to blaming a ‘few bad apples’ should be recognised as a disgraceful, face-saving fiction. The WikiLeaks revelations provide further evidence against the notion that torture is an exceptional form of behaviour or the regrettable unintended consequence of an otherwise worthy combat culture. In this they support the findings of Joshua Phillips’s book.

5 November