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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
As soon as I finished reading this book, I immediately headed to the nearest church, rent my clothes, fell on my face and repented. Col. (ret.) Larry C. James, Ph.D. is clearly the Second Coming of Christ.

Okay, no, not really. Even the briefest study of history or literature will teach you that in order to evaluate any written work, you must first evaluate the narrator. Who is telling the story and why? What point of view (first person, third person, limited or omniscient) does the narrator use to convey his/her story? What agenda does the author have in mind? How reliable is the narrator?

This book is narrated in a first-person voice by Col. James himself. Ostensibly, it is his story of how he cleaned up both GITMO and Abu Ghraib, stopped all prisoner abuses, and provided medical and psychological services to service members and prisoners at both locations, but I haven't read such a blatant piece of self-heroicizing since, well, James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces". As far as reliability, we soon figure out that the Morton company doesn't even make enough salt to take this guy with.

Col. James operates almost exclusively in black and white stereotypes, some of which I'm sure he doesn't even intend. For instance, he portrays all U.S. service members, officer and enlisted alike, as ignorant, potty-mouth, good-ole-boy rubes from Alabama. He tries to convince us he has nothing against gays and lesbians, but yet he portrays them in a ridiculously stereotyped manner (e.g., the fussy gay man worried about his nails while learning to fire a gun). His treatment of women has already been addressed by other reviewers.

And this is to say nothing of the typical stereotypes of Muslims as fanatic, irrational U.S. hating, incomprehensibly different beings from us red-blooded Americans. James never considers the possibility that many if not most of the prisoners he deals with are anything other than terrorists. In fact, however, the government's own documents have shown that most of the prisoners detained at both GITMO and Abu Ghraib were guilty mostly of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that at any given time, American authorities had little to no idea who they were actually imprisoning. And even among those who were actually guilty of what they were alleged to be guilty of, it never enters James' mind that the proper word would be "resisters" or even possibly "insurgents". I mean, if a foreign force invaded and occupied your country, what would you be? But no, it must be some irrational, culturally-based, mental disorder making all those crazy Muslims do what they do. Oh, and we're supposed to believe that juvenile sodomy is an accepted part of Muslim culture.

So on this note, there is no way that James could have implemented all the professional, culturally-sensitive reforms he claimed he did. Yet the whole book is about his heroic efforts to "save the sinking ship" at both GITMO and Abu Ghraib. In both cases, the abuses only happened because every other leader in charge was either completely incompetent, lazy, distant or burned out and, hence, young, inexperienced soldiers had no direction, so the very small handful of "bad apples" were able to act on their anti-social impulses with impunity.

Enter the heroic Col. Larry C. James, Ph.D. Alert and available "twenty-four seven", James was able to be all places at all times, and be all things to all people. Everywhere he went problems were corrected. An incorrigible prisoner suddenly started giving actionable intelligence just because James suggested that the interrogator give him a fish sandwich and a girlie magazine. Shell-shocked soldiers and officers immediately felt better after a chat with Dr. Larry. Recalcitrant senior officers suddenly saw the light when Col. James explained his incentive-based interrogation ideas, which, of course, none of them had ever thought about before. All abuses were suddenly stopped cold and GITMO and Abu Ghraib practically overnight became models of efficient, humane and effective detainment and interrogation facilities that pumped out reams of actionable intelligence. All this while James was personally named on al-Zarqawi's hit list. The man has nerves of steel.

The book is, of course, propaganda in the finest sense. The U.S. military has been forced to acknowledge at least a certain amount of abuse and torture (largely because their own documents made it impossible to deny). But the official bi-partisan party line is that mistakes were made early on because of lack of preparation, training and supervision, but as soon as the military became aware of such abuses, immediate steps were taken to correct them and there have been no further problems.

The only problem is, of course, that the data proving that party line wrong would fill Fort Knox. James plays the aggrieved victim of a campaign to smear him by a bunch of fellow psychologists who don't know what they're talking about and have no evidence to back themselves up. However, the Open Letter to which James refers was based in large part on a report by the Pentagon's own Office of the Inspector General. This report, among many other government reports and eye-witness accounts, documents everything James categorically denies. During his tenure at both GITMO and Abu Ghraib, reversed-engineered SERE tactics were used against prisoners and that psychologists and other behavioral staff participated in advising interrogators how to use techniques such as isolation; sleep, food and medical deprivation; stress positions, extreme temperatures and fear/phobias against the prisoners in order to create a dependency on the interrogator. I have neither the time, the space nor the inclination to go into all the evidence against James' claims to innocence, but I can recommend that you read Stephen Miles' "Oath Betrayed", among many other works documenting such abuses.

My final criticism of the book is that, ultimately, it doesn't say anything. It purports to be an account of how James implemented better, safer, and more humane policies and practices in GITMO and Abu Ghraib, but it doesn't actually say anything about such policies and practices. The book sounds like it was written by an Intro to Psych student, not a psychology Ph.D. All we get is a pithy lecture on leadership. A good leader is always present, especially when and where he's least expected. A good leader knows every corner of his command. A good leader is available "twenty-four seven" for his people. Blah, blah, blah. Anyone who's listened to one pop culture leadership seminar knows that much. Toward the end of the book James relays these "lessons" in a class he's teaching in Hawaii. This section was a hoot. James' adoring students (young psychology officers, coincidentally all female) are portrayed as sitting on the edge of their seats breathlessly asking just the right questions and waiting with baited breath for each pithy answer. Something tells me that the real class wasn't quite like the endless loop that James plays in his head for his own ego.

Despite all the above criticisms, however, I am giving the book one star more than I think it deserves overall. This is because of one actually honest, interesting and relevant section toward the end in which James explores, with admirable honesty, his own PTSD upon returning from Abu Ghraib and attempting to adjust back to life with his wife and granddaughter. While his behavior was not terribly admirable, his candor about it is. If a gung-ho, swaggering, all-out kind of guy like Col. James can admit to the traumatic effects of places like GITMO and Abu Ghraib upon the soldiers who live it, perhaps that alone might do more to alleviate the situation than any "leadership" lessons James has to offer.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on November 16, 2014
I read this book based on a faculty recommendation for presentation on enhanced interrogation techniques that I'll soon be delivering. Fortunately, I never ventured onto Amazon.com (until now) to read through the reviews for Col. Larry James book. Clearly, this book and the author's text is highly polarizing -- leaving "Fixing Hell" with a 3-star overall rating.

I'm afraid that many of these reviews may be coming at James with a prescribed agenda: defame and debase the author. He's been the target of multiple accusations that he supported and aided the torture regime in the Bush years. As he acknowledges, there is no such evidence that he engaged in the enhanced interrogation/torture techniques nor condoned them.

James presents a climate -- top-down -- where there was a pressure to create actionable intelligence. For a time, that meant any means necessary. One major critique is that this book struggles with the broader political climate and Bybee Torture memos that seemed to allow for this behavior. But he does address this pressure from commanding officers and generals -- they were desperate for anything and everything. Additionally, many of the experienced interrogators from the Vietnam era were replaced by early career 19, 20, and 21-year-olds. This transitional period seems to have worsened the series of events that occurred at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib.

"Fixing Hell" confronts the history of two CIA contractors being brought to Gitmo, and teaching interrogators and commanding staff about enhanced interrogation techniques. These were always controversial, and research has repeatedly shown that these techniques do not work for getting actionable intelligence; rather, it leads to corrupted data. Recovering information from a hard drive might be an appropriate analogy. A data analyst wouldn't start banging a hard drive out of frustration for answers. They would need to coax the data out of the hard drive.

James respected the research on torture's ineffectiveness. He aimed to establish protocols that were supported by Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Study, as well. He makes a big deal of spending time with Zimbardo and watching his documentaries to educate himself. The retired Col. finds some answers in these videos. He outlines a series of solutions and regulations that are necessary, as he believes Zimbardo's approach that good people can do evil in situations like this. This portion is a shining example of James' leadership in a time of great hardship. If anything, this book is a strong read for future military leaders. His lessons will help anyone in leadership roles. Here's one of the best leadership quotes: "...A good leader praises in public and disciplines in private." Brilliant line I'm going to borrow!

A few things led me to refrain from giving 5 stars. Firstly, he is a soldier/doctor and identifies as such. His position is one in defense of the administration and going to war in Iraq. Secondly, his analysis of the memos and torture/enhanced interrogation support from the highest levels of government is non-existent. He doesn't seem to critique the administration's apparent agenda. That seems to be problematic with the events that occurred and the specific contractors that were brought in from the Bush White House. Thirdly, James debases much of the APA by calling those that resist psychologists supporting in interrogations as "radical left-wing members." This is a disgusting twist for a truly democratic organization -- one with many voices and agendas. To label a group of dissenters with this title deeply undercuts the overall argument he is trying to make.

Overall, this is a fantastic read -- necessary for anyone looking for a career in the military or operational psychology. James is a patriot and hero. He risked his life multiple times over his multiple decade career, and his expertise is undeniable. Well done, sir!
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16 of 23 people found the following review helpful
As far as a rating level, this was a toughie, as I was reading through it, that bounced everywhere from low 2-star to low 4-star in my mind.

There's several things to like - beyond a psychologist who is also a career soldier putting the reader inside the military lingo and the "fog of war" mind - about this book.

On major thing is James' airing the question as to whether or not the "terrorist mindset" should be classified as a new category of mental illness. He uses Tim McVeigh as a reference, noting that, by all current classifications, McVeigh was "normal."

His describing his own PTSD symptoms, plus his "professional macho" refusal to get help for them at first, personalizes this book, as does his discussion of his history at Abu Ghraib with a class of young Army psychologists a few years later.

Finally, James rightfully defends himself, and Army psychologists in general, against SOME of the charges leveled against them.

BUT - this book also has many problems.

First, it is a matter of record that, as a profession, American psychologists, as opposed to psychiatrists, have never taken an unambiguous stand about being involved with torture in any way, via their relative professional associations. And James, in his self-defense conclusion, never discusses this.

What's Jeams' take on the American Psychological Association's refusal to follow the American Psychiatric Association with an unambiguous condemnation of the reverse engineering of SERE (corrected from original) and other "enhanced interrogation techniques"? (Finally, belatedly, some such condemnation was approved late last year) How does he square that with his "do no harm" mantra? Doesn't matter if it was CIA psychologists, not Army ones, that started SERE-reversed at Gitmo. To the degree it spread beyond the CIA, it became an issue for military psychologists. Acceptance of previous harmful tactics is unacceptable.

To that end, the 12-point statement of the psychology association James cites, beyond being a tardy response as compared to the psychiatrists' group, is about as bland and mushy as oatmeal.

Fact No. 2 is that, while the Red Cross report on Gitmo was basically focused on events from before James' arrival, we don't know everything he did while there. Improving how interrogations work, and not just reducing or eliminating harm to inmates - is that a proper role of a psychologist? And, beyond what he lists in the book, just what did he do?

Fact No. 3 is that James' stereotyping of the International Committee of the Red Cross as Birkenstock-wearing, America-hating hippies makes his book - rightfully or wrongfully - take on an extra degree of appearance as a PR screed.

Ditto for Abu Ghraib. Yes, he addressed problems there, but was he also, at the same time, a collaborator in some ways? Does he agree with BushCo distinctions as to who is, and who is not, protected by Genevas, and which specific conventions?

And, where were he and other Army psychologists BEFORE we hit the ground at both spots?

What about all the psychological problems we see reported today in Gitmo detainees? Where's Col. James' long-term care for Gitmo inmates who clearly have deep depressions? Obviously, AWOL. And, since James went back to Gitmo after Abu Ghraib, he surely deserves at least some responsibility for this, doesn't he?

And, the stylistic issues. For example, is it appropriate for a psychologist to call a female "really ugly"? Or psychologically sensitive? It's jarring for him to be sensitive to women soldiers being coerced to have sex on one page then make a comment like this on the next.

To be honest, I might have 3-starred it before the conclusion, but, as noted above, that conclusion was highly selective.

Beyond his notable and rightly commendable work to help troops in two hellholes, just how innocent was Col. Larry James? You'll have to read for yourself, and you m ay still have plenty of unanswered questions afterward.
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16 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on September 27, 2008
Finally, someone who has actually been in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib is talking. This book addressed many of the controversial issues about the war today, namely psychologists and interrogations and the very uncomfortable topic regarding what happened in Abu Ghraib that led to those horrible pictures.

Dr. James doesn't provide the military party line about the current administration and he admits that mistakes were made. He provides information as to the evolution of improvements in the detention facilities, specifically regarding interrogations of terrorist suspects and changes to the leadership and routine at Abu Ghraib.

This first hand report was desperately needed. I didn't put this book down - it is no literary masterpiece but it is an incredible read all the same given the value of the information.
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This book tells it like it is. You want to know the truth about Ab-Ghraib and Iraqi war, read this book. You don't know if you can handle the truth? Read this book and learn. I enjoyed the section where Dr. James LTC Ret) USA describes the "Bad Apple or Bad Barrel" scenario. Read page 191 "Sir, not all of the soldiers at this place were immoral s***heads." "Eight. Out of 2200." Roger, sums up military life in many situations. Takes only one fool to cast aspersions over the overwhelmingly well meaning hard working majority of the military population. The Press generates sales by shouting, loudly and many times in a poorly informed manner about any military problem found, real, sort-of real, and imagined. Ab-Ghraib where "bad news made good sales" by slighting our military. I am a veteran OIF & Persian Gulf War, I can attest the stressors are immense, the language often sparse, punctuated with fluid profanity, just like daily life "in country." This book provides an accurate portrait of "in the sand box" military life and what happened in Ab-Ghraib. Fixing Hell provides a clear precise view of this slice of American & Iraqi history. Reading this book will give you insight to these events the majority of the broadcasting new chose not to provide.
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15 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2009
It would be hard to take this book seriously if it weren't for the fact that the author is now Dean of the School of Professional Psychology at Wright State University. (One wonders what they were thinking.) Here is one of my favorite excerpts from the book, although lesbian-with-assault-rifle-between-her-legs runs a close second:

"Sex was a complicating factor in much of our work at Abu Graib. I came to know several single women at Abu Graib who got pregnant, received adverse legal action, and were sent home. Private Jeni Nelson was a short, fat, seriously ugly young lady. She looked as though she was crying all the time. Neverthless, she got a boyfriend, got pregnant, and was promptly sent home by her company commander. Did she do it on purpose to get out of Abu Graib? Probably, and I'm sure she wasn't the first."

For more examples of misogyny, see pp. 162-164, and for homophobia/lesbian stereotyping that reads like a bad letter to Penthouse magazine, see 153-156 and passim.

Lest I be charged with selectively quoting, let me state that this book is about James, not about the significant issues of torture and interrogation which it purports to analyze. It is a bloated, fantasy memoir that reads like Captain John Smith's adventures with Pocahontas or the Turkish princess.

Subjects like this deserve serious scholarly treatment. I am sympathetic to the psychological and ethical dilemmas of the interrogators, and indeed a family member with whom I am close was an interrogator in the army, though not at Abu Ghraib or Gitmo. To understand this most complex subject we do not need self-serving epics or the undermining of our troops by offering up misogynistic narratives. It's difficult to say James is homophobic as that word is typically used. He likes gay people, even the prancing queens who manage to learn how to shoot, because, by god, they are putting their lives on the line. He likes the lesbian she-males who, cigarette-smoking and gun-toting, make him feel safe, and maybe just a little aroused.

Amazon needs to hurry up and let prospective buyers search this book. See for yourself what bunk it is!
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26 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on September 27, 2008
It is well-documented from news sources that Colonel Larry James designed and led the BSCT programs inflicting torture on prisoners at Guantanamo. The majority of his fellow Psychologists and Psychiatrists were ashamed and shocked at this perversion of our professional duty, to improve the mental health of our clients and humankind. These programs are against international law. This book is a sensationalistic and hypocritical attempt to justify psychologists' participation in torture, under the guise of preventing harm from interrogations. The truth is that, unfortunately, Colonel James' programs have been documented to intentionally harm prisoners , who are held incommunicado without charges for months and years at a time. Even though torture has been proven ineffective in eliciting information form prisoners, it caues mental illness and stress, preys on psychological weaknesses. Colonel James' recommendations included sensory deprivation, sexual harassment, uncomfortable body positions, personal humiliation and insults, and potentially lethal assaults with dogs and water-boarding. I am disappointed that Professor Zimbardo recommended this book. What a low point for a formerly well-regarded psychological researcher.
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14 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on October 30, 2009
For those who are unaware of the backstory behind this book, there is strong evidence that Dr. James actually FACILLITATED torture at both Abu Grahib and Guantanamo, and deserves to be prosecuted for war crimes. This book is a whitewash, in the long tradition of "CYA," and has been greeted with incredulity and ridicule by many of his professional colleagues. One, Dr. Trudy Bond, is suing his licencing board in the attempt to force an ethics investigation, which so far has not been forthcoming. All of which seemingly makes a mockery of professional ethics in the field of psychology: if a psychologist who participates in torture is not condemned and expelled from the profession... what does one have to do?? Was not all this established law after the Nuremburg Trials?
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 21, 2014
The book does a great job of describing the Abu Ghraib dilemma from the veteran's point of view. It is a worthwhile read for that reason.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Fixing Hell by Colonel James is an inspiring story that spans most of the author's life, and describes in detail his assignments to Guantanamo Detention Camp and Abu Graib Prison. His critics berate him for participating in U.S. government efforts to contain Islamic terrorists, but the book reveals a compassionate man--and a humane leader with a powerful attribute.

The power that Colonel James wields is from deep understanding, something not explicit in leadership books or courses. Though it sets leaders apart, understanding is an attribute which can't be explained, much less projected onto someone. The effect of mind and character and experience melded into penetrating understanding rarely occurs, and fortunate are the people lead by the few with the power of extraordinary understanding.

And Colonel James was a godsend to the troops and detainees at both prisons. His deep understanding of people and what motivates them enabled him to guide others to from pervasive error to a compassionate, yet rational and effective standard of operation. His telling the events of these transformations allowed me to see the confusion and dysfunction at Guantanamo, and the disarray and danger at Abu Grebe; and then follow his thinking as he penetrated the myriad daunting challenges with level-headed understanding. It is gratifying to watch him implement unconventional methods to reverse destructive and counterproductive cultures at both places.

This leader is gold to me, a pathfinder in the midst of chaos. Colonel James replaced despair with hope; confusion with order; moral failure with ethical compass. He deserves honor from good men, and he has their esteem. However, his critics grudgingly honor him--by chewing gravel alongside the path blazed by this good man.

Anyone desiring to humbly and effectively lead others will learn much from this remedial mission into hell-on-earth.
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