Prison-keepers and conscience: ‘None of Us Were Like This Before’ examines American torture and the toll it took

November 23, 2012

Freelance journalist Joshua E.S. Phillips begins his 2010 book with an innocuous report on the 2004 death of Sgt. Adam Gray, a 24-year-old native of central California. The military deemed it accidental, but his family and some of his fellow soldiers suspected otherwise.

Gray had served a year in the Middle East with a tank unit, beginning in March 2003, but his training for armored warfare was never called into play. Instead, he and his unit spent much of their time in Iraq conducting patrols and guarding prisoners. He came back a changed man, a darker person. He rarely talked about his war experiences, but when he did, he discussed torturing detainees.

Gray was stationed in Alaska when, a few weeks before his death, he tried to hang himself. On Aug. 29, 2004, he succeeded. He was found in bed with a plastic bag twisted over his head.

In None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture, Phillips argues persuasively that Gray was but one of many victims — including Afghanis, Iraqis and Americans — of torture. He also explores the many reasons why Americans tortured detainees, some of the myths surrounding torture and some of the corrosive effects that torture has had on practitioners and whistle-blowers as well as those who were its subjects.

Bush administration officials deliberately loosened some of the protections for individuals captured in what they called the global war on terror. Yet the administration also portrayed soldiers who were found to have participated in torture, such as guard as the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, a few bad apples.

It now seems clear there there were far more than a few bad apples, although there remains some dispute over how much torture of detainees was official policy and how much of it was taken by low-level soldiers working on their own initiative. Phillips argues that whether officers explicitly embraced torture or not, many likely turned blind eyes to evidence of it.

Different guards had different motivations for torturing detainees. Some did it at the urging of interrogators who said or implied that it would help them get vital information. Some did it to avenge comrades who had been killed on patrol. Others did it simply to blow off steam or because it was fun.

Daniel Keller, a member of Gray’s unit, told Phillips that the posting in Iraq was often monotonous. “The only thing that really does excite you is when you get to … torture somebody,” he said, adding: “A lot of the things that were done to detainees were … just someone’s idea of a good time.”

Keller admitted to having dragged prisoners through concertina wire and using zip ties to confine them in painful positions. Once he left a prisoner hanging from a cell door for two and a half days.

He also engaged in water-boarding. In at least some cases, the prisoners were not questioned at all. “We were doing things because we could. That’s it,” Keller said. “And the objective just got less and less important.”

“[T]here were times when you wanted to pull out a pistol and put it to the back of their head,” said Tony Sandoval, another comrade of Gray’s. “Everyone had that sort of tension. It was very uncomfortable, it was miserable.”

Phillips cites a study of Vietnam veterans that found very little correlation between soldiers who engaged in abuses and individuals who had previously been abusive beforehand. Nor was there a link between those who committed abuses and those who had been abused as children.

Americans used a variety of techniques to stress and torture detainees. Sometimes they would be subjected to extreme temperatures, loud music or sleep deprivation. On other occasions, prisoners would be placed in a room with frenzied, unmuzzled, barking dogs. Some were beaten. Some died of their injuries.

A number of the stress techniques were deemed acceptable by soldiers and supervisors because they were part of certain American military training regimens.

To be sure, Phillips writes, the torture techniques used by Americans were much less cruel than some that Saddam Hussein and other Middle East dictators used on their own citizens. But that even methods that leave no permanent external marks can have long-lasting effects, he finds. Forced standing for prolonged periods can lead to kidney failure; extended time in stress positions can cause aches and pains. Some torture victims suffer chronic fatigue; others, nightmares or shame.

As stated above, the torturers themselves can be victims after a fashion. Many veterans were reluctant to grant Phillips interviews. Others found it difficult to discuss their experiences. One man held a long conversation with the author but then avoided further contact. He sent Phillips a text message: “Can’t talk about Iraq any more — too painful. Can’t…”

Jonathan Millantz gave Phillips multiple interviews over a long period. Some times he seemed to be adjusting well to civilian life; at others, he struggled mightily, becoming addicted to painkillers and overdosing.

“It’s very tough when you have a conscience that is filled with atrocities [and] you know what you did to people,” Millantz said. “I went to confession, I went to counseling. I still can’t forgive myself for what I did to those poor people.”

He told Phillips he did not know if he would ever find closure.

Keller also spoke movingly to Phillips of his feelings of guilt and the fallout he has suffered because of his participation in detainee abuse.

Torture cost Americans friends in their campaign for hearts and minds, which is often said to be a vital component of any counterinsurgency strategy.

Father Sarmad Yousef, a Catholic priest who initially aided the coalition forces that invaded Iraq, said that his countrymen loved Americans before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. “Before that, they were eating with them, chatting with them, playing with them in the streets, going to church. Directly after that — those photos, that scandal — directly destroyed the dignity of Iraqis.”

Yousef himself stopped meeting with Americans after the torture at Abu Ghraib came to light. He barred soldiers from his home and church and refused even to greet them in the street.

“[T]here are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq … are, respectively, the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo,” Alberto Mora, a Navy lawyer who objected to torture, has said. “The net effect of this policy of cruelty has been to weaken our defenses … and has been greatly contrary to our national interest.”

Detainee abuse appears to have stunted the careers of at least a few members of the national security apparatus. Phillips writes about Torin Nelson, who was by all accounts a top-notch military and civilian interrogator but who wound up working in the mail room at the Americans’ base in Bagram. His reputation was tarnished simply because he met with an Army team investigating abuses at Abu Ghraib.

Others who reported mistreatment of detainees found themselves threatened, including an Air Force Reserve colonel named Steven Kleinman and a sergeant named Joseph Darby, who first blew the whistle on the Abu Ghraib abuse. Darby reportedly raised hell to get transferred out of Iraq after his whistle-blowing role became public; to guard against being fragged by angry fellow soldiers, he held a cocked pistol while he slept. A Molotov cocktail was thrown at his Maryland home, and he and his family spent some time in the military equivalent of a witness protection program.

The damning impression left by Phillips is that detainee torture was primarily a result of American military leaders not having adequately prepared their forces for counterinsurgency.

Units in Afghanistan and Iraq lacked appropriate translators and intelligence capability. Patrols, unable to distinguish insurgents from others, would sometimes arrest men indiscriminately, overburdening an already tenuous interrogation apparatus.

Some guards were not properly supervised; other guards, including those in the armored battalion to which Gray, Keller and Millantz belonged, had essentially never received any training in conducting the kinds of detention operation to which they were assigned. Phillips has a tragicomic chapter showing that movies and television soldiers played a large role in convincing soldiers, officers and top Bush administration officials that torture was effective. Moreover, Hollywood in some cases influenced specific torture or stress techniques that officers and soldiers used or gave serious consideration to using.

When unsanctioned, rampant detainee abuse came to light, official investigations were often ineffective, Phillips. And after soldiers returned home, he suggests, many received little or no help from the military in dealing with the sometimes several emotional consequences of having abused prisoners.

Worst of all, perhaps, is Phillips’ finding that experts who have studied torture have found it to be ineffective. Scenes in the TV program 24 and other works of fiction that show the value of torture are just that — fictional. 

The bottom line in None of Us Were Like This Before is this: Americans inflicted grievous injury on helpless prisoners, themselves, the rule of law, human and civil rights, and the nation’s reputation because of a myth.

One Response to “Prison-keepers and conscience: ‘None of Us Were Like This Before’ examines American torture and the toll it took”

  1. Rebiner Says:

    Sounds like an amazing book. Can’t wait to check it out sometime.

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