None of Us Were Like This Before (Part 2)

by Joshua Phillips, Philipp Grote

Joshua Phillips discusses his extensive investigations into the use of torture by the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq.

First published: 16 August, 2011 | Category: Terror/War

In the second installment of a two part interview,  Joshua E.S. Phillips discusses his new book, None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture (Verso, 2010), with Philipp Grote. Part one can be read here.

Your description of arriving at the entrance to a US military base in local Afghan dress is particularly memorable. What insight did you gain into the relationship between the occupying forces and the local population in your investigations on the ground?

My overall sense is that the Afghan response to coalition forces depends on where you are in the country. For instance, the reaction to coalition forces varies greatly in Kabul compared to provinces like Khandahar(an area that enjoys a lot of Taliban support) and Bamyan (a province that has far less Taliban support).
The incident you’ve mention occurred at a US checkpoint at Forward Operating Base Salerno, in Khost - an especially violent province. In 2007, Imet former Bagramdetainees and their families in Khost.  After I finished my work there I went to catch a flight back to Kabul from FOB Salerno (the very base where some of the Bagram detainees I interviewed were initially held). At the time, I was dressed like an Afghan in order to blend in with the local population (or at least to be a bit less conspicuous). By the time I arrived at the last checkpoint, I was sweating profusely, wearing bulky gear, and I didn’t understand the Pashtun orders that a local translator was shouting at me.My appearance and behaviour raised alarms, and led American soldiers to fear that I might’ve been a suicide bomber. They trained their guns on me as I approached the checkpoint, but I was able to quickly diffuse the situation. The American soldiers responded appropriately, and were exceedingly professional and respectful.

My Pashtun translator thought that it was hilarious that my fellow countrymen believed I was an Afghan and a possible suicide bomber. But that comedic response didn’t last long. Shortly after we cleared the last checkpoint, my translator experienced that same hyper-vigilance when he briefly came into suspicion by soldierson the base. That experience also revealed how tenseconfrontations with military forces can imperil relations with local citizens. 

My translator has supported the Afghan government and the coalition forces. But his support faltered for a time after his experiences in Khost. While he was translating my interviews in Khost, he learned about harrowing cases of US torture, and failuresby the US military to hold perpetrators accountable - even in cases where detainees had been killed. 

In the course of my reporting, I found many instances where supporters of the US military - local allies who sometimes risked their lives for the coalition forces - pulled back from the Americans when they learned about US torture and abuse. That loss of local allies represents another grave cost of torture.

You also look more broadly at the likely legacy of torture abroad, with some Afghans who loathed the Taliban and Iraqis who hated Saddam Hussein now hating America at least as much. Abu Ghraib was, after all, Saddam’s prison before the US military took over. How do you think the “Arab Spring” is going to affect this legacy?

The legacy of US torture during the war on terror has had an impact in many startling ways. In the Middle East, I often met Iraqis who supported the coalition forces and said that they stopped aiding the Americans after the Abu Ghraib photos came to light. Those photos infuriated Iraqis of all faiths and backgrounds, along with many Middle Easterners in general. As a result, we alienated important community and religious leaders, and lost critical local support from with those who assisted US military and intelligence units. We also learned from congressional hearings (and from intelligence workers) that Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo was the greatest source of insurgent recruitment.  So, US torture wasn’t just a public relations disaster - it was terrible blow to American military and intelligence operations.

Also, some of the torture techniques that US forces used were replicated elsewhere, and that had an injuriouseffect on the US image.  Take Egypt.  When President Mubarak was still in power, there were reports that Egyptian security forces threatened to sexually abuse and rape their detainees while directly referencing “the Abu Ghraib”.  Just imagine being a tortured by the Egyptian security forces, and being threatened with “the Abu Ghraib” - and the effect that has on the US image in Egypt.
Egypt also was involved in the CIA “extraordinary renditions” - the covert programme which was termed “torture by proxy” by its critics.  So on the one hand you had the US State Department being critical of Egyptian human rights abuses under President Mubarak, but then the CIA was involved in “torture by proxy” in Egypt’s back yard.  That, too, damaged the US’sstanding in the Middle East.

I think we’re too early into the Arab Spring to know how things will play out on the ground, both within the individual Middle Eastern states themselves and vis-à-vis US relations.  Yet it’s clear that US involvement with torture has certainly hurt the US stature in the region, especially when it comes to serving as a paragon for human rights. As a result, the US probably doesn’t command as much respect, and therein popular political influence, in these Middle Eastern revolutionary movements.  Imagine if we hadn’t been involved in torture.

There’s a shocking moment in None of Us Were Like This Before when a veteran tells you that “We lost more guys in my unit after we got back from Iraq than we lost in Iraq as a result of suicide, reckless behaviour, ODs, whatever else”. How did perpetrating torture affect this? We usually associate PTSD with the victims of torture, rather than the perpetrators.

It’s a complex answer. Yes, we associate PTSD with battlefield situations like combat or being the victim of violence. But perpetrating “abusive violence,” which includes but is not exclusive to detainee abuse, can also traumatise soldiers.

Researchers who studied Vietnam veterans with PTSD found those who were involved in, or exposed to, “abusive violence” had an especially high correlation with PTSD. Not everyone who engages in abuse is traumatised by the experience; clinicians and researchers say that the amount of guilt one feels determines the extent to which one actually experiences PTSD. (There were, of course, plenty of other wartime experiences that traumatised American soldiers apart from detainee abuse.)

I interviewed some soldiers who said they finally confronted their involvement with detainee abuse after they saw the Abu Ghraib photos that showed fellow soldiers in the same army, fighting the same war, also involved similar forms of abuse. On some level, those who reckoned with detainee abuse, and were distressed by it, felt some degree of guilt or shame.

There is a critical relationship between guilt and traumatic stress. But you have to tease out the reasons why that shame and guilt is so toxic, and why soldiers and veterans are reluctant to seek treatment for particular experiences. Those who’ve been traumatised by perpetrating abusive violence have a justifiable fear that they could get in trouble if they discuss it with military personnel, including medical staff. Some feel like they’d be betraying their unit by discussing abuse that they were involved in. Othersare simply ashamed by what they’ve been involved in, and don’t want to open up to family, friends, or therapists about their experiences. And then there’s an implicit understanding by many veterans that you have to “man up” and stomach tough wartime experiences. And so, for those reasons many veterans chose to bury their traumatic experiences.  Butthat silent suffering still eats away at them.

We have seen the prosecution of only a handful of low-ranking individuals in the case of Abu Ghraib and, despite Obama’s campaign pledges, Guantanamo remains operational.Has anything changed?

Well, I think there is certainly far less prisoner abuse and torture today. So, yes things have qualitatively changed. Some of the US military leadership tamped down on prisoner abuse, and Obama did shut down the CIA’s programme of secret jails, known as “black sites,” where serious torture occurred. But real problems remain, as you rightly pointed out.

There have been a few allegations of US detainee abuse that have occurred under Obama, such as charges of abuse in Bagram. And there continues to be widespread impunity for abuse and torture, up and down the ladder. Most people don’t know how much prisoner abuse and torture occurred during the war on terror.

To be honest, I keep learning about new prisoner abuse cases that occurred, and the various ways in which torture was ignored by US authorities. President Obama insists that he wants to “look forward and not backward on torture”, meaning, he’s not committed to holding perpetrators and senior officials accountable, and wants to move on.But where does this leave the victims?

Meanwhile, torture advocates and apologists (many of them senior members of the Bush administration)forcefully argue that torture thwarted terrorist attacks and led to key victories, such asthe assassination of Osama bin Laden. These torture advocates don’t represent an official position, but they fill a void where there hasn’t been a strong official repudiation of torture. In the absence of any kind of punishment and/or denouncement of torture, which discourages future abuse, pro-torture arguments can gain traction. I’ve interviewed seasoned intelligence workers who fear that if the US falls prey to another attack, and if we still haven’t strongly repudiatedtorture, we could very easily revisit pro-torturearguments and tortureall over again.

Finally, what were the biggest difficulties that you encountered in your investigation? Do they explain why the western media has generally been so ineffective in holding anyone to account over such stories?

I certainly faced many challenges during the course of my reporting. It was dangerous and difficult to do reporting in Afghanistan. In Syria, the secret police threatened my sources and colleagues, and tailed me until I left the country. But it was especially difficult to report on the pain and distress that the American soldiers and their families experienced. I spent over five and a half years working on the book, and got to know these veterans and their family and friends quite well (along with some former detainees, and their families). It was a very tough journey.

Any kind of wartime trauma is difficultand can be tough to report on.  Researching wartime trauma that’s connected to “abusive violence,” or what some call a “moral injury,” is especially difficult. In some cases it was too upsetting for veterans, as well as their family and friends, to openly discuss such events (e.g. involvement with detainee abuse). And then there were family members who simply didn’t know what had happened to their sons. Some of them spent years grappling to understand what happened to their children who eagerly went off to warto defend their country, and came home as troubled souls. 

One of the main stories in the bookis about members of a tank unit that was tasked with detention and interrogation operations. Some of the soldiers in this unit engaged in detainee abuse, and returned home ashamed and traumatised by those experiences. I interviewed several members of the tank unit (along with their friends and family) who suffered from substance abuse, violent outbursts and spiralling depression. Some attempted suicide, others took their lives. The soldier who first informed me about this story was also distressed by his involvement in prisoner abuse, and the difficulty he faced trying to report it.  I got to know this soldier very well for over three and half years. Two years ago, he took his own life.  It was devastating.

In answer to your last question, I think the western media simply doesn’t know about these kinds of stories. I’d say the media has generally done a remarkably poor job covering the torture issue, and they have largely failed to understand how senior officials and US forces turned to torture. They’ve been duped by the torture apologists’ talking points about the efficacy of torture.  And they’ve failed to understand the full costs of torture on detainees, soldiers, and counter-terrorism policies. That tragic legacy lives on today.

Joshua E. S. Phillips has reported from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Newsweek, The Nation, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among other publications, and his radio features have been broadcast on NPR and the BBC.

Philipp Grote is a freelance writer studying for a Masters degree in history at the University of London

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