The United States' great shame


WAR: TOM CLONANreviews The Untold WarBy Nancy Sherman, Norton and Co, 338pp. £21 and None of Us Were Like This BeforeBy Joshua ES Phillips, Verso, 256pp. £16.99

AS THE United States draws down its forces in Iraq and prosecutes a renewed military surge in Afghanistan, its troops have been in continuous combat for almost a decade. In keeping with literary tradition, US soldiers have been publishing memoirs and first-hand accounts of their country’s so-called global war on terror. A recurring motif in these accounts has portrayed the combat soldier as an idealistic “noble warrior” whose moral courage is constantly tested by the vagaries of asymmetrical warfare.

As the global war on terror enters its 10th year, however, two books give particular cause for reflection on the precise nature of this conflict. In both cases the authors eschew the immediacy found in stylised – almost pornographic – descriptions of combat. Instead they have researched and written more reflective works that seek to explore the complex moral and ethical issues that confront America’s front line troops. Despite their distance from the front line, both books are shocking in terms of the domain assumptions and conclusions they draw from America’s conduct of war in the 21st century.

The first book, The Untold War, is written by Nancy Sherman, professor of ethics at Georgetown University. The book draws on the works of philosophers such as Aristotle, Seneca, Shakespeare, Kant and Aquinas in order to submit such issues as the global war on terror – as a just war – along with the interrogation and torture of detainees and the killing of combatants and civilians alike to rigorous ethical audit.

Sherman’s arguments arrive at uncomfortable conclusions. On the subject of a just war Sherman probes the dubious rationale for the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in particular. Sherman’s treatment of the classics demonstrates clearly that moral philosophy does not permit soldiers to subordinate their personal morality to “orders from above”. Consciously or unconsciously, Sherman dismantles the notion that US soldiers ought merely to “follow orders” when confronted by doubts about their mission in Iraq – where no weapons of mass destruction were ever found – or, by extension, Afghanistan, where ISAF troops prop up the corrupt government of Hamid Karzai.

In part two of the book Sherman explores the ethical implications of the torture and abuse of detainees by US troops. In one instance she cites a US army interrogator who was ordered to sign a declaration: “I do not have or will not allow any religious views or any ethical or moral views of mine to interfere with my completion of the mission.” There is an in-depth consideration of the moral and ethical issues posed by such declarations and the practice of torture. However, what is most significant about this part of Sherman’s book is that it becomes clear that routine cruelty, prisoner abuse and torture are de-facto realities for Iraqi or Afghan civilians detained by US forces. The military personnel she interviews for the book conclude that the fear and hate engendered by the 9/11 attacks – along with the hate rhetoric of the Bush administration, involving such terms as “axis of evil” – have dehumanised Muslim men in the eyes of many US troops.

JOSHUA PHILLIP’S book, None of Us Were Like This Before, confirms this apparent institutionalisation of cruelty and torture. The book explodes the myth of US troops as “noble warriors” on the battlefield. Phillips, a New York-based journalist, spent three years investigating the deaths and apparent suicides of a number of soldiers from Battalion 1-68 of the US 4th Infantry Division – one of the first army units to invade Iraq. In interviews with soldiers from this unit, Phillips became aware that US troops routinely interned tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians in rudimentary holding centres at remote forward operating bases (FOBs) during constant cordon and sweep operations.

Despite the fact that official US figures show that between 75 and 90 per cent of those interned and detained were perfectly innocent, up to 98 per cent of those arrested were forwarded for interrogation to infamous prisons, such as Abu Ghraib, in Iraq, and Bagram Airbase, in Afghanistan. While the world’s media concentrated on the small number – less than 1,000 – of detainees held by the CIA in Guantánamo Bay and other “black sites”, or secret prisons, the plight of many thousands of innocent Iraqi and Afghan civilians held in remote US military detention sites in Iraq and Afghanistan were ignored or overlooked. Phillip’s book documents the cruel treatment and torture of thousands upon thousands of Iraqi and Afghan men and boys at the hands of enlisted US troops in these FOBs – abuse that included anal rape by rifle barrels and other blunt instruments, mock executions, electric shock, simulated drowning and savage beatings, along with sleep and sensory deprivation. In exploring the circumstances of this systematic and systemic cruelty and sadism, Phillips concludes that most of the abuse was borne out of fear – with hatred and a desire for revenge being mobilised in some units as a motivation for combat. In some cases the torture appears to have been borne out of boredom or frustration at insurgent attacks, and shockingly, in many cases, simply recreational.

Nothing of any intelligence value was gained from the culture of torture that Phillips describes. Indeed, Admiral Alberto Mora, the US navy’s senior legal counsel, reported to the US Senate defence committee hearings of June 2008 that the widespread “torture and cruelty” by US troops in the field was “contrary to US interests”.

Phillips concludes that the torturers themselves suffered PTSD as a result of the abuse they inflicted on their innocent victims – and that this may have been a causal factor in their suicides. It is difficult for the reader to have sympathy for these enlisted soldiers – one described by his own mother as a “thug” – in light of the unspeakable suffering they inflicted on civilians in the field. As one such soldier wrote: “What up Dawg – We tortured the shit out of some prisoners . . . burned them with cigarettes and . . . mind f**ked them.”

Both books are a shameful indictment of the US way of war.

Tom Clonan is Security Analyst for The Irish Times. He is a retired Army captain with experience in the Middle East and former Yugoslavia. He lectures in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology