Author Joshua Phillips speaks at BHS
NICK WOLCOTT/CHRONICLE Joshua Phillips, author of "None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture," speaks to Bozeman High School students on Tuesday.

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Torture used by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan has had tragic consequences, not only for the victims, but also for U.S. soldiers haunted by what they did and for the U.S. war effort, which it undermined, says investigative journalist Joshua E.S. Phillips.

Phillips, 39, spoke in Bozeman Tuesday about what he learned during three years of research for his book, "None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture."

The book isn't anti-military, Phillips said in an interview at Bozeman High School, where he spoke to scores of students before his evening public talk, sponsored by the Bozeman Library Foundation.

In fact, Phillips said, soldiers and veterans are the biggest advocates for the book, because they want people to understand how destructive torture is, especially to the military.

"It backfires," Phillips told students. "It's a disaster."

Torture, he said, damaged the honor and reputation of the U.S. military, produced a lot of bad intelligence, and actually endangered U.S. soldiers by alienating the local people the military needed for intelligence and support.

The military itself concluded that pictures of torture at Abu Ghraib prison and of Guantanamo prisoners were the No. 1 and 2 recruiting tools for anti-U.S. insurgents.

"It becomes a tragedy," Phillips said, "because it is for naught."

In the book, he focused on stories of ordinary soldiers from one Army tank company in Iraq. Untrained in interrogation, the soldiers improvised, using techniques from their own basic training or inspired by TV and movies. They forced detainees to hold stress positions, deprived them of sleep, used water-boarding and held mock executions.

What surprised him was that sometimes soldiers had the most banal reasons for using torture, like boredom. They'd take out their frustration, rage or boredom on detainees.

Later on, some soldiers had no remorse, feeling they did what they had to do, Phillips said. But others were traumatized and suffered terrible guilt, violent outbursts, anxiety, anger, depression and substance abuse. Some committed suicide.

Asked by one Bozeman student what could be done to prevent torture, Phillips said every soldier, military and intelligence officer he talked to said what "got the ball rolling" was the Bush administration's 2002 declaration that detainees were not prisoners of war covered by the Geneva Convention. That gave soldiers the impression detainees had no protections.

"You can't simply say it's the Bush administration," Phillips said. But the administration created the conditions where torture was permissible, by issuing the Geneva decision, allowing extreme interrogation techniques for one Guantanamo detainee that then expanded to others, and by using rhetoric about the need to "take the gloves off," including Vice President Dick Cheney's comments right after 9/11 about the need to work "the dark side."

Most American soldiers served with "honor and distinction and didn't use torture," he said.

But the military investigated about 800 cases, and some investigators believe the actual number is far higher. Most instances of torture occurred early in the wars. Phillips said he doesn't think torture is continuing today.

Psychological studies using college students have found that anyone is capable of torture, he said. "It's the situation, not the disposition, that leads people to torture."

Most good intelligence actually comes from cooperation, not coercion, Phillips said, citing clues that led to the discovery of Saddam Hussein's hiding place and the arrest of London bombers.

Asked by teacher Hilary Klug to advise student journalists in her Hawk Tawk class, Phillips said their two greatest tools are curiosity and critical thinking.

Now based in New York, Phillips has been a freelance reporter for print and radio, including the Washington Post, Newsweek, San Francisco Chronicle, NPR and BBC. He won two major journalism awards for his radio documentary, "What Killed Sergeant Gray."

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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