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None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture Hardcover – June 14, 2010
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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"Joshua Phillips brings much needed close reporting to the question of American torture. He reveals much about ... the psychological toll on those who torture, and is an important contribution to American reckoning with a dark moment in our history." (Robert Jay Lifton, author of Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir )
About the Author
Joshua E. S. Phillips is based in New York City and has reported from Asia and the Middle East. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Newsweek, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Atlanta Journal–Constitution, among other publications. His radio features have been broadcast on NPR and the BBC. In 2009, Phillips received the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and the Newspaper Guild’s Heywood Broun Award of Substantial Distinction for his American Radio Works documentary What Killed Sergeant Gray.
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This book doesn't shy away from the brutality of American torture and the author's accounts from victims of torture is searing. It's impossible to not to be angry at the injustices suffered. But this book is not a "hit piece" on the military or soldiers and the author has a surprising amount of empathy for the sufferings of both the victim and victimizer. It alternately made me very sad and very mad for all the persons affected by it.
Understanding the situation that some of our soldiers found themselves in and what some of them did to detainees and what they went through after really forced me to give sympathy to persons I had previously thought of only as "bad apples" guilty of monstrous crimes. The truth is much more complicated.
Other parts of the book give overviews on the subject matter, the history or detainee abuse, the decision-making of the higher ups and so on. Much of the book is written in the first person which helps give a lighter touch to a very heavy subject matter.
I learned a lot from this book and highly recommend it. You'll think about it not only around the issue of torture but generally on any story about soldiers returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder.
--Sergeant Adam Gray (quoted on p. 52)
I really wanted to love this book. It's gotten such good reviews and it's such an important topic. But unfortunately, it didn't live up to my hopes. Yet still, it should be required reading.
Joshua E.S. Phillips begins his work with the story of Sgt. Adam Gray, a young man who was deployed in Iraq as a tanker, returned home suffering from unknown but obvious mental afflictions and ends up dying an "accidental" death (arguably, a suicide) during further training at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Adam's mother, Cindy Chavez, asks Phillips to investigate "what happened to" her son while in Iraq. In the course of his investigation, Phillips interviews many soldiers, their families, military officials, human rights workers, and former detainees to get at some of the roots and branches of the broad issue of "enhanced interrogation"/detainee abuse/torture (for ease, and because I think it speaks to a greater truth, I will lump all of those categories into "torture").
First, the positive. Phillips is a consummate reporter. He goes where the story takes him. He seeks out many different relevant sources. He listens to what they have to say, and he allows them to speak for themselves in all their grim and gory detail. He doesn't shy away hard topics, nor does he feel the need to wrap everything up into a tidy box for us (although, admittedly, the tidy box part of myself found this frustrating). The people he interviewed were real people, often simultaneously sympathetic and detestable, much like ourselves.
I also like that Phillips tells us when and why he was unable to get a full story. The fact that many former detainees refuse to talk to reporters, and that many individuals and organizations which work with former detainees refuse to facilitate such meetings, and the reasons why, tells us an important story - the detainees' story as well as the story of war in general - in itself.
But the book isn't perfect. First, it lacks focus. At various times, Phillips seems to be trying to address various overarching questions: "How did we get here?", "What are the effects of torture on the former detainees who were tortured?" and "What are the effects of torture on those soldiers who did the torturing?" While all of those are important, relevant and related topics, they are far too broad to all be addressed in one 200 page book. Because Phillips seems to jump from one focus to another, the book felt a bit choppy and unfocused. As such, I felt it lost a bit of the edge it could have had.
My other big concern about the book is that it doesn't appear that Phillips worked in conjunction with a therapist or other mental health expert well versed in issues of trauma, especially war related trauma. Both talking about and listening to experiences of inflicting or receiving abuse and torture is itself traumatizing. In approaching a project like this, it is crucial to think about how that trauma is going to affect both the reporter and the interview subjects, but it doesn't appear that Phillips adequately prepared for this. While I can't know whether or not his work has traumatized him, there is evidence that it might have further traumatized at least one of his subjects. I read the account of Jonathan Millantz with a growing sense of dread like a rock in my stomach, knowing where it was headed. While Millantz was legally an adult and willingly shared his experiences, I can't help feeling that Phillips' inexperience with the effects of trauma made him unable to see the effects of re-opening these wounds was having on Millantz, or knowing quite what to do about it. The involvement of an experienced trauma expert might, repeat, might, have saved Millantz's life.
If this were any other book, I'd probably give it three stars (three and a half if Amazon would let me), but I feel that the topic of this book is so important that I'm giving it four stars. It blows apart the common notion that the torture was short-lived and that it was all ordered from the top-down and/or that it was only done by a "few bad apples". That sort of mischaracterization allows us to - erroneously - put those episodes into a discrete box as if it were all just a fluke. But the reality is much darker than that. War, by definition, is legalized killing. When you send young men and women into war with license to kill and without strict oversight to keep such killing within the narrow confines of the battlefield (especially in modern conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan where the battlefield is pretty much limitless), then human nature is going to take over and atrocities will happen. This book shows, in blunt and brutal terms, exactly what the cost is for what the men and women we send to do such dirty work, as well as the cost to our enemies, our allies, our image, our country, and our own humanity.
Sadly, a lot of what they did was echoes of their own training, taken to the nth degree.
Want to know why so many people don't trust the US...read this. Our participation in torture changed the attitude of many former allies.
I strongly recommend that people understand some of the hidden costs and the prices we ask our soldiers to pay for our military decisions and strategies.
The author is not anti-military, just trying to find out why suicides and post traumatic stress syndrome was happening after the war in Iraq.
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