Sunday, December 26, 2010

Torture: Why Do Soldiers Do It?

Torture performed by soldiers under wartime conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan has been of concern in both the U.S. and the U.K. for a number of years. The level of public discussion rises and falls, but the topic is not going away anytime soon. A casual observer might assume that soldiers resort to torture due to combat-induced stress, or they perform it under orders from, or with the encouragement of, their command structure. An article by David Simpson in the London Review of Books reminds us that soldiers, as human beings, and the environments they encounter, do not conform to such simplistic prescriptions. Torture would appear to be more an inevitable consequence of human nature and warfare rather than a rare exception.

Simpson’s article is titled Because We Could. In it, he provides commentary on the subject of torture and a review of Joshua Phillips’ book: None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture.

Phillips interviewed a number of soldiers who admitted to having performed torture, as well as some victims. Simpson believes that Phillips’ title may convey the wrong impression concerning his findings. From it, one might easily assume one of the standard explanations for why soldiers do it. Phillips’ title is actually a quote from one of those he interviewed, and it accurately conveys the notion that all those guilty of these actions believed they had undergone some sort of severe personality transformation. Simpson believes the message from the book is more complex and even more troubling.
“….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.’”
Simpson wants to make sure the reader does not assume that broad assumptions are being drawn based on a few cases.
“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.”
What Phillips is suggesting is that there are factors at work that reduce inhibitions against violence against helpless captives.
“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.”
Simpson is sympathetic to the movie industry. Although experts agree that nonviolent methods are much more effective in extracting information, it would be difficult to conjure up a movie based on those techniques that anyone would be willing to sit through.

He does fault the military for not doing more to combat this problem.
“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….”
The phrase Simpson used is so critical to the understanding of this issue that it bears repeating.
“…spontaneously cruel behaviour is highly likely among untrained personnel in positions of power living in conditions where stress alternates with boredom….”
There is no single trigger for this type of behavior. The incidence is not rare—it is frighteningly common.
“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.”

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