The Mind of Torture

Larry C. James, Fixing Hell: An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Ghraib (Grand Central Publishing, 2008)

When it comes to torture, the American Psychological Association has multiple personality disorder. A troubling ethical question divides its ranks: What role, if any, can psychologists play in war-on-terror interrogations? Officially, the APA says that the presence of good psychologists is critical in places like Guantanamo Bay. Without the guidance of conscientious shrinks, they say, hot-headed interrogators will keep using brutal methods, and the prisoners themselves, many of them mentally ill or deeply traumatized, will lack the psychological care they need. Dissenting psychologists are dubious. Even with the best intentions, they argue, the very presence of psychologists at interrogations unjustifiably legitimizes the Bush Administration’s worst offenses. Some even accuse their colleagues of secretly teaching torture tricks to the troops.

Col. (Ret.) Larry C. James, Ph.D., presents his new book Fixing Hell as a memoir, but it’s really the latest volley in the ongoing APA battle over torture. After breezing through his New Orleans childhood and early army career, the narrative focuses on the time James spent as chief psychologist at Guantanamo in 2003 and at Abu Ghraib in 2004. Ultimately, the book serves as James’ defense against insinuations in the press and by the Red Cross, that the colonel himself was a torture shrink. James admits that in 2002, the year before his tenure at Guantanamo, a team of CIA psychologists came to Cuba to train soldiers in harsh interrogation methods. But by James’ account, the whole point of his mission at Guantanamo, and then at Abu Ghraib, was to reverse the culture of abuse that resulted.

The deep fog of the war-on-terror makes it nearly impossible to confirm exactly what James did behind closed interrogation-cell doors. James is probably not the master of the dark arts that his critics paint him as, but at the very least he was willing to turn a blind eye to some offenses. Earlier this year, when the Associated Press revealed secret CIA torture facilities at Guantanamo, James pleaded intentional ignorance. “I learned a long, long time ago, if I’m going to be successful in the intel community, I’m meticulously—in a very, very dedicated way—going to stay in my lane,” he said. “So if I don’t have a specific need to know about something, I don’t want to know about it. I don’t ask about it.”

For what it’s worth, in his book, James insists that torture is illegal, wrong, and doesn’t work. He swears by strict adherence to the Geneva Conventions. He advocates an approach to interrogation that emphasizes conversation, incentives, and enticements; in one unorthodox example, he draws out a prisoner at Guantanamo with a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and a McDonald’s fish sandwich (yes, the Guantanamo base has its own McDonald’s).

He writes with sympathy about teenage detainees at Guantanamo who had been kidnapped from their families, raped by warlords, and forced to fight before being arrested and relocated to a baffling island prison. He writes with disgust at the squalid and dangerous conditions at Abu Ghraib for prisoners and soldiers alike. Iraq is a place where leadership is rare by day and absent at night, and American generals live in Saddam’s former palaces, seldom passing through an environment that isn’t air-conditioned.

James never questions the necessity of Guantanamo, but he is quick to condemn the Bush administration’s lack of foresight in Iraq. After learning that the name “Abu Ghraib” is an Iraqi idiom meaning “the house of strange fathers,” he writes, “I came to think this phrase was a powerful metaphor for not only the prison of Abu Ghraib but also the half-assed, poorly planned post-war occupation.” James sees the disaster at Abu Ghraib as a microcosm of the entire war. “Clearly, the leaders at the highest levels never thought that we would be in Iraq for more than three to six months,” he writes, “so there was no need to prepare and establish a proper prison system.” The abuse he describes is chaotic, not systematic—or was it systematic chaos?

Fixing Hell is not a pretty piece of writing, but James (writing with Gregory A. Freeman) does capture the odd and amusing mix of euphemistic formality and frank profanity that characterizes military-speak. More to the point, James makes a compelling case that he was a thoughtful, ethical man in some very nasty places. But the evidence is incomplete. Maybe someday, if the dark archives of the Bush years are finally allowed to see light, we’ll know.

Contributor

Rollo Romig

Rollo Romig reports for The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh and blogs for The New Yorker.

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