Review of “Fixing Hell” by Retired Colonel Larry C. James

Dr. Larry James served as the Chief of the Department of Psychology at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for five years. After the publicity and outcry over the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and in Abu Ghraib, Colonel James was sent to both places “to dissect this catastrophe, fix it, and prevent it from being repeated.” In 2003, he became Chief Psychologist for the Joint Intelligence Group at GTMO, Cuba, and in 2004 he was appointed as Director, Behavioral Science Unit, Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center at Abu Ghraib, Iraq. He tells his story, or a bit of it, in this book.

Fixing Hell cover

Dr. James regrets the behavior of the young and inexperienced U.S. soldiers, although he never really says what they did, beyond what we have been able to read in the papers. He testifies to the egregiousness of living conditions in the prisons, especially in Iraq, and delineates some factors to which he attributes the slide into regrettable behavior by the soldier/interrogators:

1. lack of supervision – the bases were so awful that no officers stayed on site and rarely even came over to supervise, especially after dark
2. young soldiers, recently just reservists, had no training on how to conduct interrogations
3. soldiers were frustrated, scared, and in Abu Ghraib, constantly threatened by mortar attacks, all of which affected their dispositions and composure
4. the soldiers themselves needed mental health assistance from the stress and isolation, and rotten conditions of their deployment, but none was available at first. And most importantly,
5. no clearcut directions were posted that exactly set forth permissible and nonpermissible behaviors.

Colonel James

Colonel Larry James

Dr. James does talk a bit about how he convinced soldiers that establishing a rapport with a prisoner would be more efficacious in gathering intelligence than abusive behavior. But in the examples he gave, the relationship-building was preceded by abusive behavior. Would the kindness have worked on its own? He doesn’t address that issue.

He wonders extensively about whether some of the detainees (especially the young kids in GTMO) were psychotic, but we never get any follow-up on his musings.

A very large portion of the tape was devoted to defensive, self-serving lectures on (a) how bad it was before he got to the scene; (b) how much difference he personally made; and (c) how innocent he was of facilitating any torture. A brief search on the Internet reveals that his need to defend his honor is not without justification, but a little bit of defensiveness and “I had to straighten out my superiors” goes a long way.

(A U.S. Senate report on torture in military detention centers released on April 21, 2009 confirms the intimate involvement of health professionals in designing, supervising and implementing the Army and the CIA’s “enhanced” interrogation program. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel memos, released April 16, 2009, reveals that medical professionals had served as “safety officers” during waterboarding and other interrogation sessions. You can read more about these accusations in In These Times )

I was hoping to get more substance from this book, but that was probably unrealistic. I suspect, for reasons of national security, confidentiality agreements, and career protection, there won’t be much forthcoming for many years.

Rating: 2.5/5

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5 Responses

  1. I suspect you’re right and there was a big limit as to how much he could share. I just read an interesting article in the New Yorker regarding the possibility of war crimes prosecution for members of the previous administration for this whole mess. Somewhere, something went drastically wrong with our way of thinking and we lost everything this country stands for. (Mangled sentence, I know.)

    To my way of thinking, if the gov’t has something illegal and unethical to do, that’s what the CIA is for…right? ;)

    Thanks for the review on this one.

  2. You’ve won my giveaway! Please e-mail me at wordblog(at)optonline(dot)net so I know where to mail Hotel on the Corner of BItter and Sweet!

  3. WOW! A really fascinating review….not quite what I am used to but sounds good!….meanwhile, I really came to say…..I have an award for you. Please come by BOOKIN’ WITH BINGO when you get a chance to pick it up. It is enchanting! Thanks!

  4. You’ve been doing some tough reading, haven’t you? I don’t know when or how things got so bad that I’m horrified and embarrassed to be a ‘fellow American.’ Somehow our values and practice in the military got very screwed up.

  5. This is a disgusting whitewash of a book by an accused war criminal. Aside from that, this poorly written book is misogynist and homophobic.

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