Anne Stinson - November 2008

Fixing Hell


Anne Stinson

Fixing Hell, An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Graib.
By Col. (Ret.) Larry C. James, Ph.D. with Gregory A. Freeman. Grand Central Publishing. 267 pages, plus an addendum, Sequence of Events Regarding Military Prisons in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Abu Graib, Iraq, and Index. $24.99.

   Hell is the operative word in the title of this wrenching, shocking account of conditions at military prisons in Guantanamo Bay - dubbed “Gitmo” in soldier-speak - and at Abu Graib, both notorious for their out-of-control interrogations of suspected terrorists.
    The abuses at both hellish facilities are obviously still not “fixed.” Subsequent news stories have revealed our military’s nose-thumbing at rules of decency by “renditioning” prisoners to brutal allies whose prison methods are blatant torture.
    Given the ghastly assignment Col. James confronted, it’s no wonder that his assignments left him with a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome when it was over.
    His initial reaction at both prison sites was identical - stench, filth, inhuman facilities unfit for military personnel as well as suspected enemy combatants. As both a psychologist with a doctoral degree and a culture of obedience ingrained by his service in both the Navy and the Army, he was torn by the expectations of his medical oath to “do no harm” and the conflict with the demands of extracting information from fanatical Islamic fighters.
    He was strongly influenced by a classic exercise by a close friend, also a psychologist, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who taught at Stanford University. In 1971, Dr. Zimbardo conducted a “prison” experiment to test behavioral patterns between guards and inmates and how each group reacted to their situations. He recruited, selected and paid normal, healthy students for a planned two-week exercise in which half would be randomly assigned roles as prisoners or as guards. It was a disaster.
    The test was terminated after only six days “because it was running out of control. My efforts to identify the factors that can lead to prison abuse worked all too well, as my subjects and I all succumbed to circumstances that encouraged degeneracy. The experiment has been studied extensively ever since, considered to be a key to understanding how circumstances can drive normal people to acts of evil,” Dr. Zimbardo writes in his foreword to Col. James’s book.
    One factor stood out conspicuously in both the college experiment and the abusive acts at Gitmo and Abu Graib: The degradation and humiliation of prisoners, both faux and real, were mostly performed at night, when supervision was at its lowest ebb.
    After a Navy hitch, Dr. James decided not to reenlist, but stayed on in the Naval Reserve. He was encouraged to join the Army when he was recruited to fill a spot as a psychologist if he was willing to move to Hawaii. After 10 years in that post, he was moved to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. By that time he had established himself as a leading military psychologist and an expert on the psychology of prisoners.
    By 2003 the United States was engaged in war with both Iraq and Afghanistan. Prisoners were arriving at Gitmo and the situation there was chaotic. In January, Dr. James was ordered to Cuba to improve the situation for guards and prisoners. That was the first Hell he was sent to fix.
    The young medical officer he replaced was clearly traumatized by the conditions he had confronted. In the dual role of being a soldier and a healer, he witnessed harsh and inhumane interrogation tactics - sexual humiliation, stress positions, detainees being stripped naked and the use of K-9 dogs to terrorize them. He had no command authority, no legal right to tell anyone what to do or not do.
    Within the month, Dr. James was put in charge of three juvenile enemy combatants soon to arrive from Afghanistan. He insisted that they be housed separately from the adult prisoner population and that they were to be interrogated by different rules.
   “They were indeed terrorists, according to the intel we had on them,” Dr. James writes. “Their age didn’t make them any less so.” Two of the three boys had been brutally raped and were clinically depressed and suffered from severe PTSD.
    The command provided two male interpreters who spoke the language of the village the boys came from. Dr. James first wanted to learn the how and why of their recruitment into the Taliban forces. The youngest of the three, about 12 years old, had been kidnapped by a Taliban warlord and forced into sex slavery. The 14-year-old had also been kidnapped at gunpoint as his family watched helplessly. He was installed as a houseboy in the gang lord’s house and raped all night. The third boy was illiterate and was unharmed physically.
    Dr. James inquired about the issue of homosexuality in Afghanistan, since it didn’t jibe with what he knew about Muslim culture. One of the boys explained that his rape was simply “a rite of passage.” He reasoned that older men had a physical need. If there was no woman in camp, he was there to meet that need.
    Although much of Dr. James’s time was devoted to gentle work with the boys and their “interviews,” as Dr. James called them, rather than “interrogations” with the fragile youths, he also devoted hours to teaching guards in the general prison population to use more productive methods to gain intelligence from the adult detainees.
    It became clear that if he were to encounter the abuses that had been routine, he wouldn’t see them during daylight hours. “I needed to walk the grounds and see what went on in interrogation booths in the late night when supervisors weren’t around,” he writes. His account of interrupting a session that involved a hardcore prisoner, a tough-as-nails guard, a pink nightgown and a fish sandwich is as gripping a scene as any in the book. Dr. James was making a case for decency and humanity in the interrogation booths.
   “I had a hundred scenarios we could try,” he writes. “No matter which strategy we employed, the goal was always the same: get the prisoner to talk. Anything. Once the prisoner said ‘Okay’ or ‘Thank you’ or ‘Praise Allah’ I knew we had him. From there it was only a matter of time before he told us something useful.”
    Not all was light and progress, of course. Dr. James’s midnight strolls revealed the implacable hatred many of the prisoners had for all non-Muslims. As young American guards patrolled the cell blocks, they were often bombarded with cups of urine and feces hurled through the meal slits in the cells. Dr. James was awed by the composure of the young men and women who kept their cool and didn’t retaliate. He also ordered plexiglass shields installed to intercept the barrage of filth.
    He left Gitmo with a feeling of confidence that his tour had brought better conditions for intelligence gathering and certainly a more receptive climate of decency and humanity.
    As cynics like to say, no good deed goes unpunished.
    Back in Washington for a year, Dr. James and his wife looked forward to his next assignment in Hawaii. He was nearing retirement, their son and granddaughter lived in Hawaii and the future looked serene. They shipped their furniture, planning to buy a house on the island and live happily ever after.
    He was awakened from a Sunday nap by a breaking story on CNN. Pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib flashed on the screen. He was horrified. How could this have happened after the changes he had made at Gitmo? Well, thank God, it wasn’t his problem this time. He already had orders and plane tickets to Hawaii.
    Whoever said lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice got it wrong. Dr. James reached Hawaii on a Sunday. On Monday morning he was told he had to go to Iraq. Another Hell needed fixing.
    By one of those coincidences that only happen in B-movies, Dr Zimbardo, the author of the infamous student experiment at Stanford more than 30 years ago, was in Hawaii for a psychology conference and called Dr. James. In the few days before Dr.    James’s departure to Iraq, he spent hours with Dr. Zimbardo, analyzing the faults that allowed the pretend prison experiment to become ugly so quickly. When the two men parted, Dr. Zimbardo sent him a video of the actual student project with its shocking precursors of abuses at Abu Ghraib.
    Dr. James studied the video again and again, looking for clues that fostered torture. On the long flight to Iraq, he drafted his conclusions for correcting the culture that turned American guards into taunting tormenters.
    He listed four common lacks in Stanford and Iraq - no detached observer, no clear definition of what behaviors were permitted, no medical monitor, and no tiers of supervision.
    His list of five goals ended with the imperative, teaching these young men and women how to interview rather than interrogate and torture prisoners. He wound up his homework with a 13-point list of what specific steps he would take.
    Nothing prepared him for the heat and stench of Abu Ghraib. In June when he arrived the temperature hovered around 125 degrees. “Abu Ghraib was a wasteland, nothing but sand and rocks and run-down buildings with garbage and raw sewage everywhere you looked,” he writes of his first impressions.
    Feeling sick with “the Iraq crud” on his first night in the prison compound, he woke at 11 p.m. and decided to walk around and see what was going on. At the entrance to the intel building, he walked past the sleeping soldier who was supposed to be guarding the building. Down the long hall he heard screams coming from one of the interrogation booths and peeped around the corner. A young woman soldier was being yelled at in Arabic by a 40-year-old prisoner as an interpreter translated.
    Dr. James walked next door where a door was unlocked to a room full of high-intelligence papers and computers. Inside the room, a 25-year-old supervisor was asleep with his feet up and a Playboy magazine clutched to his chest. Dr. James wakened him gently and said that the female interrogator was having a hard time. Why not knock it off until tomorrow? Dr. James suggested.
    His walk around the compound ended suddenly at sunrise as a mortar attack exploded over the prison. A car bomb exploded and killed a marine at the prison gate. In less than 24 hours Dr. James thought he had seen the worst that could happen at Abu Ghraib. Wrong again. At the chow line he learned that the U.S also had women and children locked up.
    A warrant officer enlightened him. “Sir, when the infantry guys storm a building or house, they scarf up everybody - Mom, Dad, Grandma, little Junior and the bad guy they’re specifically targeting. They don’t have time to sort it out, so we have to do it.” In another part of the prison, some 15 boys were locked in a tent like caged animals. The heat was 130 with no air conditioning. There was an overwhelming stench of feces.
   “The conditions were so horrifying that I struggled not to vomit,” Dr. James writes.
    He was further outraged to learn that in a prison population that varied from 6,000 to 8,000 people and 2,000 American soldiers and Marines, there was not one psychologist or psychiatrist on the base.
    Yes, Abu Ghraib did get a medical and mental health unit. It got constant scrutiny from officers and noncoms. It got better intelligence results. Dr. James had more than his share of 18-hour days.
    And with each improvement, he admits that he still doesn’t know where to place the blame for those terrible pictures of our military abuses at Abu Ghraib. Were they just the work of a few rotten apples who were turned into scapegoats to protect higher ups from prosecution? Or was there a flaw in the whole system that led to a few soldiers terrible behavior?
    And no matter how rational or clinical a dissection of the tragedy is, its damage is inescapable. Even Dr. James, whose years of analytic training allowed him to insulate his feelings and solve problems, was not immune. He finished his job at Abu Ghraib and came back a changed man.
    No wonder. Fixing Hell is a hard job.