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The Iraq war isn’t over.
For tens of thousands of soldiers returning from the battlefield, it never will be.
Some of these men and women will turn to alcohol and drugs to ease their mental injuries; some will end up homeless, unemployed and divorced. Some will commit suicide. Most will be forgotten.
That will be one of the lasting legacies of the nearly nine-year-long conflict.
Fortunately, there are investigative journalists like Joshua Phillips who have taken great pains to preserve the memories of veterans whose lives have been ravaged—and cut short—by the wars.
Phillips is the author of “None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture,” a harrowing book about the systematic torture of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan and the deep psychological scars it left on some members of a tank battalion who tormented their captives.
Adam Gray was one of the soldiers traumatized by his role in detainee abuse and torture during his deployment in Iraq in 2003. On August 29, 2004, the 24-year-old Army sergeant was found dead in his barracks room in Alaska, the victim of a suicide.
Phillips was determined to find out why Gray killed himself. He spent five years researching and writing his book. What he uncovered during the course of his investigation was a tragic and heart-rending story about the other victims of torture: US soldiers. Click here to watch a wide-ranging on-camera interview I conducted with Phillips last year.
“They’re very distressed by the legacy of torture,” Phillips told me about the soldiers and their families he’s interviewed for his book. “These people are among its victims. The detainees are as well. No one speaks of them and their condition. They’re destroyed human beings. Some of them actually perished. Some of them were actually killed as a byproduct of official government policy. But so to were brave America soldiers who enlisted precisely because they wanted to uphold and defend the Constitution and they came back completely destroyed human beings as a result of getting involved in things that were opposite of what the Constitution is about … It’s very painful for many [of the soldiers and their families] to hear defenders of torture arguing that it was necessary, it was productive, it saved lives when they know that it claimed lives, it claimed the lives of their children or their friends.”
So why did “ordinary soldiers” like Gray—“a tanker, not an interrogator”—turn to torture?
“Understanding how and why US forces have engaged in detainee abuse and torture is a difficult and uncomfortable inquiry,” Phillips writes in the introduction of “None of Us Were Like This Before.” “It forces us to examine who we are as a nation and what has compelled us to choose such a path.”
For Daniel Keller, one of the Army soldiers attached to Battalion 1-68, the unit at the center of Phillips’ book, boredom was the catalyst be.
“Several soldiers from Battalion 1-68 said they were numbed, almost dulled by their monotonous wartime routines,” Phillips wrote.
“Shifting to more mundane work, such as patrolling and detaining prisoners, could make a solider ‘bored … so eventually you start to lose those feelings,’” said Keller. “’And the only thing that really does excite you is when you get to … torture somebody.’”
Keller goes on to casually describe how he “once left a [prisoner] zip-tied to a cell door for two and a half days, suspended by his own weight.” He reveals how a non-commissioned officer disclosed details about “what they did to get information out of detainees in Vietnam,” which involved a form of torture similar to the controlled drowning technique known as waterboarding.
“Then I went ahead and tried it,” Keller said of the water torture. “This difference was that I didn’t want information, I just wanted to hurt [a prisoner].”
Finally, Keller told Phillips how he and his fellow soldiers led prisoners to believe they were about to be executed because “we thought it was fun as hell.”
Phillips still manages to make him appear sympathetic by placing him in a position in which he genuinely wonders, with a sense of remorse, what possessed him to perform such monstrous acts. It was one Keller’s remorseful comments that formed the basis for the title of Phillips’ book.
There are many other reasons US soldiers engaged in the abuse and torture of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, but, Phillips told me, “There is no one size fits all explanation.”
“I think, frankly, one of the main seeds for becoming involved in abuse and torture is a sense of permissiveness,” Phillips said. “This is not an abstract concept. This really generated during the war on terror, specifically through removing the Common Article III Geneva protections for prisoners of war. That sent a signal. Every military source I’ve spoken to up and down the ladder from young [privates] to military intelligence to generals and beyond all agree that lessening the protections of Geneva sent a signal that [abuse and torture] was permissive behavior.”
Yet, there were soldiers, like Tony Lagouranis, an interrogator who participated in the torture of prisoners, but, as Phillips noted, “toward the end of his tour [in Iraq] he said he had become unhappy with what he was doing; he began to sympathize with the prisoners who had been hurt and resented the officers who encouraged or ordered harsh interrogations.”
Lagouranis decided to file reports with Army criminal investigators documenting the crime of torture. But those reports were never found and the incidents never investigated.
The military claims it probed more than 800 other cases of detainee abuse and torture.
Jonathan Millantz, a medic attached to Battalion 1-68, was another solider who participated in the abuse and torture of prisoners and later attempted to report it to his superiors.
“There’s plenty of stuff out there that hasn’t been put on the media that would make Abu Ghraib look like Disneyland …” Millantz told Phillips, adding that he was told “if I made this stuff public, I would bring everyone down with me.”
It was Millantz who reached out to Phillips in 2006 and first told him about Sgt. Adam Gray’s story and the “difficulties he faced trying to report the abuse,” Phillips told me.
Millantz, who became involved in the antiwar movement when he returned home, was deeply distressed about his participation in the torture and abuse of prisoners in Iraq. He told Phillips he went to “confession,” “to counseling” but “I still can’t forgive myself for what I did to those poor people.”
Millantz got hooked on painkillers. That helped numb his pain. On April 3, 2009 he died from an overdose. He was 27 years old.
Millantz’s obituary said he “saved many people’s lives during his service to his country and enjoyed helping others.”