More than a few “bad apples”: American soldiers, the legacy of torture, and the trauma behind it

[Editor’s Note:  In today’s post, we introduce a new feature to our blog. Periodically we intend to offer a brief review of a contemporary book that sheds light on issues such as war, torture, terrorism and their aftermaths, as well as on peace, reconciliation, and apology and forgiveness. We also invite our readers to submit commentaries on books they have found helpful.]

Review of None of us were like this before: American soldiers and torture By Joshua E.S. Phillips

Reviewed by Charikleia TsatsaroniNone of us were like this before

In this thought-provoking and revealing book, Joshua Phillips asks why U.S. forces and officials believed that torture was effective, permissible, and necessary, and what were the factors that led them to engage in such practices.

He begins his quest with the death of Sergeant Adam Gray, who made it home from Iraq and died in his barracks. Phillips then guides us through his interviews with ordinary American soldiers, their families and friends, victims of torture, military, governmental, and intelligence officials, human rights lawyers, and activists, to name a few.

These interviews provide many examples of Albert Bandura’s socio-cognitive mechanisms of moral disengagement (e.g., advantageous comparison, euphemistic labeling) as the expanding set of individuals connected with the use of torture try to make sense of what happened.

Phillips’ narratives lead inevitably to the idea that Americans who engaged in torture were not just a “few bad apples” (p. ix) and that the factors leading to torture did not lie only within individuals but also and most importantly within the societal context and its interwoven systems.

His book also strongly reinforces the importance of greater attention to the trauma inflicted on soldiers by their involvement in torture and abuse; it is apparent that most of his interviewees deal daily with personal demons.

Overall, I would recommend this very readable book for its eye-opening narrative and its ability to keep you involved until its painful ending, which highlights the fact that wars have victims on both sides.

Even physically untouched “victors” can bear wounds forever because of what they did in the context of war.

Charikleia Tsatsaroni, MSc., EdM., from Greece, is the former head of the Department of Human Resource Training and Development of the Greek Organization Against Drugs (OKANA), and is a member of GIPGAP.

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10 Responses to More than a few “bad apples”: American soldiers, the legacy of torture, and the trauma behind it

  1. Nicole Gause says:

    I think that the author’s notion that American’s who have engaged in torture are not just a “few bad apples” is a very interesting point to make. I agree with him, and in my opinion it is not that people are born “morally disengaged” (though this may very well be the case with some), but rather it is the situations or conditions of society that elicit this behavior in some. During a time of war, for example, many feel that their livlihood is being threatened and as a result of this they will do essentially anything to protect what they view as “rightfully theirs” or whatever it may be that they value enough to fight for it. Many times when individuals are defending something that is important to them (freedom, democracy, etc.) they will do whatever is necessary in order to protect themselves and their country. That being said, when this percieved obligation to defend something leads someone to do terrible things such as torture, I think it may not necessarily imply that that person is a bad person but that they are doing what they think is for the greater good. This could create a cognitive dissonance in which the person does not view themselves as cruel, or sadistic, yet is engaging in violent acts. To help reduce this cognitive stress, people become morally disengaged, in a way to lessen the guilt they may feel while doing questionable things for an “honorable cause,” undoubtedly perpetuating this type of violent, barbaric action.

  2. chari tsatsaroni says:

    Dear Nicole thank you so much for your thoughtful comment!
    I agree that such sensitive issues seem to be more complex than they appear and I feel the need to approach them with eyes and ears wide open, so I can actively listen. It is not always easy concerning such actions, but we ought it to our humanity.
    Once again thank you!

  3. lauren says:

    This sounds like an important book, and reminds me of some of the work Philip Zimbardo has done in pointing out the role of situational factors in facilitating disengagement (his book “The Lucifer Effect” explores this in the context of military personnel at Abu Grahib among other topics. Here is a link of him discussing his work It sounds like he would agree with Mr. Phillips that “a few bad apples” fails to accurately capture the complex of forces at work on the individual.
    Thanks for the review.

    • chari tsatsaroni says:

      Dear Lauren thank you so much for your response and your reference!
      Actually, Mr. Phillips refers to Philip Zimbardo’s work.
      Many thanks!

  4. Tina says:

    If boot camp is anything like in the movies, it seems that harsh and cruel agression is the first thing the recruits encounter. For some this is the first time they are away from home and the exercises are meant to toughen them up and turn them into compliant robots obedient unto death. Under these circumstances, I am not sure young people are capable of exercising their moral agency.

    Bendura’s “bobo doll” experiment shows that aggression is learned, and the Zinbardo jail experimentation demonstrates that perfectly healthy people can become perpetrators given the right conditions.
    Similarly to Bendura and Zambardo, Phillips is saying that Americans who have engaged in torture are not just a “few bad apples” but under the “right” condition, they could have been any one of us. Phillips also argues that these Americans are people who have been influenced to commit crimes by societal contexts and systems and now must deal with the aftermath of their crimes. I am not sure what that means.

    The My Lai Massacre is one example which illustrates how American soldiers, made to follow their superior’s orders, on a “search and destroy” mission, killed 300 people including women and children who were not armed. Videos on You Tube show interviews done with some of the perpetrators of the My Lai Massacre who are also suffering with the consequences of their actions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

    Knowing that violence can be learned even in childhood, and that under certain conditions almost anybody can commit acts of horror, helps me to feel compassion and want to do something to reach those who are at risk for committing aggression and those who already have.

    • chari tsatsaroni says:

      Dear Tina thank you so much for your thoughtful response and your references! It would be wonderful if we could do something to prevent such horrific acts that have devastating consequences on both sides rather than try to treat the wounds.
      Many thanks!

  5. Lauren Moss-Racusin says:

    I think that the point at the end of this post about how even the supposed victors of a violent conflict suffer negative consequences is a good one. It reminds me of a tour I took of the UN in Geneva. In one of the rooms, there is an expansive ceiling mural, and one section depicts both victors and losers of a conflict. The artist shows weeping individuals and coffins on both sides, with the message that there is never a purely straightforward conquest, and no real winners of a war: everyone suffers in some way, whether they are consciously aware of it or not.

  6. chari tsatsaroni says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience! It is indeed very relevant to the book’s messages.
    All the best,

  7. Toronto reader says:

    I’ve heard about this book, but it’s hard to find in Canada. A friend told me that it actually seemed especially illuminating in the way it reveals how and why American forces became engaged in torture and abuse in the first place. From what I understand, it exposes many forces and elements that, as you say, led soldiers and officials believe “that torture was effective, permissible, and necessary.” I’m curious what you found the most revealing and how Phillips’s reporting differs from some of the other books on the subject. Thank you… I hope I can find a copy here in Canada!

  8. Charles says:

    Super review. Fascinating subject. I wish I had read about this book long ago, and am hungry to know more about it. Has there been any more follow up work / research on the topic? Remarkable story.

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