A serious examination of the use of torture in Iraq and Afghanistan, Phillips brings home the full horror of the war crimes inflicted upon the occupied populations.

One of the more disturbing recent stories from the United States was the selection, as a Republican candidate, of an Iraq war veteran aggressively unrepentant over his deliberate killing of two Iraqi civilians. The fact that Ilario Pantano lost the eventual election barely compensates for his status as a war hero, rather than criminal, among a significant section of American opinion. How could such an appalling situation arise? The abuse and torture of prisoners in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan is at the root of all this. Official approval and encouragement of certain practices in relation to prisoners set in motion a series of expectations and a logic which unfolded on its own accord. The facts of all this, the causes and consequences of systematic abuse and torture are all explored by Joshua Phillips through a careful but searing narrative.

Phillips sets the book out as an investigation of the self-inflicted death of one US soldier, and his experience of the war. Within that journalistic wrapping, well written as it is, there is a very serious examination of the use of torture in the two wars. The questions explored include how the systematic abuse began, the extent to which it was authorised and directed from above, or equally emerged from the logic of occupation itself. The impact upon both the soldiers and the victims themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan is well handled. The book might appear at a quick glance to be privileging the sufferings of the torturers over the victims, but Phillips in fact avoids this trap and brings home the full horror of the war crimes inflicted upon the occupied populations.

Having said that, the damage torture does to those who inflict it, is an important story in itself. Indeed a strong case could be made on the basis of Phillips’ book that the experience of the wars has done grave harm to the wider cultural fabric of American society. It is also not hard to find resonances with other aspects of American state behaviour. Nancy Murray, in the recent issue of Race and Class, notes the disturbing practices in which the Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch of the Department of Homeland Security has been engaged since 2003. There have been ‘night-time raids on homes and mass sweeps of workplaces conducted by a dozen or, in the case of some factory raids, hundreds of armed agents’. Moreover ‘there are horror stories about existing ICE detention facilities, which are located in county jails, state prisons, for profit facilities run by contractors such as Haliburton… There are reports of immigration detainees being denied medical care and subjected to sadistic violence’ (Nancy Murray, ‘Profiling in the age of total information awareness’, Race and Class, October-December 2010, pp. 15-16). The chilling resemblance between all this and events in occupied Iraq begs the question of how far experiences in Afghanistan and then Iraq have been imported home.

Phillips shows that the torture story is not simply one of a policy handed down from above, a point which does not at all exonerate or excuse the Bush administration from culpability. The origins of war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq indicate much deeper and wider causes. In one sense torture is simply part of the logic of occupation, as Phillips’ account of the early days of the occupation in Iraq seems to show. Attempting to root out resistance entailed widely cast searches and arrests, violent and abusive by their very nature, so everything else that occurred simply did so by extension on the premise of searching for ‘bad guys’.

If there is a question of how ordinary soldiers could start to abuse and torture their prisoners, one answer seems to lie in the nature of military training. As a soldier told Phillips, ‘in basic training when we screwed up as a whole they’d “smoke us”… They found ways to make you sweat if you screwed up’ (p. 58). A number of the abuses inflicted upon Iraqi prisoners were suggested to the soldiers by what had been done to them in their military training: ‘holding heavy duffle bags upright with their arms wide apart while standing in formation for a half hour; crawling on their bellies on the rough forest floor; and doing endless series of push-ups in various positions in the sweltering heat.’

Another soldier said that it didn’t seem that bad to make detainees hold forced positions and so forth, since it had been done to them in basic training, but ‘deep down inside he knew it really was “that bad” (p. 59)’. The worse forms of torture could arise from these beginnings. What applied to American soldiers in these respects also applied to British soldiers, who we know were involved in their share of war crimes, a fact indicated in passing in this book.

There is also a history here: what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan is hardly new. War crimes in Vietnam were by no means dissimilar from the crimes of the present war. There is even continuity. Startlingly, the infamous image of the hooded and wired Abu Ghraib prisoner, standing on a box with his arms spread, is depicting a well known technique known as ‘the Vietnam’ (p. 160). This is imperialism, and this is what imperialism does to human beings. Anyone still wishing to argue for ‘humanitarian intervention’ needs to read these passages carefully.

However, it is not simply the logic of occupation, or even the inbuilt sadism of the military that created a regime of torture. Phillips shows that there were pre-existing opinions in elite circles of the military, the media and the political world that justified and even celebrated torture. Figures of authority created a pervasive atmosphere in which it could seem possible and even heroic for ordinary soldiers to torture their prisoners, and perhaps commit other war crimes. Phillips shows quite convincingly that film and television, the egregious ‘24’ in particular, had a strong impact upon the attitudes of soldiers in training at West Point, for example, or even those stationed at Guantanamo Bay. Specific orders and plans to direct soldiers to engage in torture were probably unnecessary, and one suspects most of those in charge knew this full well.

Even more than that however was the explicit approval given to what might be called an ideology of torture by figures such as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. It is through a web of authoritative influences, as much as the ‘Torture Memos’ themselves, that the responsibility for the abuse and killings of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan can be found. The soldiers had been convinced by their leaders at home that anything they did to get ‘the bad guys’ was condoned and indeed encouraged. The language of simplistic brutality is not used by ordinary soldiers without the connivance and approval of their superiors.

The multiple lines of causation behind the growth of abuse and torture make it easy for those most responsible to escape from legal censure. It becomes hard to legally prove that a particular government official can be held directly to blame. Phillips also shows how difficult it is even to investigate, let along to prosecute for, individual incidents at a lower level. There are of course the usual threats made against whistleblowers, as well as official indifference to the allegations that are reported. Yet there are also inherent difficulties to these investigations within legal frameworks, in the absence of far more systematic enthusiasm from the US military authorities for the active pursuit of war criminals. It comes down again, Phillips implies, to a culture within the military.

Phillips keeps the appalling suffering of prisoners to the fore in the course of the book, but the reader learns a great deal about American soldiers also. One, who we eventually learn committed suicide in the course of Phillips’ research, had joined Iraq Veterans Against the War. Nonetheless he had left behind a chilling note from his days in Iraq, which shows how ‘normal’ torture was for the soldiers when on deployment. It was only on return to civilian life that the enormity of what they had done began to take its toll upon them. As a soldier friend of Phillips’ informant said: ‘Right there in that tiny jail… I didn’t even know what was going on in there. But they were hurting people, and they lost their humanity when they were doing it. And Johnny lost his humanity and his compassion when he was doing it’ (p. 195).

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).