Bill Russell Edmonds “God Is Not Here” – A Book Review

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It is a sad and heartbreaking account of one soldier's mission in Iraq (2005-2006) and his subsequent struggle to regain his footing and find meaning in the experience. In May 2005, Lt. Col. Bill Russell Edmonds, then a Special Forces captain, volunteered to serve in a provisional organization, the Iraq Assistance Group, created by the U.S. Army to advise the fledgling Iraqi Army.

He was sent to Iraq, where he received brief training in Baghdad, then was put on a convoy to Mosul, where he spent the next year in a small building Saddam Hussein had called a guest house.

Edmonds' job was to advise Iraqi intelligence officers on how to interrogate and observe insurgents. The Iraqi, who had previously been part of the Kurdish Peshmerga Asayesh intelligence service, proved to be a very capable intelligence officer who, according to Edmonds, taught him much more than the other way around.

We never know his identity-Edmonds calls him “Saed,” which means “Lord” in Arabic, all the time “God is not here.” “Saedi hated the men who terrorized the Iraqi people, and was determined to punish the murderers and protect the innocent,” Edmonds writes. “I came to understand and admire that about him.”

While the portrait in the book of Saed is largely sympathetic, the general environment in which Edmonds worked is quite different. At the time, the insurgency that followed the invasion of Iraq had become a civil war pitting Sunnis against Shiites and Kurds. Aside from occasional patrols, Edmonds' life was limited to a small guesthouse and his grim interrogation center, which in many ways resembled a prison.

It is hard to imagine a more difficult task, and there is no indication that Edmonds was prepared for it. He learns Arabic and many customs, but the brutality of war, the danger and sensitivity of interrogation, and the legacy of a ruthless dictatorship surround him every day.

To the story of her experience in Iraq, Edmonds adds that of her depression. It's a device clearly designed to ratchet up the tension as his collapse approaches, but it's a bit distracting and, worse, undermines confidence in the narrator, especially when the chapters describe an individual who is losing his ability to function.

Moreover, because “God Is Not There” recounts a lone soldier's expedition to Iraq – and his own inner hell – it lacks almost entirely in factual detail by which to judge its veracity. As Edmonds explains in the introduction, his account is based on two diaries, one written in Iraq and the other in Germany in 2011, when he suffered a nervous breakdown. Most disturbingly, Edmonds claims that some of the “experiences and characters are composites.”

But Edmonds' time in Iraq has provided an important lesson from the war: that U.S. behavior toward ordinary Iraqis has actively contributed to friction, discontent, anger and, ultimately, a population less willing to help the U.S.-backed government than the insurgents, or at least to keep quiet.

As the violence escalated, U.S. soldiers became increasingly aggressive, which, combined with their defensive measures and general unfamiliarity with Iraqi culture, created a very unstable environment. Edmonds' book is full of Iraqi voices expressing resentment toward the Americans. As an advisor, he had to deal with the insults almost daily. And he concludes.

Edmonds never names any of his superiors or any U.S. officer or official, but his description suggests that advisors like him were poorly led and totally lacked the cohesion that sustains troops in war zones. Ad hoc units like the Iraq Assistance Group are not common in the military for good reason.

Mr. Edmonds might not have suffered so much if he had been in a formal unit with a competent leader. When he wasn't with Saed, he says he didn't spend most of his time with his comrades, but only in his room, watching movies or trying to maintain his shaky relationship with his girlfriend through occasional phone and e-mail contact.

As the subtitle suggests, torture is the main theme of the book, but at no point is it treated clearly and comprehensively, not even in the two specific cases Edmonds describes. In one case, he describes how Saedi beats and kicks a detainee in a dank, smoke-filled interrogation room; in the other, he describes how Saedi uses clever, if manipulative, interrogation techniques and relies on informants to obtain information.

Edmonds wonders if he should turn Saedi in, knowing that it would not only break their relationship, but could lead to Saedi being replaced by an even more violent personality. We never find out if Edmonds will turn him in, and if he does, what happened.

The second alleged torture case is even more disturbing and obscure. Six Iraqi prisoners, for whom Edmonds claims to have had some responsibility, were taken to the autonomous Kurdish region. He finds them and discovers that they all show signs of recent and horrific torture, including whippings, bruises and cuts.

He suspects that Americans were involved, although he gives no details or explanations. Edmonds reports his suspicions to the general, who urges him to “tell the truth.” Eventually, the unit commander conducts an investigation, but, as Edmonds sarcastically writes, “all is cleared up, of course.”

Throughout the book, Edmonds is forced to question what torture really is, and finds himself conflicted between his desire to prevent the killing of insurgents, which may involve practices that could be defined as torture, and preventing or reporting abuses. Most disturbingly, he has visions of strangling prisoners; he often expresses a desire to injure or even kill them. While this honesty is admirable, it should have been addressed.

Edmonds does so by undergoing therapy and ultimately writing this book. But once again, the reader is left wondering: where was the chain of command? And, apparently, it was still missing when Edmonds returned to duty and moved to Germany. By the end of the book, he is a missionary in Africa.

Ideally, such a personal story would make the country focus more seriously on the health and welfare of its soldiers, and that would include the narcissistic behavior shown here. Edmonds was willing to tell his story, and most of the best parts of his book appeared in a long article in The Nation magazine in November 2006, published shortly after his return from Iraq, but long before his breakdown.

He also tried to show photos of his service in Iraq at a popular Washington cafe. This is not necessarily a bad thing, although most special operations personnel I know avoid public exposure. Edmonds' psychological needs-including his need for attention-were not being met, and someone in the office should have noticed.

God's Not Here” shows that it doesn't pay to send a soldier to war; the experience is searing and often brutal, and only a well-led, well-trained, cohesive unit can help soldiers do their duty and survive mentally and physically.

First-hand accounts of this kind, however inaccurate, are an important part of the documentation on which historians and others can rely. Unlike in Vietnam, Americans have accepted rather than rejected their veterans, although much remains to be done, as the Edmonds report clearly shows.

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