American journalist and author Joshua Phillips talks about his discoveries while writing, “None of Us Were Like This Before“:
Prisoner abuse and torture was far more widespread than most people understand. It happened well beyond the walls of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and CIA “black sites.” Prisoners were seriously abused in other U.S. military bases and facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some soldiers with Battalion 1-68 told me about an episode that involved choking a detainee with water. No one referred to it as “waterboarding” at the time, nor did anyone reference official memos that sanctioned such techniques. One soldier from Battalion 1-68 said the idea was borne out of casual discussions on the base about torture techniques that had been used elsewhere. In this case, a non-commissioned officer referenced a kind of water torture that had been used in Vietnam. (There are various water torture techniques—“waterboarding” represents only one method—and, in fact, there are accounts that some American MPs used water to choke Vietnamese prisoners.) This soldier from Battalion 1-68 told me that he and others tried to reproduce the technique—not to gain intelligence but because it was understood that torture and abuse were permissible. Naturally, the military and Bush Administration officials approved certain techniques for so-called “harsh interrogation.” But there were other ways in which ideas took root and spread. The experience of select troops from Battalion 1-68 using water torture illustrates how soldiers picked up techniques in the field. The origins of these techniques are often quite banal. Soldiers would draw on what they had done during their training (e.g., exercises from basic training), what was available (e.g., a boom box for sleep deprivation), and what they remembered or heard about from others (such as the water choking reference from Vietnam). Those who study torture say this is often how torture techniques are picked up and travel from conflict to conflict.
The soldiers from Battalion 1-68 who engaged in water torture maintain that even if this specific technique was not ordered, they could not have turned to abuse on their own. Like most American soldiers, they served with honor and bravery in dangerous, high-pressure conditions. These troops from Battalion 1-68 said abuse and torture was sometimes ordered or encouraged for detentions and interrogations. In other cases they said it was ignored or allowed to continue. The encouragement of abuse, and the impunity for it, set conditions that enabled troops to use water torture.