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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Oath Betrayed’ Describes Complicity of U.S. Military Medical Personnel in Torture of Prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba

Posted by kinchendavid on July 16, 2006

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Hinton, WV – When he saw the graphic photographs of U.S. military personnel – including West Virginia’s Lynndie England – mugging it up over abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, Dr. Steven H. Miles asked himself “Where were the prison doctors at Abu Ghraib?” when this abuse was going on.
His book, “Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity and the War on Terror” (Random House, $23.95, 240 pages) is the Minneapolis, MN-based physician’s attempt to answer that question, as well as to determine what went wrong with so many military medical providers taking part in and/or allowing torture and prisoner abuse to take place.
Miles, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School and a faculty member of its Center for Bioethics, is also a practicing physician. He’s also an expert in medical ethics, human rights, and international health care who has served as the chief medical officer for a Cambodian refugee camp and worked on AIDS prevention in Sudan and on tsunami relief in Indonesia with the American Refugee Committee. He has also worked with the research committee of the Center for Victims of Torture.
Conventional wisdom is that Americans don’t practice torture the way the Germans, Soviets and Japanese did during World War II and virtually everyone else did before that war and since. We’re supposed to be inhabitants of that “Shining City on the Hill” – standing apart from abusers and torturers alike. As Miles demonstrates in a section comparing the abuses in Iraq, Afghanistan and Cuba with the American Civil War, torture and abuse of prisoners is nothing new to Americans. Both the Union and Confederate prison camps were scenes of horrible treatment of prisoners that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths in the South and North alike.
“Oath Betrayed” is based on research of more than 35,000 pages of classified documents obtained under the Freedom of Information act, as well as eyewitness accounts of abuse and torture. Many medical personnel took part in the abuse and its subsequent cover-up, but Miles and other investigators found quite a few military doctors and nurses who told them of their attempts to stop the torture. As anyone who has every served in the military knows, it takes a brave individual to do this.
Miles notes that “silence about abuse has two general forms: failing to see abuse for what it is and failing to act when abuse is seen” (Page 120). “The silent parties do not acknowledge or document their silence. A witness may report that an abusive soldier and a doctor agreed not to record the fact or cause of a prisoner’s injury, but such anecdotes do not reveal whether the arrangements were routine or exceptional.”
He quotes an Army psychiatrist, Dr. Henry Nelson, who assessed Abu Ghraib this way: “The worst human qualities and behaviors came to the fore and a pervasive dominance came to prevail…the sadistic and psychopathic behavior was appalling and shocking…the Military Intelligence unit seemed to be operating in a conspiracy of silence.”
Miles draws on army criminal investigations, FBI notes on debriefings of prisoners, autopsy reports, and prisoners’ medical records to document torture and abuse in “Oath Betrayed.” As his book amply demonstrates, these documents tell a story significantly different from the official version of the truth — revealing involvement at every level of government, from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to the Pentagon’s senior health officials to prison health-care personnel.
Military doctors, nurses, psychologists and technicians who participated in torture and prisoner abuse are guilty of a profound betrayal of the best traditions of the medical corps of America’s armed forces, Miles says. “Oath Betrayed” was a difficult book to read, but it is an important document – the kind that could only be published by a democracy that still has potency. Nothing of the kind was published in World War II Germany or Japan and certainly not in countries that infamously abused prisoners, such as Chile and Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s.
Miles names both the bad guys and the good guys. Among the latter are Sgt. Joseph Darby who “cited his Christian faith as the reason for slipping a disk with the Abu Ghraib photographs under the door to investigators.” (Page 166). Or “what led Dr. Michael Gelles, the chief psychologist of the Navy Criminal Investigative Service, to carry his protest of brutal interrogations at Guantanamo to the highest levels of the Pentagon?” (Page 166).
Miles concludes his book by saying that “it will require tenacious professionalism for medicine to remove the stain of complicity with torture in 130 countries where physicians and torturers work side by side.”
Publisher’s web site: http://www.randomhouse.com. The index for “Oath Betrayed” was lacking in the first edition of the book that I reviewed. It will be added in subsequent printings. It may be viewed online at :


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