It was journalist Joshua E. S. Phillips‘s fascination with the case of Juan Romagoza Arce and with human rights abuses in El Salvador in 1980, that led to his latest book, None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture (Verso, 2010), in which he argues that we’ve all got torture wrong, and yet the worst arguments are winning.
Phillips had just returned from the Middle East reporting for an upcoming segment on Battalion 1-68, a tanking unit with the U.S. Army’s Fourth Infantry Division whose members found themselves involved in detaining and sometimes abusing Iraqis in their custody, for “All Things Considered.” During a four-hour phone conversation, he explained how he gained the trust of Pentagon interrogators and military families, what he might have in common with Truman Capote and what it feels like to spend so much time thinking about war and trauma. Follows is an excerpt from an interview that originally appeared on Guernica Magazine.
Joshua Phillips: One thing this book has done is give me an even
greater respect for the U.S. military. But while we have these admirable institutional concepts and beliefs against torture, you have very powerful influential leaders saying we did it and it worked!
Guernica: You describe these “cultural beliefs”— giving military personnel on the ground the latitude to do what they think they have to do.
Joshua Phillips: For units not doing torture, there has developed kind of a torture envy. In the Army you hear Special Forces are doing it and getting great results, you want to be just as effective. Or you hear we have these rules against it, but the CIA’s doing worse. The military police unit in Bagram
or Abu Ghraib, where the CIA was, they’re thinking—we want to be as effective as those guys.
Guernica: Talk about how and when you decided that the heart of the story was the damage done to the soldiers of Battalion 1-68.
Joshua Phillips: At the time, I really thought it was all about those famous memos. But I was also struck by the situation of whistleblowers like Private Joseph Darby, who blew the whistle on Abu Ghraib and was called out by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld by name. His house was vandalized! I wanted to
know if there were guys in these units who’d been shut down, how that contributed to abuses being concealed.
Then Jonathan Millantz contacted me. He said that this kind of abuse had happened in his unit, and efforts to report it were squelched. Then he said: “It’s really important that you get this story right. This stuff—it really damaged us, and upset soldiers in my unit. Like this guy Adam Gray, who came home and killed himself.” He also mentioned Gray’s mother, Cindy Chavez—who knew her son as a gung-ho soldier, who came back
deeply traumatized by what he had to do, building a makeshift jail, abusing and torturing detainees. And coming home not really able to discuss that with other people.
… it was really after Millantz’s death that I realized that was the story that should thread through the whole book. It took me many years, but I got a number of them to open up to me, to describe what had happened.
Frankly, I ended up sympathizing with them—not with these guys’ actions, but with them. I could relate to these kids: they were like the guys on my fire crew, from backwater towns. I thought of those guys tasked with a kind of warfare they never expected to fight, were never trained in, and making a lot of it up along the way. And it really undid them.
Guernica: And their families.
Joshua Phillips: After I located Adam Gray’s family, the first person I talked to was Cindy Chavez’s husband. He was very fair with me: “She has been through a lot, I want you to be very careful with her.” But she was very open with me. He told me that she had been trying for years to understand what had
happened, how her gung-ho soldier had become a shell.
We learned that Adam had experiences in Iraq that involved building a makeshift jail for detainees, and treating them badly. We also learned that he had attempted suicide a few weeks before his death, and simply been given more medication.
In the case of Jonathan Millantz’s mother, it was much more complicated than that, because he was a combat medic. As I got to know Jonathan, it became clear to me that he was born to be a medic and should never have been in the military. He had had this incredible duality of being charged with taking care of people, but meanwhile doing things that caused them pain.
His mom saw that what I was digging up was important. They needed someone to know what he had gone through, that her son had been implacably damaged by what he had been through in Iraq. But like the other families, I interfered with that image of their sons as good soldiers. It’s both true and hard to say, that your boy served with honor and that he was involved in this.
His death almost killed me. I’d known this guy for three years. He’d entrusted me with what he’d been going
through, and told me that I was the only person who would speak to him. I tried in every conversation to get him to seek the right kind of help.
Guernica: A little like Truman Capote maybe?
Joshua Phillips: In the scene when he’s at the bar with Harper Lee, telling her This book is killing me! I felt with every bone in my body what he was going through.
So when another vet from Battalion 1-68 was on the cusp of committing suicide, I became a suicide hotline, was trying to console him and also pushed a call for help all the way to VA Secretary Shinseki’s office. Got his discharge upgraded and got him into care. Veterans for Common Sense was a great help to me in that.
Guernica: Those interviews also gave your analysis of the big picture its most singular insight: that these abuses were about as far as can be imagined from a well-planned, if diabolical military operation.
Joshua Phillips: Contemporary journalism on the left has this standard torture story now, connecting the dots between the Bush administration, those CIA memos from Jay Bybee and John Yoo, politics, the history of torture in the Vietnam war. For a long time I bought it. I thought it was the chain of memos,
the indifference/complicity of the administration. All of which was there, but it was far from the whole story.
What changed was when I heard actual soldiers in their own voices—about what caused them to become involved in torture. Sometimes it was to get intelligence. Sometimes for punishment. And
yes, it was enabled by undoing Geneva protection for detainees. But sometimes
it wasn’t. Sometimes it was for very banal reasons. Like because they were
Or when you ask how they learned how, it’s usually not some Special Forces SERE training. They developed these techniques from what they went through in their own basic training, like sleep deprivation. Or those peroneal strikes: a number of these guys had been cops and corrections officers, and they had learned that. You see it in trial testimony.
The famous case of that guy who was suffocated in the sleeping bag? Many said, “Oh it’s a classic CIA technique,” and when he was on the stand the guy said he learned it from the military SERE training. But in the soldier’s first deposition, he said he learned it from what his brother did to him.
Guernica: What kind of reception has the book gotten so far?
Joshua Phillips: It’s not gotten a lot of attention in the States yet. Perhaps that’ll change after I do this segment for NPR about Jonathan Millantz’s death. But we thought we’d have a big rollout for “What Killed Sergeant Gray” and that never happened. I think in Europe, there was a lot of
interest in the story for clues to America and its forces, because they too had forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The issue of torture, connected to American soldiers, is not somewhere most people want to linger. A friend of mine says of those of us who spend a lot of time on this stuff: “We’re from the House of Slytherin.”
We may not want to confront this issue so much in the U.S. because of how we want to think about our veterans. There’s the sense that we want to think of our veterans as—if they’re damaged, damaged by something—glamorous, like a firefight.
Guernica: The picture you draw is also not simple.
Joshua Phillips: I just saw a conversation between Tom Wolfe and Pete Hamill. I loved hearing Hamill talk about immigrant populations. Hamill remembered being a cub reporter and talking to an editor about some tip he had, and the editor says, “If there is a story that you want to be true, it probably isn’t.”