Obedience in Abu Ghraib, Baghdad (2004)

In April 2004, accounts of alleged human rights abuses in Abu Ghraib prison in Bagdad, Iraq began to break. Infamous photographic evidence depicts military personnel engaging in sexual humiliation and assault, physical and psychological abuse of prisoners, leading, in at least one case, to death.

Images include naked and injured prisoners with snarling dogs, prisoners forced to expose themselves at gunpoint, prisoners engaging in forced homosexual acts, prisoners with bags over their heads in degrading poses, prisoners covered with excrement, soldiers grinning proudly with corpses and many other sickening scenes.

These acts were committed by members of the 372nd Military Police Company of the United States Army together with additional American governmental agencies and were found in several cases to contravene the Geneva Convention and the War Crimes Act of 1996.

On 7 May, 2004, then US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld apologized saying he was accountable and took full responsibility and that he would bring the wrongdoers to justice, saying their behaviour was ‘un-American’ and ‘ inconsistent with the values of our nation’.

In total seventeen soldiers and officers were removed from duty, and seven soldiers court-martialled, found guilty, dishonorably discharged and sentenced to up to ten years in prison. These included Charles Graner (10 years), his former fiancée, Lynndie England (3 years) and Ivan ‘Chip’ Frederick (8 years). The commanding officer was demoted and denies knowledge of the abuses claiming that the interrogations were authorized by her superiors and performed by subcontractors, and that she was not even allowed entry into the interrogation rooms.

Many American politicians attempted to make it clear to the world that this abusive behaviour was not typical of the American army and Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell is quoted as saying “I don’t know how the hell these people got into our army”. While others tried to play down the abuse and make out that the prisoners deserved this treatment saying they were “murderers, terrorists, insurgents, many of them probably have American blood on their hands”. This is flagrant propaganda since the subsequently demoted commanding officer is quoted as saying that as many as 90% of the detainees were likely to be innocent.

In a famous speech, former vice president Al Gore sharply criticized the Bush administration for encouraging policies that led to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners and fanned hatred of Americans abroad; “In Iraq, what happened at that prison, it is now clear, is not the result of random acts of a few bad apples. It was the natural consequence of the Bush Administration policy.” Demands for Rumsfeld’s resignation were made by a string of other politicians and many esteemed newspapers and magazines including ‘The Economist’.

During the trials, soldiers blamed the chain of command saying that they were just following orders to ‘be tough’ and ‘break’ the prisoners as part of their interrogation for military intelligence purposes. Witnesses for the defense discussed emails which gave orders to strip soldiers, deprive them of sleep and cigarettes and generally “stress them out”. Staff Sergeant Frederick claimed that staff had no support or training. It was noted that soldiers were praised and told that they were doing a good job and that their treatment of prisoners was having positive results. Undercover sources say that staff inappropriately used an interrogation programme called ‘Copper Green’, used in the 2001 Afghanistan invasion to interrogate maximum-risk Taliban and Al Qaeda suspects. This was totally out of proportion with the crimes of many Abu Ghraib inmates some of whom who were detained for charges such as car-jacking and not international terrorism.

Questions raised by the events at Abu Ghraib:

Social psychologists such as Philip Zimbardo have identified a number of issues raised by abuse in Abu Ghraib such as…

  • What makes ordinary people commit such horrible abuse?
  • Could this happen in any prison?
  • Should the soldiers have been discharged?
  • How can we stop this type of abuse occurring in the future?

Contribution to Society:

It could be said that psychologists such as Zimbardo have made a great contribution to society in their attempts to answer questions like these, enabling society to gain insight into how destructive blind obedience can easily occur in certain social situations such as prisons and other institutions, thus hopefully informing us on how to modify situations to avoid such brutality in the future.

Explaining events at Abu Ghraib

What makes ordinary people commit such horrible abuse?

Milgram may not have been surprised by what happened in Abu Ghraib prison as he describes how, given certain social situational circumstances, ordinary individuals can be led to behave in ways which they would not have expected and go against their own personal, moral codes of conduct. This was known as agency theory. It possible that given the social circumstances inside the prison and the power hierarchy of staff, the soldiers may have made the agentic shift and deferred responsibility for their actions to their superiors who told them to break the prisoners down.

Could this happen in any prison?

Zimbardo conducted a prison simulation study in the 1970s using a group of male students who were assigned guard or prisoner status. Very quickly the participants began to conform to stereotypical roles and behave in ways which fitted with those roles. Zimbardo noted that after only a few days, when the guards thought the cameras were off they began punishing the prisoners by making them to  adopt humiliating poses in a similar way to some of those seen in Abu Ghraib. This suggests that there is no difference between ordinary citizens and the soldiers in the prison. It does not make the behavior any more acceptable but it does not mean that they are monsters or deviant as some politicians would have us think. This is an example of the fundamental attribution error where we are more likely to assume that a person’s behaviour reflects underlying personality traits rather than being determined by the situation they are in.

Should the soldiers have been discharged?

It is interesting to note that in his speech Donald Rumsfeld says he accepts responsibility for what happened. This seems to support the agency theory as the ultimate authority figure assumes responsibility yet the people who supposedly followed orders were still assumed to be guilty and made to pay for what they did. It is not clear whether the soldiers showed moral strain but some of the photos suggest that they did not as they depict grinning faces and not those wracked with guilt as in Milgram’s study. While those such as Lynndie England claim she was just following orders (as in the defense given by WW2 criminals such as Adolph Eichmann

These two clips will explain a lot about what happened in Abu Ghraib.

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