A military psychologist deployed to Guantanamo Bay is dismayed by the brutal treatment of prisoners.
Capt. Thomas Phillips is a psychologist in the National Guard assigned to Guantanamo Bay, partly on the basis of his experience dealing with Muslim prisoners within the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. Initially, his principal challenge is his own isolation and the morale of his fellow serviceman—the tedium of the passing days and the separation of family is a constant burden. Phillips takes to fishing and exercise as diversions and excitedly waits for emails from his mother and fiancee. He grows discomfited by the treatment of the detainees, subjected to restrictive shackles, food deprivation euphemistically labeled hunger strikes, overmedication, and other manner of “environmental manipulation.” Debut author McMackin displays impressive restraint in allowing Phillips’ revelations to slowly unfurl, investing them with a palpable power. A prisoner captured in Afghanistan, Hassan al-Abdi, believed to have valuable intelligence linking Iraq and the Taliban, requests a meeting with Phillips, who is then cajoled into becoming a participant in his increasingly aggressive interrogations. The justification to forcibly extract information from al-Abdi only increases as the American invasion of Iraq looks more like a foregone conclusion. Phillips is caught between the satisfaction of his duty and the moral responsibility he feels to al-Abdi, who reveals himself to be far too complex a person to be captured by villainous caricature. McMackin’s chief strength is the depth of his characterizations. He explicitly avoids the depiction of straw men in an effort to limn the murkiness of the moral situation Phillips confronts. The prose is plain, unembellished by literary invention, but serves as a good vehicle for Phillip’s thoughtful pragmatism. The plotline is a familiar one, even formulaic and shopworn, but nonetheless executed skillfully and provocatively. And since the topic is one that refuses to vanish from contemporary public debate—the moral defensibility of coercive interrogations—the story still seems fresh and relevant, despite its familiarity.
An intensely drawn fictional study of an explosive issue.