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Bluster, bravado and outright lies
on December 6, 2011
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.