Archive for August 11th, 2010

Book Review: Fixing Hell

Fixing Hell
An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Ghraib

by Col. (ret) Lawrence James
New York: Grand Central Publishers, 2008. 304 pp. $24.99 ($22.78, audio).
Buy this book at Amazon

Reviewed by Mark Silinsky
Kensington, Md.

Middle East Quarterly
Spring 2010


James, a U.S. Army colonel and a psychologist deployed to Abu Ghraib in the wake of the prison’s scandals, tells of his efforts to “fix hell” there—in other words, to help repair the image of the U.S. Army in Iraq. The author seeks to explain the psychodynamics and the culture that allowed for the twisted and sometimes depraved behavior of eight army guards. James was also charged with establishing rules and procedures involving the interrogation of nonmilitary enemy combatants.

The book reads well, with crisp sentences and easily digestible ideas, and without foggy psychological theories or obscure military jargon. Indeed, several chapters of the book have the feel of the “leadership” style books fashionable in recent years. It also raises three issues of enduring interest concerning the Middle East.

First, what is the best way to incarcerate, interrogate, and possibly reintegrate nonmilitary combatants? Are harsh interrogation procedures more or less effective than a compassionate, empathetic approach in eliciting information from such combatants? James recommends more efforts at rehabilitation and suggests interrogators become much better educated in the social relations of the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Second, can the hyperbolic anger in young Islamist Iraqis be classified as a new psychological disorder, given that the offenders do not display symptoms associated with psychosis? Unfortunately, James does not give an answer. He admits to being overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of hate being inculcated in the Muslim world’s youth. He is not optimistic about the collective mental health of a generation of impoverished Muslims who are nourished on grievance, resentment, and revenge for crimes sometimes real but usually imagined.

Third, how did Abu Ghraib happen? In James’s view, the Abu Ghraib disaster resulted from a perfect storm. The soldiers were young, many of them adolescents far away from home for the first time; there was a loss of control among the noncommissioned officers; the mission was never clearly defined; the rules of interrogation were never understood; and the officers did not make their physical presence visible, demonstrating that they were in command. Finally, weak leadership allowed the few sadistic elements that exist in all armies to express themselves without fear of consequences.

James’s personal account gives students of the Middle East a fresh prism through which to view one of the most notorious scandals involving the U.S. Army in recent years. Fusing the perspectives of a mental health professional and a professional soldier creates an informative and highly readable book.

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