The Situationist

Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors

Posted by Philip Zimbardo on April 28, 2008

Image by Ahmed alRawi - FlickrOn April 28, 2004, four years ago, our nation, and the world, was shocked by the revelation of the abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. More surprising than the fact of the abuse, for soldiers often abuse their enemies in wartime, was the nature of the “trophy photos.” Both male and female Military Police posed smilingly, giving high fives over a pyramid of naked detainees; dragging some around on dog leashes; and forcing others into sexually degrading poses. An iconic image of torture emerged from the digitally documented depravity which was shown in a helpless prisoner standing on a cardboard box, head hooded, electrodes attached to his fingers, fearing that when his body weakened and he fell off the stress box, he would electrocute himself.

Recall that the immediate response of the top military command and the Bush civilian command pronounced these acts as the work of a “few rogue soldiers,” as the moral failures of a few “Bad Apples.” General Richard Myers, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added in his televised interview that he was certain such abuses were not “systemic,” but should be blamed entirely on the immorality of those few culprits. Donald Rumsfeld, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “These abuses happened on my watch. As Secretary of Defense, I am fully responsible.” Without a full scale investigation it was not possible at that time to determine whether such abuse was limited to Tier 1A Abu Ghraib, or was in fact, more widespread. The statements were simply urgent damage control to protect the reputation of America’s military and Bush’s war on terrorism. Rumsfeld’s acknowledgment of responsibility did not extend to a recognition of accountability or personal liability – for him or subsequently for any senior military staff: i.e., those who should have borne Command Responsibility for abuses, of which they should have been aware, that were inflicted by their subordinates given they occurred nightly over three long months.

Indeed, the bad apple refrain is played over and over again whenever there is a scandal in our police departments, prisons, and the military, or corporate worlds. Such attribution of evil deeds to the moral disposition of those who commit them fueled the feverish search for infidels in the decades of the Inquisition in many Catholic nations around the world. Focusing entirely on personal defects in the make-up of the culprits ignores the contextual circumstances in which the abuses occurred. However, proper understanding of any complex human behavior involves examination of the dynamic interplay between what actor brings into the behavioral setting and what the social-situational forces operating upon them bring out of those actors. Moreover, the crucial question that must be asked is what is the nature of the system of power that creates, maintains, and justifies situations that produce evil behavior and it also involves an awareness that the line between good and evil is not fixed, but sufficiently permeable to allow ordinary, even good, people to cross over and do really bad deeds at a given time in a particular setting.

As “Superintendent” of the mock Stanford Prison that I created as a simulation to be used in an experiment, I witnessed college student participants, purposely selected “good apples,” become corrupted by the situational forces operating in the “bad barrel” that I had designed. Normal, healthy students role-playing guards quickly began to abuse their prisoners so much so that many role-playing prisoners suffering from acute, extreme stress reactions had to be released. Our planned two-week study had to be terminated after only six days because the whole situation was running out of control. Sensing a similar scenario at work in the Abu Ghraib prison, I accepted the task of being an expert witness for the defense of the Army Reserve sergeant in charge of the MP battalion on the night shift of Tier 1A. As such, I had access to all the investigative reports issued by high-ranking generals and civilian officials, access to the infamous disks that were filled with a thousand trophy photos, and also direct access to the soldier himself by means of personal interviews, psychological testing, and a detailed investigation of his background. After reviewing all this material as well as interviewing military criminal investigators and knowledgeable officers, I concluded in the testimony I gave at his military trial, that although he was guilty as charged, the severity of his sentence should be mitigated both because of his exemplary character and the horrendous situational circumstances in which he and his buddies were forced to work and live.

Before his dungeon tour of duty Chip Frederick had been a remarkably patriotic, honored soldier, and a model citizen. The psych evaluation by a military psychologist concluded that he was normal on all measures; there was no evidence of any sadistic tendencies. Hardly the stuff of a bad apple.

But the situation in which he had to work could not have been worse. The prison was filthy and chaotic. It was subject to frequent blackouts and under almost constant bombardment. Prisoners were attempting to escape. There were no established standard operating procedures, and there was never any oversight or surveillance by officers. This young soldier was forced to work 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week for 40 consecutive nights without a break. When the unexpected insurgency burst out in Fall 2003, large scale arrests of suspected Iraqi men and boys swelled the prison population on Tier 1A from 200 to 1000 prisoners, without increase in the number of the 9 guards under his charge—none of whom had any mission-specific training. The massive assault of negative social psychological forces that had been at work in the Stanford mock Prison was overwhelmingly present in that all too real military prison.

How is the System implicated in these abuses? Tier 1A was under the control of Military Intelligence to be used as their interrogation site. The CIA backed up the control and civilian contract interrogators also conducted interrogations there. When their interrogations failed to elicit “actionable intelligence” (because most detainees had none to give), these authorities pressured the Army Reserve MPs to help them “soften up” the detainees, “take the gloves off,” do whatever was necessary to get them to spill the beans. The intentional absence of surveillance by senior officers during the night shift, coupled with praise of the MPs for breaking prisoners who did talk, and protected by the assurance of deniability for any specific abuses, the System that operated that dungeon provided an open-ended license for torture and abuse.

Many of the official investigative reports indict the system for the failure or absence of leadership, for conflicting leadership, and for the recruitment of these untrained MPs to abuse prisoners. The report by Brig. Gen. Antonio Taguba went further to identify specific officers whom he found guilty of dereliction of duty. Because he openly blamed the system, General Taguba was forced to resign prematurely; essentially he was fired for doing his job too conscientiously.

Chip’s sentence: dishonorable discharge, an 8-year prison term and forfeiture of 22 years of retirement income; he was also stripped of the 9 medals and awards he had earned. Cpl. Charles Garner got 10 years and Lynddie England 3 years; there were lesser sentences for the other MPs staffing that little shop of horrors in Tier 1A. Blame therefore was deflected onto the grunts to enable the big shots running any system to get away with murder and to avoid the vital messages about changing behavioral contexts that breed abuse, inhumanity, and criminal action. Errol Morris’s film, “Standard Operating Procedure,” released on the anniversary of the exposure of abuse at Abu Ghraib, confirms my thesis.

Such transgressions do not occur where military discipline is clear and oversight is practiced, where there is censure for violations and praise for honorable conduct. Rather, most systems of governance are veiled in secrecy; transparency is their enemy. Evil is a slippery slope that always starts with small transgressions and escalates gradually when human character is transformed by the power of social situations — while most good people observe and do nothing, thereby are guilty of the evil of inaction.

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For a collection of posts by or about Situationist contributor, Phil Zimbardo, click here. For other Situationist posts discussing The Lucifer Effect, click here. To buy the paperback version of the book, click here.

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