Wednesday, January 26, 2011

American Soldiers and Torture: Joshua E. S. Phillips

In his book,None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture, Joshua Phillips has provided us with an enlightening look at the mechanisms by which well-trained, well-intentioned soldiers can convert into dedicated and persistent abusers and torturers of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the process he makes it quite clear that incidents of abuse were not rare occurrences by a few rogue soldiers, but rather a systemic problem throughout both theaters of action.

Phillips’ tale is built around the experiences of an Army unit from Battalion 1-68. The central character is Adam Gray a soldier who was trained to be a member of a tank crew and was part of the Iraq invasion force. He ended up being assigned to detention duties and participated, with his comrades, in abuse and torture. He committed suicide soon after returning from his tour in Iraq.

Adam Gray is used to represent the many soldiers who fell into the same set of circumstances that he faced. The author’s purpose is not to tell Gray’s personal story in Iraq. He interviews as many veterans of as he could who shared similar experiences in order to construct the conditions under which a sane and healthy young man could participate in torture. Adam Gray is used to remind the reader that the torturer has a human face and a human story. Adam is also critical to one of the author’s goals: to demonstrate that torture takes a terrible toll not only on the victims, but also on the torturers.

The public’s perception of the situation regarding treatment of prisoners, or, more appropriately, detainees is dominated by reports of activities at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The Bush administration worked hard to define the abuses that emerged from those two locations as the work of a few renegades. To counter that notion, and to establish his thesis, he takes us to Afghanistan in 2002 to begin his narrative with the fate of one Afghan prisoner named Dilawar. Phillips recreates this experience with accounts from both soldiers and other detainees.

Dilawar was a young Afghan who is described as earning a living taxiing people around in his car because he was not robust enough for the strenuous physical labor required of the other young men. One day while driving with several passengers he was stopped by an Afghan patrol. One of his passengers was in possession of some common communication equipment and a few foreign phone numbers. The soldiers feared that this could indicate association with insurgents. All in the car were taken into custody and deposited at a U.S Post. They were transferred to Bagram Air Base where they would be detained for interrogation.

After some time in a holding room with others, detainees were transferred to individual cages designed to be too small to stand in and too short to stretch one’s legs. Then the interrogation began. This is Phillips description.
“....the detainees were aroused late at night for questioning. Soldiers poured ice-cold water on them and ventilated the prison to allow the freezing night air to gust over their wet bodies.”

“By now the prisoners were accustomed to having their wrists bound. But the soldiers were lifting them by their arms, hoisting them upward by chains attached to the ceiling. The weight of their bodies, pulling downward as their arms were stretched upward, made breathing difficult. The soldiers still wouldn’t permit them to relax, often making noise to frighten them or keep them awake. Detainees remained hooded, causing further disorientation”

“Some prisoners claimed they were chained ten days and ten nights, their toes just scraping the floor, lowered just for interrogation sessions and short bathroom breaks. Again, no talking was permitted. More infractions meant more beatings on their arms legs and feet. While suspended, prisoners were vulnerable and could not shield themselves from the blows.”
When detainees were not satisfactorily responsive to questions, pressure was applied.
“....said he was forced to do pushups while a soldier stood on his back. Other detainees said they were beaten. Some were ordered to hold their bodies in stress positions for hours, their arms and legs trembling from exhaustion, their ankles swelling, pain shooting through their extremities. Then interrogation sessions ended and they were once again hung from chains.”
Dilawar was a terribly frightened young man who apparently could not take the stress. He continued to scream of his innocence and plead for help as he was suspended by chains. This behavior annoyed the soldiers who were determined to make him quiet down.

One of the techniques used by the soldiers is called the peroneal strike. It would be familiar to them from their training.
“A peroneal strike is a temporarily disabling blow to the side of the leg, just above the knee. The attacker aims at the common peroneal nerve, roughly a hand span above the knee, towards the back of the leg. This causes a temporary loss of motor control of the leg, accompanied by numbness and a painful tingling sensation from the point of impact all the way down the leg, usually lasting anywhere from thirty seconds to five minutes in duration.... The technique is a part of the pressure point control tactics used in martial arts and by law enforcement agents....Repeated strong peroneal strikes can cause nerve damage and have a high chance of damaging the surrounding tissues due to the spontaneous nature of the technique and the nerve location.”
Several soldiers struck Dilawar. One soldier admitted that he had struck him about thirty-seven times. Since Dilawar was hooded the soldiers could not assess the effect of their beating, nor could they ascertain the exact time of his death, or which blow might have done it. The forensic report stated that Dilawar’s legs had been “pulpified.”

This type of treatment constitutes torture by anyone’s definition. These were not rogue soldiers operating surreptitiously. This was standard operating procedure at a major U.S. facility. There is no evidence that there were explicit orders to operate in this manner. The question that Phillips will try to answer is how did it come to this, and so quickly?

Let us first make a stop with Torin Nelson. He was an interrogator trained by the Army. He described his trainers as being highly professional and skilled. He was taught several psychological approaches to extracting information from detainees. He was also taught to abide by the Geneva Conventions. Interestingly, the image of the ideal interrogator was presented as a World War Two German officer named Hans Scharff. He was deemed so successful at the task of interrogating that he was brought to the U.S. after the war to lecture about his methods.
“What was Scharff’s formula for success? In short, it involved a combination of language proficiency; relaxed, casual conversation over the course of several weeks if time permitted; and above all other thing, empathy.”
It is clear that the Army understood how to perform an interrogation. They knew what worked and what did not work. So what went wrong?

Nelson spent time at Guantanamo as an interrogator where he used the techniques he had been taught. He claims that those techniques worked and valuable intelligence was being obtained. In Nelson’s words:
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t the type of information people were looking for, like linking al Qaeda with Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and chemical weapons training for Saddam’s agents....or an al Qaeda guy [connected to] Iraqi agents. And so people were saying, ‘It’s not good intelligence.’”
Here we see an indication of what would be the driver for the evolving interrogation methods: expediency. Guantanamo was driven by political expediency, in Afghanistan and Iraq military expediency was added to that. By allowing untrained personnel to participate you add another factor: ignorance.

Traditional interrogation techniques require time and patience. If you are not allowed time either because of pressure from superiors or the crush of events, or you are inundated with large number of prisoners, what do you do? At this point there is no manual to follow. The process that Phillips saw emerging from his interviews was driven by a combination of personal experiences, rumor, what might be called urban legends, and pop culture.

Given the situation where you are told that the detainees are not providing adequate information, and being given the suggestion that you should do something about it, soldiers first turn to their own experiences. It was common for soldiers in training to receive physical punishment in the form of exaggerated exercise routines or being forced to assume stress positions for long periods of time. It is not surprising that they would turn to these techniques to inform or punish an uncooperative prisoner. Most were familiar with techniques designed to disable a person without causing permanent damage, such as “pressure-point control tactics” and “compliance blows.” These were easily added to the repertoire. Some received training on how to endure torture, which could be turned around to provide a torture manual. Soldiers would improvise based on tales that were passed around. Someone would suggest that this or that was known to work in Vietnam, so it came to be tried. Sleep deprivation was added to the bag of tricks along with electrical shock. Claims or rumors of techniques tried quickly spread from one theater to another. Phillips quotes several people who were concerned to learn that soldiers’ attitudes toward torture and its effectiveness were being derived from movies and from television shows like “24,” rather than from real world experience.

One derives yet another perspective from Phillips’ interviews with the members of Adam Gray’s unit. These were soldiers trained to man tanks. They discovered that they had no mission in Iraq. They would not get to perform the task they had trained so hard for. They were ultimately assigned to rounding up and detaining suspects for interrogation. They followed a similar path to that described above as they began to resort to abusive treatment, but they provided new justifications: boredom and frustration. Some admitted abusing prisoners to relieve boredom, some to vent anger, and some merely to provide entertainment.

While abusive behavior may not have been directly ordered, it was certainly condoned by superior officers, allowing soldiers to take to the task with alarming ease. One is tempted to conclude that soldiers, isolated from the normal constraints of civilization, and having control over foreign and powerless people, will likely turn to violence. Military organization provides an environment that insulates soldiers from the contacts that would keep them rooted in their previous existence. This insulation, coupled with stress, peer pressure and a group mentality, can lead to irrational and uncharacteristic behavior.

Phillips might not agree with that statement. Here is his summary.
“In the course of my reporting, I tried to find a straightforward interpretation for the development of US torture during the war on terror. But I failed to find a one-size-fits-all explanation for the myriad cases in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo. As one human rights lawyer told me, ‘There isn’t a grand theory of US torture that encapsulates and explains all the abuses that have taken place in the war on terror.’ The more I learned about detainee abuse, the more I found myself agreeing with that sentiment.”
Phillips concludes his narrative with a chapter called “Homecoming.” To Adam Gray’s story he adds that of Jonathan Millantz. The author had a chance to talk to Millantz several times while researching this book. Millantz eventually succumbed to his memories and guilt and took his life. The author’s descriptions of the effects of the war and the tragic aftermath on the families of the two soldiers are poignant and memorable.

The title of the book is taken from this comment made by one of the soldiers after returning home.
“None of us were like this before....No one thought of dragging people through concertina wire or beating them or sandbagging them or strangling them or anything like that...before this.”
The soldiers Phillips talked to all seemed to be affected by what they had done, although a few claimed to know of those who came through the experience unaffected. One almost hopes that is not true.

Phillips provides this comment on a study performed on Vietnam veterans related to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“The researchers found a strong correlation between increased exposure to combat and psychological trauma. But the report also found that ‘abusive violence had the strongest correlation with PTSD’ for Vietnam veterans. This abusive violence included, but wasn’t exclusive to, the ‘degree of involvement in torturing, wounding, or killing hostages or POWs.’”

“’We can go into long philosophical discussions of torture....but the one thing the research has shown is that it is not good for the people doing it,’ said Dr. Richard Kulka, the chief author of the study.”
While composing this post I came across an article that provided this announcement.
“For the second year in a row the US Military has lost more troops to suicide than it has to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
One lesson to be learned from this book is that the prevalence of violence demands some sort of response from the military. Countering these tendencies towards abusive behavior with some form of training or oversight would seem to be in order—for both enlisted personnel and officers. In addition to the moral concerns, this behavior was not productive, and it did irreparable harm to the reputation of the United States.

Joshua Phillips’ book tells us things we need to know—not only about the nature of warfare, but also about the nature of human beings.

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