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Earlier this year, Joshua Phillips received the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for his 2008 American Radio Works documentary What Killed Sergeant Gray. Now he’s developed that story in a book that offers a compelling account of how the use of torture and abusive techniques on prisoners affected the lives of American soldiers caught up in it. I put six questions to Joshua Phillips.
1. Most of the discussion of torture has focused on the prisoners as victims; you turn this around by describing the tragic consequences of torture for soldiers. How did you come to this approach?
By accident. I learned about the central story while investigating various veterans’ issues, and the problems that some troops faced trying to report prisoner abuse to their superiors. One of the soldiers I interviewed was Jonathan Millantz, an Army combat medic. Millantz told me he was upset by the pushback that he faced from officers when he tried to report abuse. Over time, he revealed how he and his fellow unit members became involved in prisoner abuse and, in some cases, torture. It was important to Millantz that I understand the complex circumstances that led to such misconduct. He and his fellow troops also wanted me to recognize how damaging the experience had been for them—especially for soldiers who felt remorseful about their involvement with abuse, such as Sergeant Adam Gray.
As I learned more about these soldiers, I reflected on a story I wrote for the Washington Post (“The Case Against the Generals,” Aug. 17, 2003) about Salvadoran torture victims. One of the victims I profiled was a doctor, and he said he later met one of the soldiers who had tortured him in El Salvador. The doctor said he felt sorry for him because he noticed how this soldier, too, had been victimized by the torture. The soldier appeared to be traumatized by the violence he inflicted, he was discarded by the military that he faithfully served, and he could not describe to others what he had gone through.
The American soldiers I interviewed certainly didn’t mete out the same kind of torture that was used in El Salvador. But they, too, were damaged by the abuse they were involved in. The veterans I reported on felt unable to discuss their experiences with loved ones, and were plagued by guilt and remorse. Although the story I had stumbled on wasn’t without precedent, the relationship between abusive violence (such as detainee abuse) and traumatic stress was not widely known or understood. Over time, I grew to understand how complex and debilitating guilt was; it was difficult to turn off, and greatly contributed to post-traumatic stress disorder in many circumstances. It helped explain what some soldiers, who had been involved in prisoner abuse, were struggling with.
The soldiers I reported on were forever changed by their tour in Iraq. I wanted to understand how this happened. Their story is critically important for understanding the legacy of U.S. prisoner abuse, and many of the unrecognized costs of torture.
2. Much of your narrative focuses on two soldiers from the same unit, Adam Gray and Jonathan Millantz, both of whom died under tragic circumstances after returning home. What are the common strands of these two stories?
Gray and Millantz were very different people. Gray was planning to be career military; Millantz was a combat medic who left shortly after his tour in Iraq ended, and joined the anti-war movement. While both soldiers had other traumatic experiences during their combat tour in Iraq, they also admitted that their involvement with prisoner abuse deeply troubled them. Millantz told me he felt Gray was distraught over the abuse he had been involved in, and believed that it partly led to his tragic demise. Millantz was also haunted by his own history with prisoner abuse—not just because of what he saw and participated in, but because of his inability to stop it. He and his family considered that experience to have been especially traumatic for him, and it partly explains his involvement in the anti-war movement. I interviewed other whistle-blowers who were also distressed by their inability to effectively report prisoner abuse, and some felt they had been disregarded, even discarded, by the military they served.
Both Gray and Millantz had strikingly similar experiences when they returned home. Both had violent outbursts, were involved in serious substance abuse, and spiraled into depression. Their families said that the military medical care and VA systems did not provide them with adequate mental health treatment, and often substituted drug treatment for therapeutic care.
Gray and Millantz didn’t stay in touch after their tour in Iraq had ended. They lived on opposite sides of the United States and followed different paths upon their return home. Yet in the end their lives had startling parallels.
It’s not always easy, but families caring for soldiers who are suffering from similar experiences need to try to get them medical and psychological help as soon as possible.
3. You tracked down other soldiers of Battalion 1-68 who were deployed at FOB Lion and corroborated the accounts of torture, and one of them described using a technique of simulated drowning similar to waterboarding—which the U.S. Government has insisted was practiced only by the CIA and only in three cases. Describe this account and how you came by it.
It’s true. Prisoner abuse and torture was far more widespread than most people understand. It happened well beyond the walls of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and CIA “black sites.” Prisoners were seriously abused in other U.S. military bases and facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some soldiers with Battalion 1-68 told me about an episode that involved choking a detainee with water. No one referred to it as “waterboarding” at the time, nor did anyone reference official memos that sanctioned such techniques. One soldier from Battalion 1-68 said the idea was borne out of casual discussions on the base about torture techniques that had been used elsewhere. In this case, a non-commissioned officer referenced a kind of water torture that had been used in Vietnam. (There are various water torture techniques—“waterboarding” represents only one method—and, in fact, there are accounts that some American MPs used water to choke Vietnamese prisoners.) This soldier from Battalion 1-68 told me that he and others tried to reproduce the technique—not to gain intelligence but because it was understood that torture and abuse were permissible.
Naturally, the military and Bush administration officials approved certain techniques for so-called “harsh interrogation.” But there were other ways in which ideas took root and spread. The experience of select troops from Battalion 1-68 using water torture illustrates how soldiers picked up techniques in the field. The origins of these techniques are often quite banal. Soldiers would draw on what they had done during their training (e.g., exercises from basic training), what was available (e.g., a boom box for sleep deprivation), and what they remembered or heard about from others (such as the water choking reference from Vietnam). Those who study torture say this is often how torture techniques are picked up and travel from conflict to conflict.
The soldiers from Battalion 1-68 who engaged in water torture maintain that even if this specific technique was not ordered, they could not have turned to abuse on their own. Like most American soldiers, they served with honor and bravery in dangerous, high-pressure conditions. These troops from Battalion 1-68 said abuse and torture was sometimes ordered or encouraged for detentions and interrogations. In other cases they said it was ignored or allowed to continue. The encouragement of abuse, and the impunity for it, set conditions that enabled troops to use water torture.
4. What role do you think popular culture played in the spread of specific torture techniques?
When I began doing research for the book, I thought that popular culture helped spread the use of particular torture techniques. Several of my military sources believed that might have been the case. I later understood that the larger effect of popular myths, folklore, and fiction was in promoting the idea that torture could (and should) be used to gain actionable intelligence. Military interrogators, officers, and West Point instructors told me how they feared that powerful torture scenes on TV and in movies (as well as in literature) encouraged beliefs in the utility of torture.
Hollywood interrogation scenes often show high-pressure situations where interrogators eventually get a suspect to “crack” when they finally resort to physical force. Such scenes show how prisoners quickly succumb to torture, and provide truthful, accurate, and actionable intelligence. Even though these are fictional depictions, they’re powerful and dramatic and have shaped public perceptions about how interrogations ought to work, and how torture is a necessary and effective tool.
Some interrogators said they felt that such folklore and fiction had an especially strong impact on military personnel who hadn’t received much instruction and coaching for interrogation. As interrogators explained it, when they and their peers faced frustrating systemic problems with interrogation that impeded them from producing intelligence, the vivid success stories on TV looked like an attractive alternative for questioning prisoners. As it turned out, ticking time-bomb scenes not only affected troops in the field but also influenced some of Guantanamo’s staff, officer cadets, and senior government officials.
5. Speaking about NATO checkpoints in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal recently stated “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.” Did you have a checkpoint experience that matches McChrystal’s observation?
I did have an experience where I was nearly mistaken for being a terrorist at a U.S. checkpoint in Afghanistan. American soldiers and their Afghan translator saw me approaching a checkpoint at a military base with bulky gear while I was sweating heavily–and it fit the basic profile of an approaching suicide bomber. It didn’t help that I failed to respond to their orders to halt (which they shouted in Pashto), and it made for a very tense response. The soldiers were totally professional; they responded appropriately to a potential attack and were exceedingly respectful to me. And the experience helped sharpen my understanding about the perceived threats that soldiers face in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how tough it is for them to quickly respond to them.
I also witnessed how Afghans regarded such reactions to threats. My Afghan translator and I briefly came under suspicion while we were on a U.S. military base, and so American soldiers escorted us to their commander. My translator supported the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and was sympathetic to the military’s security process. But he also knew about U.S. detainee abuse in Afghanistan, and that caused him to fear the American forces. It was impossible for him not to think about those cases of torture during our brief military escort. When my translator learned how little accountability was dispensed for U.S. torture and prisoner abuse, his feelings of fear turned into distrust and bitterness.
6. What effect did American torture practices like those exposed at Abu Ghraib have on pro-American Iraqis?
In the course of my reporting I met many Iraqis who had been strong supporters of U.S. forces—sometimes while incurring great personal risks. Some of these allies included a Catholic Chaldean priest (a well-regarded community leader in Baghdad), a Shi’ite leader who supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and local translators who helped with U.S. interrogations. The Catholic priest felt that Abu Ghraib photos humiliated Iraqis, and it upset him so much that he stopped organizing community meetings with Americans. He even turned Americans away from his Baghdad church. The Shi’ite leader was a strong U.S. ally in Karbala, but his support for American forces changed after he had been detained and abused by them. I met a handful of Iraqi translators who had fled to Syria. Insurgent groups had targeted some of them (one of them was shot and nearly killed), and they maintained that Abu Ghraib, and other U.S. prisoner abuse, fueled violence against American soldiers and anyone who aided them. Alberto Mora, the former General Counsel of the Navy, has said that “the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo” were a major source of recruitment for insurgent groups and led to U.S. combat deaths.
People like Kirk Johnson, director of the List Project, a nonprofit that helps resettle Iraqis who’ve faced dangers because of their affiliation with the United States (e.g., translators), felt that Iraqis faced similar experiences. For Johnson, Abu Ghraib sharply increased dangers for Iraqis who worked with the United States because it “grouped [them] in with what was seen as an increasingly unjust and immoral occupation at that point.”
Abu Ghraib alienated valuable allies that American forces needed for operational assistance, building community support, and networking to gain public cooperation. This is not just a matter of simply winning “hearts and minds.” Losing the support of allies means losing intelligence, and therefore it has to be included in the costs of torture. Those costs need to be considered when we weigh whether torture “works.”
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm
Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”