Academic journal article Military Review

None of Us Were like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture

Academic journal article Military Review

None of Us Were like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture

Article excerpt

NONE OF US WERE LIKE THIS BEFORE

American Soldiers and Torture

Joshua E.S. Phillips, Verso

London and New York

2010, 238 pages, $16.96

AT THE HEART of None of Us Were Like This Before is one unit's tragic story.

The 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, deployed to Iraq from April 2003 to March 2004. These soldiers knew they might experience terrible events in war. However, unlike their imaginings, these events did not find them in great tank battles in Iraq's deserts and cities. It instead found a few of them in a small jail on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Lion near Balad, Iraq, where the soldiers inflicted horrors upon their detainees and, ultimately, themselves.

According to their first-hand accounts, they tied prisoners to the highest rung on the jail bars and "let them hang there for a couple days." They made detainees do push-ups and prolonged stress positions. They deprived prisoners of food and drink. They kept detainees awake by blasting music in their ears. They splashed chicken blood on walls to create fear and performed mock executions. They beat, choked, and water boarded prisoners.

The tales they tell Joshua Phillips are mutually consistent and are the same stories they tell their loved ones. One of them showed Phillips photos to substantiate his claims.

The soldiers never "broke" a detainee (that is, forced a detainee to give them helpful information). But, the soldiers themselves returned home broken, mere shells of the young men they had once been. Sgt. Adam Gray drank too much, became bitter and moody, and attempted suicide. Once he "snapped," putting a knife to a fellow soldier's throat. Spc. Jonathan Millantz, a medic, was discharged for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He, too, drank too much and attempted a drug overdose. Other soldiers from the unit struggled with drugs and alcohol, insomnia, high blood pressure, depression, keeping jobs, and various symptoms associated with PTSD.

One of the soldiers, after years of depression and therapy, angrily told Phillips: "None of us were like this before. None of us thought about dragging people through concertina wire or beating them or sandbagging them or strangling them or anything like that." Heartbreakingly, both Gray and Millantz died, miles and three years apart, under circumstances the Army ruled accidental but which many friends, fellow soldiers, and loved ones believe to have been suicides.

As powerful as their story is, None of Us Were Like This Before is much more than this sad tale. Just as Herman Melville in Moby Dick used his storyline as a springboard for explanatory and speculative essays, Phillips explores in depth many questions that the core story raises but fails to answer completely.

How did U.S. forces turn to torture? How widespread was it? Why, as in the case of the FOB Lion jail, were many cases never investigated? When investigated, why were these inquiries often the "whitewash" claimed by the former head of the Detainee Abuse Task Force in Iraq? Did torture work, to gather intelligence? What effects did it have on the tortured? On the torturer? What was the fallout of public scandals like Abu Ghraib on Iraqis? On the insurgency in Iraq? On Arab opinion of Americans? To what degree were U.S. political and military leaders to blame for the torture committed by their soldiers? To what degree was American media to blame, when the "good guys" were increasingly depicted as using torture to good effect?

The well-organized, accurate answers that Phillips provides are grounded in deep research, to include his own dangerous fieldwork in Afghanistan, Syria, and Jordan. …

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