A few thoughts on Abu Ghraib

Salon has published a superb compendium of materials related to Abu Ghraib. It’s well worth browsing through. It contains iconic images of the abuse at Abu Ghraib, and also excellent accompanying text, as well as video. Abu Ghraib may be the most well documented case of abuse by the military (and outside contractors) in the Iraq war, but don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s the only one. All militaries have a history of being nasty to the people they battle–this is the nature of war. War is about finding and defeating the other at any cost, and, ultimately, is about complete subjugation. You do not achieve victory by serving tea and crumpets to your prisoners–you achieve victory by humiliating and bebasing them. Fear is a powerful tool, and the United States military has invested a lot of time, money, and manpower in investigating the nature of fear. People who are afraid are unlikely to engage in activity which may be dangerous to their conquerors–unless, of course, they are left with nothing to lose.

Abu Ghraib amazes me on several levels. When the story first broke, I found myself thinking of the Stanford Prison Experiment. This infamous psychological experiment proved that otherwise reasonable, compassionate people can easily torture and humiliate others–even their own friends. Zimbardo likens the results of the Prison Experiment to the real-world horrors of Abu Ghraib. Otherwise normal people turned into villains with minimal effort–merely a change in living conditions and some subtle propaganda. One can only imagine how easy it was for the workers in Abu Ghraib–in Zimbardo’s experiment, prisoners and guards were chosen from the same sample group, and in almost no time at all, the guards were abusing the prisoners so violently that the experiment was ended early. At Abu Ghraib, the prisoners were clearly an enemy, marked with otherness, rather than fellow middle class college students.

Interestingly, Zimbardo talks about an all too often phenomenon when he says that “even the ‘good’ guards felt helpless to intervene.” In the case of the Stanford Prison experiment, evil did triumph, to the point that even those morally troubled by what was going on did not take steps to put a stop to it. This seems to be a frequent occurrence in group situations–the group is pulled along by a tide, and individual members are swept along with it, even if they violently disagree with what is going on.

Abu Ghraib also amazes me because the men and women who worked there were stupid enough to document their illegal abuse, quite thoroughly. While it can be assumed that military-run prisons in Iraq probably don’t have the same conditions American prisons do, a human rights violation is a human rights violation. If you’re planning on torturing or killing prisoners of war, do yourself a favour and hide the evidence. This would seem like common sense, and yet it’s a continual happening with torture and mass murder–those taking part in it feel almost driven to document it, which is a rather peculiar choice.

I can see how torture could get tempting, especially if I was in the military. The military fosters a group mentality, where an injury to one member of the group is an injury to the group as a whole. The group cohesiveness the military cultivates is vital to successful operations. Men and women working in close and dangerous quarters must be able to trust each other implicitly. As a result, watching your group members being picked off by insurgents is bound to be frustrating. Encountering those insurgents as captives in a more or less closed environment, I can imagine that it would be remarkably easy to engage in a bit of revenge. And that the military, in turn, would turn a blind eye. Not because the military doesn’t care about human rights violations, but because it understands the desire for revenge.

Of course, the insurgent status of those imprisoned at Abu Ghraib is in question.

I don’t think that Abu Ghraib held any lessons or new information for us. I think of Abu Ghraib rather as an encapsulated and well documented instance of an all too frequent event. Abu Ghraib concerns me not merely because what happened there was an awful thing, but because I wonder how many other Abu Ghraibs are out there, and how many of them my government is responsible for. Abu Ghraib might be viewed by some as a black mark on the American military–I think rather that it’s one of the many black marks on humanity as a whole.

Sometimes I wonder about what I would do in that situation. I wonder if I would go willingly along with the tide with a sense of vengeance, or to preserve my career, or if I would have the courage to stand up against it. I wonder how many people it takes to put an end to something like this, and if the courage of one person would draw others out as well, or if I would be a mere footnote to history.

I think about Hugh Thompson, one of the four officers who tried to put a stop to My Lai. I think about the immense risk he knew he was taking to save the lives of people he deemed to be innocent. I think about the huge amount of bravery he must have had to go against those ranked higher than him, because he saw something that was wrong and said “no, this must end.”

I think of Sofia Mendes, in The Sparrow, who said “we are many, they are few,” when I think about the nature of evil and wrongness. I think about Michael Valentine Smith, in Stranger in a Strange Land, who grasped immediately the follies of “civilized society,” and took steps to change the ways in which humans interact with each other. Sometimes I lie awake at night wondering how we get ourselves into these preposterous situations, and if perhaps we would be better off less developed, for with development, apparently, comes evil.

[Abu Ghraib]