Book tour illuminates U.S. soldiers’ impulses to avenge, torture

Talking torture in Tampere and Tacoma

By Joshua Phillips

Sunday’s violent rampage by a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan has fueled grief and outrage among Afghans and Americans alike. It adds yet another harmful set of images to the war. The photos of bloodied and burned corpses will  certainly erode perceptions of the U.S.

The shooting rampage has far different roots than U.S. detainee abuse and torture like that occurring in Abu Ghraib. But the Abu Ghraib photos indelibly warped the image of America, costing public support here and abroad, and provoking violent anger against U.S. forces. The shooting in Afghanistan will force America into a new round of introspection about what we represent.

In 2010 Joshua E.S. Phillips published None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture.  The book is as relevant today as it was in 2010, in the wake of U.S. soldiers being recorded urinating on bodies in Afghanistan.  Phillips offers a haunting look at two questions: How is it that some in the U.S. armed forces turned to torture?  And what has been the impact of the use of torture on our wars, the detainees, and even the soldiers themselves? Phillips has traveled to five countries and 21 cities discussing his book. Those travels have answered a third question for Phillips: How would people respond to the book, and the complicated stories it tells?

The author at Woolfson & Tay bookshop in London

I knew the book would stir up powerful feelings. Even before it was published, my friend and former Afghan translator, Wahid, feared that his presence in the book would “make some problems” for him.  Wahid was afraid that his brief criticisms of US detainee abuse would hurt his chances of finding work with international organizations.

It didn’t.  But as I went to various cities, I saw people use the book as a prism for viewing U.S. policy, veterans’ issues, and the legacy of torture.  For some, the book stoked anti-American sentiment. Some fumed that it didn’t neatly focus blame on President George W. Bush, though the book showed how Bush’s decision to ignore the Geneva Convention on detainee treatment catalyzed what followed. Others were angry that it didn’t emphasize one group’s pain over the other.

Listen to Joshua Phillips discuss the context of U.S. military torture during at talk at the University of Washington

Unsympathetic in Sweden

At Sweden’s Stockholm University a woman responded to my portrayal of American soldiers by saying it was “as if you’re trying show sympathy for German soldiers during World War II.”

Phillips in action in Sweden (Credit: Mattias Österlund)

Thankfully, this was an unusual reaction. I traveled to European cities as big as London, and as small as Tampere, Finland, and found that people generally understood and sympathized with the soldiers that I had interviewed. But I also found European audiences less eager to confront their own history of torture.  At the Turku Library in Finland, a young man suggested that democratic states are less likely to use torture.

In response, I rattled off some examples of 20th century democratic European states involved in torture: the French in Algeria and Vietnam, the British in Northern Ireland. I pointed out that European countries aided the CIA’s secret “extraordinary renditions” program, in which the CIA abducted suspected terrorists and transferred them to countries where they were tortured.  Even Scandinavian countries assisted the CIA with renditions, I said.

An awkward silence fell over the audience.

A split room in the Middle East

It wasn’t the only time I dealt with such silences. In Dubai, I discussed the book with reporters in the Gulf News newsroom. I relayed the book’s stories, and the situations that led U.S. forces to torture—along with the devastating impact on the soldiers who carried out abuse and torture.  The Western expat journalists were interested in the U.S. policies and the soldiers’ stories. But the Arab journalists were noticeably quiet. They didn’t say anything, and shot me wary glances. I felt an uneasy tension in the room.

My book details at great length the experience of tortured detainees and its impact on Iraqis (and Afghans), but the Arab reporters might’ve felt that covering the American soldiers’ plight eclipsed Iraqi suffering.  I get that perspective. It is challenging to sympathize with both abused detainees and understand their abusers.

In the trenches

I was unsure how soldiers and veterans would respond to my talks; my book takes an unblinking look at grave acts of abuse and torture committed by US military personnel. I was startled in Tacoma, Washington, when a former soldier spoke up at a university talk and said he wished he could have hurt detainees in Iraq. The audience, which included a smattering of soldiers and veterans, stirred, too – there were murmurs of assent and anger.

Listen to Joshua Phillips discuss when military attitudes towards torture shifted

The veteran said it enraged him to see his friends die in battle, and frustrated him that he couldn’t target his enemies, especially when fellow soldiers fell to hidden bombs.  That rage and frustration reflected some of the reasons why some troops actually turned to torture during the war on terror.

I thanked the veteran for his service to our country.  Then we discussed the reasons why many

Charles Graner prior to his 2004 trial over prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. (Reuters)

military personnel viewed torture as being harmful to soldiers in battle. My book delves into the damage torture did to military operations during the war on terror, the traumatic impact committing torture had on soldiers, and how many carried the guilt and shame home with them. But it also shows how service members tried to stop detainee abuse. I found that military professionals often made the best arguments against torture. They spelled out its perils during interrogation and explained how Abu Ghraib’s images cost us vital support and intelligence. Perhaps this is why soldiers and veterans have been some of the book’s greatest supporters.

A veteran named Evan, a former intelligence analyst in Iraq, emailed me last year to  tell me the book “touched a nerve with me and my friends.”

Listen to Richard Manwaring, veteran U.S. interrogator, speak up at the University of Washington event about how his unit tried to avoid torture techniques

“Thanks for doing the story, and for helping us to cope with our own actions by putting them in a context,” Evan wrote. He told me that after reading the book, he contacted the United Nations Office of the High Representative’s Iraq Commission and became the first American to testify before it on the record.

“We are all losers”

In the end, I know that some readers will find the book unsettling.

My friend Ragheed is an Iraqi refugee, now living in the states, who helped me interview former detainees in the Middle East. For him, the book evoked memories of violent attacks, some of which he barely escaped.

Joshua Phillips answers a question at the University of Washington about how torture affected the perception of the U.S.

“It’s crazy to see and hear all these stories around us from both sides,” Ragheed told me. “Both sides hate each other, and both sides are suffering …  In wars there are always winners and losers.  But this time I don’t see any winner.  We are all losers.”

That acknowledgement of pain, and tragedy, is one that people on both sides of the war can agree on.

With the paperback edition due out this summer, Phillips is gearing up for another round of talks on his book, in the U.S. and overseas. For more on Joshua Phillips, listen to this BBC Radio interview with him and this interview on American Radio Works.  Here’s a Guernica magazine interview with Phillips, and reviews in GulfNews and The London Review of Books.

  • Cynthia Rosi

    What a great piece. It’s so important to know that torture affects the people who carry it out – they’re not nameless, or go without damage. Violence creates damage for everyone it touches. No-one escapes. The more we know this, and the more pervasive that knowledge becomes, the greater chance we can evolve out of war and into a different way of solving problems.

  • Joshua E.S. Phillips

    Thanks so much for the comment. Yes, torture cuts both ways – traumatizing the victims and the perpetrators. That’s part of its enduring legacy that lives on today.

  • Roger Tuttle

    Just an incredible piece. Thank you for publishing this article. I’m curious it has been published elsewhere. Has it? a topic like this deserves a great deal more attention. Thank you again for such important journalistic work.

  • Joshua E.S. Phillips

    Thanks very much – very kind of you to say. I’m not sure whether the article has been re-published anywhere. That’s something that the good folks of Latitude News would know. Glad to see you’ve been been reading their work! Latitude News is producing great work, and hope that more people become away of the terrific material their churning out.

  • Sandy Barretts

    and it isn’t just the “impulse to torture” in those situations, but also the mindset that thought it “amusing’ to pose smiling for a photograph of prisoner humiliation that distressing.