None of Us Were Like This Before, By Joshua E S Phillips

Casualties of war still under fire

If Hollywood movies have taught us one thing, it is that American soldiers are the good guys, and it is all too easy to believe Barrack Obama's words – "we don't torture" – when assessing the prisoner-abuse scandals. But whatever you call torture, Joshua Phillips shows that Americans do do it, in ways more worrying than I could have imagined.

This book follows a group of tank soldiers sent to Iraq to fight but re-assigned to guard duties after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's armies. As they revealed in astonishingly candid interviews with Phillips, they were bored witless and frustrated not to be doing any actual fighting. Encouraged by nods and winks all the way up to the White House, they tormented their detainees, sometimes to force them to talk, but often just for the fun of it.

"The only thing that really does excite you is when you get to... torture somebody," one soldier told Phillips. His and other testimony explodes the myth that Abu Ghraib was an isolated case. "There's plenty of stuff out there... that would make Abu Ghraib look like Disneyland," said a medic from the team whose job was to check prisoners were still alive after mock-executions, waterboarding and beatings.

Phillips questions the willingness of the authorities to investigate abuse cases. Whistleblowers have been exposed, their allegations ignored, and one even publicly identified by then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on television. Back home, they were ostracised in a society that refused to believe Americans could do wrong.

That conflict between Americans' self-image, and the soldiers' own knowledge, tore them apart. On returning home, Phillips's interviewees drank, took drugs and fought in bars to try to forget the horrors they had inflicted. The army medic quoted above killed himself just a week after his last conversation with Phillips.

This is an important book showing the damage abuse does to the torturers as well as to their victims. It explodes the myth that American soldiers necessarily behave better than those of other nations. Phillips's message is that we most need the rules banning torture when we most want to break them.

Oliver Bullough is the author of 'Let Our Fame Be Great'

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