Not about blockbuster sales, that's clear. Best-sellers require race-against-the-clock "24"-style thrills, Olympian sex or, at least, a 10-day plan for washboard abs.
While writing his latest book, the University of Minnesota Medical School professor focused elsewhere.He mined a mountain range of government documents. He unearthed accounts of deaths and maimings. He issued a grisly indictment of his own profession. Then he wrapped the whole package in the feel-bad title of the year, "Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity and the War on Terror."
"This has been a tough sell," said his agent, Sandra Dijkstra.
What was Miles thinking?
"When I saw the photographs from Abu Ghraib," he said, "I wondered where the doctors and nurses were."
The answer: They were present or nearby. In U.S. prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, medical personnel helped determine the nature and severity of torture. They ignored abuse. And they covered up the most heinous cases.
That, in a blood-stained nutshell, is what Miles found. What is he thinking?
"Where these things occurred, they occurred in the context of a general command breakdown," he said. "Nobody was stopping abuses, period."
The shame, then, doesn't belong to the medical profession alone. In the military, though, they are the only parties who have taken an oath to protect and heal patients, even if these patients are prisoners of war or "enemy combatants."
OFF THE BATTLEFIELD
Military medical ethics is rich territory for civilian second-guessers, or so many in uniform believe. (Miles, it should be noted, is not a veteran.) "The certainty of opinion," said Col. Basil Pruitt, a physician, in a 1992 lecture on this topic, "is directly proportional to the square of the distance from the site of combat."
But Miles notes that his book is about noncombat actions of the military medical profession. "This is not about battlefield ethics. This is about the treatment of unarmed prisoners."
Neither, he insists, is this a matter of a squeamish civilian suddenly coming face to face with the harsh realities of war. "In World War II, we really set the standard for the treatment of prisoners." Miles notes that President Bush's former secretary of state, Colin Powell, called the use of torture by U.S. forces an "innovation."
This innovation, Miles said, can be used against us: "This prevents us from appealing to the world for the same norms of civilized behavior for our soldiers."
The Bush administration, though, has maintained that terrorists - even those captured by the military, during military operations, in the midst of a war - are not soldiers, and are thus exempt from the Geneva Convention. But that's not the only convention barring medical professionals from taking part in torture. Similar declarations have been adopted by the United Nations, the World Medical Association, the International Council of Nurses, the World Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians and others.
This White House has waved all that aside. "We have said to the world that a chief executive can invoke national emergency or national sovereignty and can step outside" international agreements, Miles said.
Again, such a precedent could be used against the United States, a nation that often holds itself up as a model to the world.
"This is not a matter of war-making," Miles insisted. "It is a matter of international law."
On the day Miles spoke with Copley News Service, Amazon reported that 227,826 other volumes were outselling "Oath Betrayed." None of the books in the Top 50 were about torture; five focused on diets and "food cures."
Miles' book is brief, just 168 pages, but not a quick read. There are too many passages that force you to slow down and catch your breath. There are pages where medics withhold painkillers from wounded prisoners, or administer drugs - not for therapeutic reasons, but to break someone resisting interrogation.
There's Mohammad al-Qahtani, whose torture was administered by medics - and whose abuse was halted by the complaints of, not doctors, but FBI agents.
There's Mohammed Khan, whose battered corpse was released by U.S. Army troops in Afghanistan to his family. A British reporter asked the base commander about the Army-issued death certificate, which listed as the cause of death "snakebite."
"You could go on for ages with a 'he said, she said.' You have to take my word for it," Col. Gary Cheeks replied.
There had been no autopsy. "Afghanistan has two species of poisonous snakes," Miles added. "The McMahon's viper is rarely seen; the Levant viper stays away from settlements."
While the Pentagon has yet to release a promised report on deaths among prisoners in U.S. custody, Miles has documented 175. He's now posting the relevant government papers at the University of Minnesota's online Human Rights Library, www1.umn.edu/humanrts/.
Within the military, the use of torture in interrogation remains controversial, in part because of concerns that victims will say anything, no matter how inaccurate, to stop the pain. The cover story in the current Atlantic describes how U.S. special operations forces "cracked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's inner circle - without resorting to torture - and hunted down al-Qaeda's man in Iraq."
In recent months, Donald Rumsfeld and other pro-torture officials have lost their Defense Department posts. Miles, a bioethicist whose work in Cambodia, Sudan and other war-torn regions has brought him into contact with U.S. intelligence agents, believes the policy is beginning to change.
"Our intelligence people are really very good," he said. "For them, the legacy of these abuses is a level of dismay and pain."
Ditto, the armed forces.
"U.S. military medical personnel have a largely honorable tradition of service, skill and respect for the human rights of prisoners," Miles wrote. "Most of those who have treated prisoners during the war on terror aspired to provide good care."
How, then, to close this sordid chapter?
"Basically," Miles said, "we need to go back to the framework of international law that we would be proud to uphold."