Socialist Worker

None Of Us Were Like This Before: A system of torture that destroys lives and minds

Siân Ruddick interviews Joshua Phillips on his new book about torture by US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan

Issue No. 2223

The cover of Phillips

The cover of Phillips' book

The US and Britain’s “war on terror” is maintained by the torture and oppression of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.

None Of Us Were Like This Before, a new book written by US journalist Joshua Phillips, is a forensic and powerful confirmation of this.

A number of US soldiers have testified about the involvement of themselves and others in torture during the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

And they have highlighted the carefully constructed ignorance of their seniors.

Phillips’ book takes in two sides of the experience.

One is that of Afghans who have been tortured—although many did not live to tell the tale.

The other is that of US soldiers who meted out the violence.

The research Phillips undertook in Afghanistan is particularly impressive.

He told Socialist Worker, “I spent the whole of 2007 in Afghanistan getting people’s stories. But I thought, for a US audience, I had to come from the other side too.” So he also writes about the US soldiers who have been destroyed by the torture they were part of.

Afghanistan is a country of imperialist violence, roadblocks, and corruption. But Phillips also writes about family celebrations and the tough choices that individuals face.

He tells the story of a man called Dilawar in Khost province—one of the country’s most dangerous areas. Dilawar, a taxi driver, was stopped at a checkpoint in December 2001 by Afghan soldiers working for the occupying forces.

He was taken to Bagram airbase where US soldiers tortured him. He died some weeks later. His story was told in the documentary Taxi to the Dark Side.


Phillips has won the trust of the people he spoke to. There is an extensive interview with Parkhudin, one of Dilawar’s passengers when they were stopped—who was also taken to Bagram and tortured. Phillips also spoke to Dilawar’s family.

His brother Sharpoor was given all of the family’s savings to try and find his brother. Over $13,000 went on bribing Afghan officials, trying to find out where he was and to free him.

Parkhudin and his brothers were not released until a year later, after they had been cleared of all charges against them.

Wahid, Phillips’ translator and guide who had been tortured in Guantanamo Bay, said of the US soldiers, “If they can do this to a taxi driver—a nobody just carrying an electric stabiliser—and they can capture, and then kill him, then they can do it to anyone.”

And they have. It is still not known how many prisoners have died as a result of torture and violence from the occupying forces.

The book draws on the stories of two US soldiers—Adam Gray and Jonathan Millantz. Gray was a sergeant in a tank regiment in which his friend Jonathan was a combat medic.

There is strong evidence that both committed suicide, though both deaths were ruled accidental by the military.

Gray had tortured prisoners in the barracks where he killed himself, and the experience destroyed him. Millantz died at the age of 27, Gray at 24.

Phillips said, “The title of my book came from a soldier called Daniel Keller, from the transformative experience of engaging in torture, and how it affected him.


In the book Keller says, “The only thing that really does excite you is when you get to ... torture somebody ... we were doing things because we could. That’s it.”

The boredom of the soldiers, combined with the malicious racism of the operation and a green light from above, had this effect on soldiers.

Phillips added, “I asked soldiers where they felt permission had come from.

“They said it was the nullification of the Geneva Convention.

“George Bush’s administration said that common Article 3 [of the Geneva convention], the protection of prisoners, was essentially abolished for Al Qaida and the Taliban.”

This experience has had a lasting impact on those who carried out the killing on the US ruling class’s behalf.

There have been 4,000 casualties from combat in the US army. One thousand soldiers have committed suicide since the war in Afghanistan began.

These are terrifying statistics that have shaken working class life in the US.

Phillips said, “There is growing disenchantment with the war in Afghanistan though there is a compartmentalisation in the US.

“On the one hand people feel fiercely loyal to the troops, and on the other there was a movement against the Iraq war. Now there is more a kind of malaise that this is futile enterprise.

“People are dispirited that Barack Obama had a surge in Afghanistan. To be honest right now it is the economy, not the war that is at the forefront of people’s minds.”

This is an important book and the testaments of US soldiers are chilling as they show the brutalisation that has come with the war.

For me though, the hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi detainees who have suffered at the hands of the US remain the biggest tragedy of the “war on terror”.

None Of Us Were Like This Before (£16.99) by Joshua ES Phillips is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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Tue 12 Oct 2010, 18:13 BST
Issue No. 2223
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