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The Wrong Question


December 15, 2010

Journalist Joshua E. S. Phillips on the left media’s standard torture story, untrained soldiers making it up as they go, and becoming a suicide hotline.

On Christmas Day, thirty years ago, Juan Romagoza Arce knew he was in for a rotten holiday. His captors in the Salvadoran military that day, he knew, would be drunk. In the weeks to come, as journalist Joshua E. S. Phillips wrote in The Washington Post Magazine, in 2003, the torture meted out to the Salvadoran doctor, who’d been nabbed while on a health campaign, grew unbearably worse. “Blows and shocks increased each day. ’The electric shocks… were almost like our daily bread.’ Alligator clips were clamped on every part of his body—his tongue, testicles, anus, breasts and the edges of his wounds. Eventually he passed out from the pain. Then they would wake him with water and continue torturing him until he defecated.”

It was Phillips’s fascination with this case, and with human rights abuses in El Salvador, that led to his latest book, None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture (Verso, 2010), in which he argues that we’ve all got torture wrong, and yet the worst arguments are winning. Phillips argues that all of us, including torture’s opponents, are following a false, almost comforting narrative. While his book disputes the distorted beliefs that fuel the torture “controversy” in Washington, including the assertion that it actually works, he builds from years of interviews a very different story of how these practices developed—of a half-improvised hell created by young men who were nearly destroyed by the process. Startlingly, the most infamous official sanctions, documented by journalists Jane Mayer and Seymour Hersh, were created after the fact. Though ever since, they have helped foster the set of cultural beliefs that made torture possible in the first place.

Phillips later work in the Middle East was firmly based in the legal doctrine that convicted those Salvadoran generals, Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, responsible for Arce’s torture: “command responsibility,” the idea that as commanders they either knew about the torture or should have known, and either way should have prevented or stopped it. But it was also based on what he did in between those trips to El Salvador: years as a first responder—as an EMT for an ambulance service in Chicago and on forest-firefighting crews throughout the West Coast—and then in Asia, witnessing the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge and the despotism of Indonesian generals.

Those two streams—the EMT jumping out of an ambulance and the analyst steeped in legal doctrines of accountability—are both palpable in None of Us Were Like This Before. A masterwork of narrative nonfiction praised by Richard Rodriguez and other notable writers, the book has as its narrative core the story of Battalion 1-68, a tanking unit with the U.S. Army’s Fourth Infantry Division, whose members found themselves involved in detaining and sometimes abusing Iraqis in their custody. Two members of 1-68 did not survive the experience: Sgt. Adam Gray, whose subsequent suicide was detailed in Phillips’s radio segment “What Killed Sergeant Gray” and another who had been talking to Phillips for years before he took his own life.

Running alongside the story of 1-68 are chapters with titles like “Crimes of Omission” and “Rumors, Myths and Ticking Bomb Stories,” which both debunk the myth that torture works and comprise a thorough investigation of the failures of command responsibility that enabled the abuse. In keeping with his narrative strategy, Phillips introduces us to interrogators who worked to stem the horror of Guantanamo Bay and to lawyers representing detainees and their families. As our understanding builds of how American society became more comfortable with torture, often over the protests of military lawyers and experienced interrogators, we’re watching the system that developed on the ground. And of necessity, the book’s final chapters offer a granular look at post-traumatic stress disorder, and how those involved in these crimes are often denied the solace of even the limited treatment offered to troubled veterans.

Phillips had just returned from a quick trip to the Middle East when he sat down with Guernica just before Thanksgiving. He’d been reporting for an upcoming segment on Battalion 1-68 for “All Things Considered,” not long after returning from a book tour of Western Europe. While he said he did not have jet lag, our four-hour phone conversation had the ragged, excitable quality of two friends staying up all night catching up. He was glad to explain the bifurcated strategy behind his book; how he gained the trust of Pentagon interrogators and military families; what he might have in common with Truman Capote; and what it feels like to spend so much time thinking about war and trauma, nicknamed by some as living in “the House of Slytherin.”

—Chris Lombardi for Guernica

Guernica: How did your entry to Bard College in 1990, as the son of two artists, lead to this book?

Joshua Phillips: I met and befriended another student who had been passionately involved in Nicaragua; I also learned about a few interesting grassroots movements that were quite inspiring, such as worker and community cooperative movements. A few years later, after that time as an E.M.T. in Chicago, I transferred to Reed College in Oregon, intending to write my thesis about cooperatives—and that December went down to Nicaragua to visit that same friend, who’d moved there after graduation and headed up a “sister city project” in Leon. On that trip I also traveled to El Salvador, because I had heard there were some cooperatives there.

Guernica: And there you were doing human rights reporting, long before you decided you were a journalist.

Joshua Phillips: I felt compelled to visit Morazan—the province in which El Mozote is situated. Morazan was part of the “red zones” in El Salvador that were especially hard-hit by massacres and other atrocities during the civil war.

At El Mozote a Salvadoran boy guided us through the ruins. It was chilling. You had the sense that there was a once-vibrant agricultural town there. The Salvadoran military unit that massacred the residents of El Mozote—which was trained by U.S. military advisors—actually tried to disappear a whole village. And they nearly succeeded. The next day, we met doña Rufina Amaya (the sole living survivor of El Mozote), and she slowly detailed all that occurred. That meeting forever changed me.

I still remember quite vividly sitting beside Amaya, this short, stout woman with toughened hands. She carefully unpacked her experience while she was shucking corn, occasionally bubbling up with emotion, spilling out tears when she talked about Salvadoran soldiers beheading her husband, hearing the cries of her children as they were being killed, and watching the military burn her city to the ground.

Guernica: It was about nine years later, after writing about labor in Asia and working at Newsweek, that you finally wrote about El Salvador for The Washington Post Magazine.

When people in the Bush Administration said “we need to take the gloves off,” it did remind me of those Salvadoran generals telling me “The country was on fire!” to justify what they did.

Joshua Phillips: Eventually I got to interview and confront the very men responsible for the massacres we all know about—the soldiers firing into the crowd, even El Mozote. I spent four to five hours talking to one of the two generals being sued, General Garcia.

When he said “I was exonerated,” I mentioned what Rufina Amaya had described to me. I asked him, How could you be exonerated from these crimes? You could see his eyes watering—and those of his kids, too. They knew that their father had been involved in war crimes, but… By the time we were done he had basically broken down.

It was that story that prepared me to do this book, I think. Especially the years I spent talking to Dr. Romagaza. Back in El Salvador, before he was tortured, torture victims would come into his emergency room, including soldiers who were damaged by it, too. And one day, in his clinic in Washington, he thought he heard the voice of one of the men involved in his torture. And he took care of him like any other refugee in his clinic. The doctor recognized that this soldier was destroyed by his experience, and he could never go back to his community.

Guernica: That story ran in 2003. By then, two years after September 11, torture was being discussed in high places in worrying ways.

Joshua Phillips: When people in the Bush Administration said “we need to take the gloves off,” it did remind me of those Salvadoran generals telling me “The country was on fire!” to justify what they did.

Certainly by 2002, I was hearing about detainee abuse in Afghanistan, and about private military contractors (PMCs) who were involved in interrogation. Then in 2004, with Abu Ghraib, we learned our soldiers were involved in these kind of abuses, and that they were more widespread than we knew. So I went to the Middle East to find out what I could. I spent as much time as I could with former detainees, people who’d been rounded up by Americans.

Guernica: You start the book with those former detainees, from hundreds of interviews you did in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria.

Joshua Phillips: Even after I decided that the book would focus on the damaged soldiers, I really wanted to be fair to the many victims who trusted me with their stories. That included making the case for American culpability, but it also meant keeping their lives in the forefront as much as I could.

And it was from those interviews that I really got, in a very direct way, the damage these practices did to our counterinsurgency efforts. I met the Catholic priest who’d organized meetings in community for the coalition, who after Abu Ghraib shunned the military. The Shia leader who was abused and humiliated when he was mistaken for an insurgent, and there goes an ally.

Guernica: Do you think more Americans are OK with torture than are willing to admit?

Joshua Phillips: My friend Darius Rejali published a book in 2007 called Torture and Democracy. And recently, the news is quite worrisome: In the history of this country when you asked Americans about torture tactics in interrogation, there were solid majorities against the use of torture. Even immediately after 9/11, too. Not like in Scandinavia, where it’s eighty percent, but a solid majority.

Now there’s a shift since 2008, and in those more recent figures, public approval is almost at parity.

Guernica: Since 2008, hmm. Any link to our current hyper-partisan environment and our African-American president?

Joshua Phillips: That’s a question for Darius, since he and Paul Gronke are the ones doing the research on that particular issue. I think they’re still trying to determine the extent to which racism is a factor in the uptick in torture approval. My “sense” is that it is partly a product of this xenophobia that we’re experience: Obama as Muslim, Ground Zero “Mosque,” stop Sharia law, etc. That, plus the Cheneys, Marc Thiessen, and now Bush saying “torture saved thousands of lives,” without providing any concrete evidence. Though the Cheneys and Thiessen are going a step further than Bush in saying that Obama is actually endangering the country by not torturing terrorist suspects.

By the way, many military intel folks I’ve talked with are gravely worried about the effects of this kind of inflammatory rhetoric. They regard it as being very dangerous.

Guernica: That was the bright spot in that recent survey: support was dramatically lower among U.S. military personnel.

Joshua Phillips: I visited West Point classes in early 2009 and I visited a class where they openly discussed using torture for interrogation. I’d been told worrisome stories by some instructors about cadets who argued for torture after 9/11, saying “we have to change our protocols because the paradigm has shifted with these suicide bombers.” The professor was telling them no, the paradigm hasn’t shifted. Remember kamikaze suicide bombers? The cadets would make arguments using anecdotes about “times torture worked,” none of which has ever been proven. So much of that stuff is folklore and anecdotal success stories, lacking any corroboration or verifiable facts. That’s what the Bush administration was selling.

But when I went to West Point in 2009, the cadets that I heard from were all providing extremely strong and articulate arguments against torture. They’d seen a documentary from Human Rights First featuring some interrogators. Just like the military interrogators I’ve met, and Pentagon officials who took the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture seriously. One thing this book has done is give me an even greater respect for the U.S. military.

But while we have these admirable institutional concepts and beliefs against torture, you have very powerful influential leaders saying we did it and it worked!

Guernica: You describe these “cultural beliefs”—giving personnel on the ground the latitude to do what they think they have to do.

Joshua Phillips: For units not doing torture, there has developed kind of a torture envy. In the Army you hear Special Forces are doing it and getting great results, you want to be just as effective. Or you hear we have these rules against it, but the CIA’s doing worse. The military police unit in Bagram or Abu Ghraib, where the CIA was, they’re thinking—we want to be as effective as those guys.

Guernica: Talk about how and when you decided that the heart of the story was the damage done to the soldiers of Battalion 1-68.

I thought of those guys tasked with a kind of warfare they never expected to fight, were never trained in, and making a lot of it up along the way. And it really undid them.

Joshua Phillips: At the time, I really thought it was all about those famous memos. But I was also struck by the situation of whistleblowers like Private Joseph Darby, who blew the whistle on Abu Ghraib and was called out by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld by name. His house was vandalized! I wanted to know if there were guys in these units who’d been shut down, how that contributed to abuses being concealed.

Then Jonathan Millantz contacted me. He said that this kind of abuse had happened in his unit, and efforts to report it were squelched. Then he said: “It’s really important that you get this story right. This stuff—it really damaged us, and upset soldiers in my unit. Like this guy Adam Gray, who came home and killed himself.” He also mentioned Gray’s mother, Cindy Chavez—who knew her son as a gung-ho soldier, who came back deeply traumatized by what he had to do, building a makeshift jail, abusing and torturing detainees. And coming home not really able to discuss that with other people.

I didn’t say anything at first, but inside I was thinking, “Holy shit! That sounds a lot like the experience Juan Romagaza described to me, in treating those perps.” This trauma is echoed in many other accounts—of Greek torturers in their wars, French soldiers in Algeria.

But it was really after Millantz’s death that I realized that was the story that should thread through the whole book. It took me many years, but I got a number of them to open up to me, to describe what had happened.

Frankly, I ended up sympathizing with them—not with these guys’ actions, but with them. I could relate to these kids: they were like the guys on my fire crew, from backwater towns. I thought of those guys tasked with a kind of warfare they never expected to fight, were never trained in, and making a lot of it up along the way. And it really undid them.

Guernica: And their families.

What changed was when I heard actual soldiers in their own voices—about what caused them to become involved in torture. Sometimes it was to get intelligence. Sometimes for punishment. Sometimes it was for very banal reasons.

Joshua Phillips: After I located Adam Gray’s family, the first person I talked to was Cindy Chavez’s husband. He was very fair with me: “She has been through a lot, I want you to be very careful with her.” But she was very open with me. He told me that she had been trying for years to understand what had happened, how her gung-ho soldier had become a shell.

We learned that Adam had experiences in Iraq that involved building a makeshift jail for detainees, and treating them badly. We also learned that he had attempted suicide a few weeks before his death, and simply been given more medication.

In the case of Jonathan Millantz’s mother, it was much more complicated than that, because he was a combat medic. As I got to know Jonathan, it became clear to me that he was born to be a medic and should never have been in the military. He had had this incredible duality of being charged with taking care of people, but meanwhile doing things that caused them pain.

His mom saw that what I was digging up was important. They needed someone to know what he had gone through, that her son had been implacably damaged by what he had been through in Iraq. But like the other families, I interfered with that image of their sons as good soldiers. It’s both true and hard to say, that your boy served with honor and that he was involved in this.

His death almost killed me. I’d known this guy for three years. He’d entrusted me with what he’d been going through, and told me that I was the only person who would speak to him. I tried in every conversation to get him to seek the right kind of help.

Guernica: A little like Truman Capote maybe?

Joshua Phillips: In the scene when he’s at the bar with Harper Lee, telling her This book is killing me! I felt with every bone in my body what he was going through.

So when another vet from Battalion 1-68 was on the cusp of committing suicide, I became a suicide hotline, was trying to console him and also pushed a call for help all the way to VA Secretary Shinseki’s office. Got his discharge upgraded and got him into care. Veterans for Common Sense was a great help to me in that.

Guernica: Those interviews also gave your analysis of the big picture its most singular insight: that these abuses were about as far as can be imagined from a well-planned, if diabolical military operation.

Joshua Phillips: Contemporary journalism on the left has this standard torture story now, connecting the dots between the Bush administration, those CIA memos from Jay Bybee and John Yoo, politics, the history of torture in the Vietnam war. For a long time I bought it. I thought it was the chain of memos, the indifference/complicity of the administration. All of which was there, but it was far from the whole story.

What changed was when I heard actual soldiers in their own voices—about what caused them to become involved in torture. Sometimes it was to get intelligence. Sometimes for punishment. And yes, it was enabled by undoing Geneva protection for detainees. But sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes it was for very banal reasons. Like because they were bored.

Or when you ask how they learned how, it’s usually not some Special Forces SERE training. They developed these techniques from what they went through in their own basic training, like sleep deprivation. Or those peroneal strikes: a number of these guys had been cops and corrections officers, and they had learned that. You see it in trial testimony.

The famous case of that guy who was suffocated in the sleeping bag? Many said, “Oh it’s a classic CIA technique,” and when he was on the stand the guy said he learned it from the military SERE training. But in the soldier’s first deposition, he said he learned it from what his brother did to him.

Guernica: What kind of reception has the book gotten so far?

Joshua Phillips: It’s not gotten a lot of attention in the States yet. Perhaps that’ll change after I do this segment for NPR about Jonathan Millantz’s death. But we thought we’d have a big rollout for “What Killed Sergeant Gray” and that never happened. I think in Europe, there was a lot of interest in the story for clues to America and its forces, because they too had forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The issue of torture, connected to American soldiers, is not somewhere most people want to linger. A friend of mine says of those of us who spend a lot of time on this stuff: “We’re from the House of Slytherin.”

We may not want to confront this issue so much in the U.S. because of how we want to think about our veterans. There’s the sense that we want to think of our veterans as—if they’re damaged, damaged by something—glamorous, like a firefight.

Guernica: The picture you draw is also not simple.

Joshua Phillips: I just saw a conversation between Tom Wolfe and Pete Hamill. I loved hearing Hamill talk about immigrant populations. Hamill remembered being a cub reporter and talking to an editor about some tip he had, and the editor says, “If there is a story that you want to be true, it probably isn’t.”

G

To contact Guernica or Joshua Phillips, please write here.

Author photograph courtesy of the author.

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