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Tortured: Coming to grips with the War on Terror 

Wednesday, Jun 2 2010

Just because the subtitle of San Francisco writer Justine Sharrock's book was changed from "How Our Cowardly Leaders Abused Prisoners, American Soldiers, and Everything We're Fighting For" to "When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things" doesn't mean it has lost its edge. Presumably the change has to do with the book heeding its own lessons, tempering the rage to avoid being blinded and consumed by it.

The title, after all, still is Tortured. And the subject — America's uneasy but undeniable involvement with the horrible art and science of shattering souls — still is hell to deal with. And just because we already have extraordinary reporting about it, like Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris'

Standard Operating Procedure, doesn't mean we don't need more.

Sharrock first broached the subject in 2008 in a National Magazine Award–nominated Mother Jones profile of Army reservist Ben Allbright. That was called "Am I a Torturer?," and portended an ongoing attempt to reckon with the unconscionable. There was more where that came from. Much more.

For her book, Sharrock spent time with a handful of the low-ranking soldiers whose stints at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib had been so ominously meaningful, visiting them after they'd returned to their American communities — where a terrible legacy finally started coming into view. After what they'd done, the men found themselves horrified to be hailed as heroes — or as villains for saying as much.

"Pro-torture voices in ivory towers and the halls of government point to the hypothetical ticking-time-bomb scenario to justify abuse," Sharrock writes. "There is also a ticking time bomb inside the soldiers, who are so angry at the military and stressed out by their situation that they are ready to explode." Or, as one former Abu Ghraib MP puts it, more mildly but no less distressingly, "We've got a lost generation on our hands."

It would not be the first. That raises a bigger, harder question, about whether America gets the "cowardly leaders" it deserves. Torture as policy is self-evidently wrong, but something must account for the politics of its propagation. Do we chalk it up to some absurd cultural cocktail of national prosperity, guilt, collective-unconscious PTSD, Quentin Tarantino movies, the repressive pressures of moldering Puritan values, and good old reliably despicable human nature? Sharrock never offers an answer. Has facing this enormity so directly left her too daunted to presume to contextualize it? Or was it just a reasonable editorial judgment call to stick with the witness borne and chuck out any potentially tangential philosophizing?

In closing, Sharrock describes Tortured as a book of homecomings. Detractors may say that finesses the fact that her reporting was done far away and long after the events it describes, with the matter of corroboration particularly difficult. But as that new subtitle neatly implies, listening so carefully to these soldiers' stories might be more constructive than just firing off another screed.

Certainly, the book gathers power from letting its scenes speak for themselves, such as the one where Brandon Neely, having spoken out about Guantánamo, hears from the lawyer of one wrongly incarcerated detainee who remembers Neely and wants to talk to him. Or the one where Abu Ghraib whistleblower Joe Darby deals with denunciation, death threats, and being disowned by his family, all while tensely counting down the days until the fellow soldier he helped put away finally gets out of prison. Or the one where military physician Andrew Duffy realized that medical negligence had become the essence of his job description (in one instance, he'd essentially been ordered to let one detainee die from diabetic shock), then found himself destroying medical supplies and records upon Abu Ghraib's closure. 

There's an especially poignant scene at the end where Sharrock most relaxes her official voice — hanging out with National Guardsman Chris Arendt in a stateside bar and helping him try to pick up a woman he likes, even while knowing the woman probably won't be able to handle his war stories. Will anyone?

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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