Joshua E.S. Phillips is a New York-based investigative journalist who spent five years researching and writing his book None of Us Were Like This Before, a fascinating yet distressing account of how the use of torture and abusive techniques on prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan affected the lives of American soldiers who found themselves caught up in it.
Far from neglecting the suffering of the victims, Phillips, through meticulous research, also brings home the full horror of the war crimes inflicted upon the citizens of the occupied nations. We caught up with Josh on a recent visit to Dubai where he talked about his work and what he hopes the book will achieve.
What prompted you to write a book like this?
After the attacks on the US in 2001, some senior officials used a lot of inflammatory rhetoric like "after 9/11, the gloves come off" to gather intelligence. Even liberal pundits were making pro-torture arguments. It was a worrying recipe, and probably first propelled me to understand what fed such beliefs that led to "harsh interrogation" policies.
After the Abu Ghraib scandal, we understood that there was a much bigger, and graver, problem with prisoner abuse and, in some cases, torture. After years of reporting, I realised abuse and torture extended well beyond Abu Ghraib, and often involved ordinary soldiers. I wanted to understand what led them to turn to torture, and why senior officials sanctioned or overlooked it.
You met a lot of soldiers and their families when researching the book. How willing were they to talk to you and have their comments made public?
It took an enormous amount of time and trust. They recognised that I wasn't doing a hatchet job on the military, but was genuinely committed to understanding what had happened. The soldiers and families also understood that I was reporting on the way that torture had affected those who engaged in it. Some family members were trying to understand what happened to their sons who joined the military, who had bravely and honourably served, and then came home terribly damaged.
They talked with me over several years, trying to piece together what happened. Some soldiers eventually opened up to me about their experiences — partly to explain the situations that led to abuse and torture (and hold commanders accountable), and partly to unburden themselves from the guilt they had felt. Others wanted to set the record straight: many brave military personnel put their careers, and even their lives, on the line by trying to halt abuse and torture.
In the book you talk of popular culture, in particular Hollywood movies, influencing interrogation techniques, which in turn were influenced by supposedly real-life examples. Yet there is no concrete proof that torture has ever worked to obtain information. Why do you think we have this perpetual cycle of myths and rumours?
I think the short answer is fear and desperation; US forces were thrust into confusing and dangerous situations, and tried to get actionable intelligence to save themselves and their fellow soldiers. When they felt overwhelmed by the mission, under-trained as interrogators, or frustrated by how little intelligence they gathered, some US forces were inspired by powerful images of successful interrogations that they saw on TV shows or movies. But this didn't just happen to soldiers and interrogators. Plenty of other Americans were influenced by similar rumours and myths about torture: West Point cadets, a Supreme Court justice, the former head of Homeland Security, even the public at large were taken in by Hollywood's dramatic folklore of torture.
How did those people in Iraq who were in favour of the US military presence in their country respond to news of the torture of their countrymen? Was there a change in mindset?
Yes. There was a drop in US support in Iraq after Abu Ghraib was publicly exposed. It wasn't just bad PR — it had a serious impact on the counter-insurgency campaign. When I was reporting from the Middle East I met many Iraqis who actively backed the US intervention in Iraq: community leaders, religious figures and those who helped with military contractors. After the Abu Ghraib photos were splashed across the news, many of them stopped supporting the US or felt that their association with coalition forces made insurgent groups target them. The US lost public cooperation and many important local allies when its forces engaged in prisoner abuse.
Are people grateful for your efforts in raising the issue of torture by US soldiers and have they ever expressed surprise that it is an American journalist who would wish to do this?
Many of the people I interviewed in the Middle East and Afghanistan didn't know what to make of me as an American reporter who was probing into such an uncomfortable issue. Some were sceptical of me and wondered what my work would accomplish. A few worried that my reporting might cause them to lose favour with US forces. But former detainees deeply appreciated that I was conveying their experiences — just hearing them, and acknowledging what they had been though. Many of them felt that their trauma had been downplayed and disregarded. They also wanted Americans to understand not just that they had suffered, but how detainee abuse was costing the US sympathy and allies.
Does the US government accept that soldiers returning from combat who are psychologically or emotionally troubled need better care? Are things improving for them in this sense?
President Obama has made it easier for veterans to access care for post-traumatic stress disorder, so I think the mental health care for American veterans has improved. Having said that, I think those who are traumatised from being involved in or exposed to ‘abusive violence' (for example, detainee abuse) often shy away from treatment because they fear recriminations. For instance, there's a US Department of Defense directive that instructs all military medical staff to report any incidents of detainee abuse that they learn about.
On the one hand, this shows that the military wants to investigate abuse, buton the other it puts soldiers seeking helpin a bind. That is, if a soldier seeks therapy for his experience with detainee abuse and talks about it, military medical personnel are obligated to report the soldier for investigation. That's the dilemma thatsome are facing.
None Of Us Were Like This Before by Joshua E.S. Phillips is available at Kinokuniya, Dh111