If you don’t violate someone’s human rights some of the time, you probably aren’t doing your job

by Henry on April 30, 2004

From tomorrow’s FT

Six US army soldiers are facing courts-martial for abusing and humiliating Iraqi detainees – activities uncovered during an investigation that also found widespread abuses at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, according to US military officials. The alleged abuses, made public by CBS News, included soldiers forcing prisoners to simulate sex with each other and to pose naked with American men and women in military uniforms. In photographs obtained by the CBS News programme 60 Minutes, Iraqi prisoners are shown stacked in a human pyramid, one with a slur written on his skin in English. In another, a detainee is shown with wires attached to his body in an attempt to convince him he might be electrocuted. In almost all photos, CBS said, the US soldiers are laughing, posing, or giving thumbs-up signs.
In an interview with CBS, Staff Sgt Chip Frederick, an army reservist and one of the soldiers charged, said he would not plead guilty … “We had no support, no training whatsoever, and I kept asking my chain of command for certain things … like rules and regulations. And it just wasn’t happening.”
The army’s investigation reportedly shows that military investigators asked untrained reservists to prepare inmates for interrogation, but offered little guidance. Because of the success rate of “breaking” prisoners prepared by the unit now under investigation, they were encouraged to continue their practices, Sgt Frederick said.

This really sounds pretty dreadful. It’s not My Lae, and it’s not on the same plane as what went on under Saddam Hussein. But it’s symptomatic of a more general moral deadening that’s taking place – a willingness to countenance the threat of torture, the turning over of people to third countries for torturing, and the employment of physical brutality in the ‘war on terrorism.’ People know this is happening – both the Washington Post and the Economist have run stories on this. But there’s no US debate about it that I can see; the stories sank like lead balloons. Even the Maher Arar case seems not to have had any impact in the US beyond a few bloggers, and a scattering of news stories in the back pages. There’s a lot of knee-jerk anti-Americanism among the left, especially in Europe, and an unwillingness to acknowledge the many good (and sometimes utterly wonderful) things that the US has done in the rest of the world. Equally, there seems to be a persistent unwillingness among many Americans to acknowledge the ugly things that are being done in the name of their national security. Perhaps this story – and the actions being taken to punish those who were directly responsible – will help change this. But I don’t have much confidence that it will.

{ 47 comments }

1

robbo 04.30.04 at 4:50 am

Takes some of the steam out of GW’s constant harking back to the bad old days of “rape rooms” and the like. Time to watch “The Jesus Factor” on Frontline, to remind me just how holy and in touch with the infinite Murka really is.

2

John Quiggin 04.30.04 at 5:00 am

Another point to think about is that most of these prisoners have probably been released by now – the usual period of detention seems to be a few months. I wonder where they are and what they (and the friends and relatives to whom they have told their stories) are doing.

3

Ben Benny 04.30.04 at 5:19 am

Look, this sort of thing is bound to happen wherever the US military goes. It’s what comes of recruiting the vast bulk of your soldiers from the bottom rung of society, doing nothing to further their education, and turning them loose in a country where people shoot at them, which they resent. It’s hardly counterintuitive that they would take out their resentment upon whatever prisoners come to hand.

The soldiers in Iraq aren’t compassionate bringers of peace; they’re high school dropouts with guns. The culprit here is the US military’s failure to advance their recruits in any manner other than firearms training. The people who the soldiers abuse aren’t the only victims of this problem. Most of the soldiers in the US military will eventually find themselves returned to the civilian lives they left, a few years older, and with no more useful job skills or prospects than they had when they signed up, despite the “get ahead” promises made in recruitment ads.

4

George Williams 04.30.04 at 6:05 am

Ben Benny describes the American soldiers in Iraq as “the bottom rung of society” and “high school dropouts with guns.”

I spent a lot of time around enlisted men and women as I was growing up, and neither of these assertions sounds at all accurate to me. My subjective experience aside, however, I’d be interested in knowing if you can support these characterizations with any data.

Furthermore, a very large number of the American soldiers in Iraq are actually in the army reserves, which means that when they are not sent overseas for combat (and aside from some part-time military responsibilities domestically), they hold down full-time jobs in the civilian world. According to this Kansas City Star article, one of the men accused in this case, Ivan “Chip” Frederick, is an Army Reserves Staff Sergeant with twenty years of experience in the reserves. And he “has been has been a correctional officer for six years at the Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn, Virgina.” Granted, “correctional officer” is not generally considered an elite job, but someone with twenty years of reserves experience and six years of experience in the “correctional” industry cannot reasonably claim that he did not know that there was anything wrong with the way the Iraqi prisoners were treated.

In short, I think we cannot conclude that members of the American military commit these abuses because they lack sufficient education, or because they endured economic hardship back home, or because they were not well trained.

Of those Iraqi detainees who have been abused and then released, John Quiggin writes, “I wonder where they are and what they (and the friends and relatives to whom they have told their stories) are doing.”

Well, I think we might have a pretty good idea.

As for American media coverage, The Washington Post and NY Times are carrying this story.

5

msg 04.30.04 at 6:08 am

Ben Benny-
I agree with you mostly, but I’d emphasize that these soldiers are coming from the bottom rung of a profoundly sick society. That seems an important distinction.
Their counterparts, wearing cheap synthetic uniform shirts in big box stores back home, are being treated with just as much disregard as their brothers and sisters in Iraq. By essentially the same authority.
Improving the job skills and prospects of the relative few who have joined the military, while leaving the rest of the “bottom rung” of young America to rot, probably won’t do much to rectify things.
It’s true, if the military were recruiting from higher up the socio-economic food chain we likely wouldn’t be seeing images of these horrific acts now, but only because they would have been more professionally hidden. As much of the truth of this nightmare is hidden yet.

6

Lindsay Beyerstein 04.30.04 at 6:45 am

US soldiers are taking the fall for mercenaries who serve under no controlling legal authority. According to today’s Guardian, the US is placing its own soldiers under the command of mercenary interrogators who answer to no one. The story notes that one military “contractor” was charged with raping an Iraqi prisoner, but the charges were dropped because the US had no jurisdiction over him.

The siege of Faluja was a response to the brutal murder of four American mercenaries. The US depends heavily on military contractors to perform legitimate services as well as war crimes. Now the Iraqis know that American mercenaries can rape and torture with impunity.

The sheer arrogance of the Americans is stunning. They claim the right to avenge the deaths of their own soldiers of fortune. Yet they disavow all responsibility for what these “freelancers” do on their behalf.

7

ben benny 04.30.04 at 7:00 am

msg: One of the differences is that army recruitment promises advancement and seldom delivers. Minimum wage jobs, unenviable though they are, make no such false promises.

George: The current recruitment methods of the US military, of targeting disadvantaged neighbourhoods and schools is well documented and reported. It isn’t really a valid point of contention. A simple google search should turn up a wealth of articles on the practice. I was, however, wrong to claim that they were high school dropouts. Most enlisted soldiers are high school graduates who were unable to attend college. My mistake.

8

George Williams 04.30.04 at 7:11 am

Google returns 267,000 hits in response to a search for “recruitment methods of u.s. military.” How about helping to separate the wheat from the chaff by providing a few links to some of the best resources that support your position and that are available on the web?

“It isn’t really a valid point of contention.”

I suppose that’s one way of trying to win an argument.

I think I’ll counter with, “Yes, it is.”

9

Ben Benny 04.30.04 at 7:32 am

Um, well, to begin with, it’s not a new thing by any stretch of the imagination. Military recruiters have always targeted the poor. It’s hard to get college graduates from The Hamptons to sign up for frontline service. But all obviousness aside, here are some links:

This one’s a bit tendentious, but has plenty of statistics

Hip-hop recruiting

Will those do for starters? If you want more, try searching for “poverty draft”.

I recall seeing a statistic (it may be in the second of those two articles), that the president’s order to accelerate the naturalisation of immigrants who sign up for the military has netted around 37,000 hispanic recruits. That’s illegal immigrants, which is pretty much targeting the bottom rung, no matter how you look at it.

10

jdsm 04.30.04 at 8:07 am

From what I understand, the people doing the torturing were mercenaries, not regular army folk. It’s not that surprising that people who go there for the money like to throw their weight around.

11

Matthew 04.30.04 at 9:19 am

The photos are quite horrendous.

12

Dan W 04.30.04 at 9:59 am

I agree that this is pretty dreadful. I might even use the word “horrifying”. I certainly would not condone any of this in any way, shape, or form. That said, I’d like to point out one good thing: as the first sentence of the story said, the soldiers are facing courts-martial. Of course this is no guarantee that they will be convicted; on the other hand, we do not know the entire story here and I would not want to pass judgements on these soldiers without knowing a great deal more information than was present in the article. But even for them to be facing a court martial means that their actions were taken very seriously and they are in a heap of big trouble, and I’m glad to hear that.

13

Matthew 04.30.04 at 10:06 am

Now that the US military has (or rather wants) to control the same religious and troublesome factions that Saddam did, they are likely to evolve the same methods, although thankfully the media pressure stopped it happenning …this time. But how many untold tragedies are happenning out there? And since many US soldiers were told they were going to go after the “terrorists”…
Saddam didn’t just perform these things human right abuses because he was pure evil. They had a function.

14

bryan 04.30.04 at 10:49 am

Well I remember when I was in high school, one of my classmates was signing up for infantry, according to him he just ‘wanted to kill somebody’ (actual quote) and I suppose he was willing to give up his heavy metal hair cut to get what he wanted.

15

Jonathan Edelstein 04.30.04 at 12:36 pm

Ben, I take it you’ve never actually been in the United States military. I wasn’t the only one in my company with a graduate degree.

16

drapeto 04.30.04 at 3:03 pm

It’s not My Lae, and it’s not on the same plane as what went on under Saddam Hussein… There’s a lot of knee-jerk anti-Americanism among the left, especially in Europe, and an unwillingness to acknowledge the many good (and sometimes utterly wonderful) things that the US has done in the rest of the world.

genuflect, genuflect, lest ye be misunderstood.

17

t 04.30.04 at 3:13 pm

do ben benny and msg really want to say that what those soldiers (or mercenaries, whichever) did to prisoners in iraq, they did because they came from “the bottom rungs of society”? because, since everyone seems to have missed it, the real problem is not whether or not military folks are well-educated (some are, some aren’t) but the implication that torture is something that those people do–you know, the riff-raff–not something that people like our well-educated, privileged selves would do. is that really an argument anyone wants to make?

because, while i am too lazy to go drag up a bunch of references for you, i’m fairly sure that philosophy, science, and history present a lot of evidence to the contrary.

18

John M. 04.30.04 at 3:29 pm

Note the deafening silence of the pro-war blogosphere on this matter. Not to mention Fox News and O’Reilly etc… Not a peep. You’d think they’d be outraged as well.

19

John Isbell 04.30.04 at 3:52 pm

“a willingness to countenance the threat of torture.”
I’m not sure how “the threat of” crept in there. Otherwise, yes.
I passed a post about right blogosphere reaction, possibly on Pandagon. “This is no big deal and plus only traitors would publish it”, that kind of thing. So there has been some.

20

jdw 04.30.04 at 4:04 pm

This was apparently a Reserve unit, which probably means the soldiers weren’t from the “bottom-rung” of society. And I’m pretty sure that you need to be somewhat affluent to have the creepy sexual pathologies that these soldiers did.

Anyway, I’m having a little trouble getting incensed at the gubment or the military over this. I don’t think you could properly call it “torture”, it doesn’t seem to have been condoned by higher-ups (at the most, a few people might have turned blind eyes), and the maltreatment wasn’t even part of any interrogations. It seems to me like this is about a couple of sadists and a dozen or so people who were afraid to say anything.

21

Steve 04.30.04 at 4:18 pm

While I agree with the tenor of complaints here, I think it is important to keep in sight the fact that what the pictures show is objectively not THAT bad. It is humiliation, and distasteful, but it is not torture (save for the picture of what appears to be the body of an Iraqi man beaten ?to death?). That level of humiliation is not much greater than that performed on marine corps basic trainees, or on soldiers who go through SEERS training (essentially escape and evasion training-training given typically to pilots to prepare them for the possibility of being shot down behind enemy lines, having to avoid capture, and preparing them for the psychological humiliations that could result from their capture-and I’m not sure if I got the acronym right). If you were captured by insurgents in Iraq and the worse you could say is that they took pictures of you with your pants off and with nasty arabic written on you leg, you would consider yourself pretty lucky.

Understand though, that in spite of that, the soldiers and the chain of command should be imprisoned and/or thrown out of the military, and a complete investigation of the command structure there needs to be done. It displays an utter moral failure on the part of the soldiers and their officers to engage in and allow that kind of behavior.

Steve

22

Ben Benny 04.30.04 at 4:19 pm

t: Educated people tend to exhibit more restraint.

Jonathon: If there were a few other college grads in your entire company, excluding officers, that might be roughly inline with the statistics (about 8% in regular army, 1.5% in marines including everyone who has completed at least a single semester).

23

Halfway educated 04.30.04 at 4:20 pm


not something that people like our well-educated, privileged selves would do

There is a case to be made for the fact that education is influencing the attitude towards torture, at least in this case.

Notice for example that the officer responsible for the torture, Janice Karpinski, is not charged with torture. Only those actually committing the acts are charged with that.

According to the news reports six soldiers are charged with criminal offences, presumably all non-officers. And five officers and three others have been charged with non-criminal “administrative” offences.

This standard abuse of the rulebook in the military. Formally the officer is responsible, but in case of criminal acts every soldier has his own responsability. The point is that a less educated soldier doesn’t know when he is crossing that boundary. In this case it should have been absolutely clear, whether they know the Geneva conventions or not, that they were involved in criminal acts. But they were not corrected by their environment, they even say they were encouraged.

And here it is that the difference is created according to the level of “education”.

Torture is condoned in the current war against “terror”, but the educated know that is should be “moderate”, and definitely not public and accountable. But these idiots took pictures of their crimes and even failed to keep those pictures private. And thus they will hang.

(“moderate” as sleep deprivation, psychological violance, threats and coercion etc.)

24

No Preference 04.30.04 at 4:25 pm

From what I understand, the people doing the torturing were mercenaries, not regular army folk.

They were Army reservists, not mercenaries.

I don’t think you could properly call it “torture”, it doesn’t seem to have been condoned by higher-ups (at the most, a few people might have turned blind eyes), and the maltreatment wasn’t even part of any interrogations.

It’s hard to imagine a cheesier apologia. What do you suppose “turning a blind eye” means, if not condoning? As for the whether this could properly be called torture, see this.

I see that CNN is with you, however. They’re putting “Abuse” in quotes on their headlines.

25

Jonathan Edelstein 04.30.04 at 4:31 pm

There’s a lot of knee-jerk anti-Americanism among the left, especially in Europe, and an unwillingness to acknowledge the many good (and sometimes utterly wonderful) things that the US has done in the rest of the world. Equally, there seems to be a persistent unwillingness among many Americans to acknowledge the ugly things that are being done in the name of their national security.

There’s a correlation between the two, wouldn’t you say?

26

George Williams 04.30.04 at 4:50 pm

t much more clearly makes the point I was trying to get across in my above comments.

In response to my request for links to some of the best resources on the web in support of his position that the military recruits predominantly from the “bottom rungs” – the “well documented and reported” sources he referred to earlier – Ben Benny provides two sources, the first of which is this:

This one’s a bit tendentious, but has plenty of statistics

Either I don’t know the meaning of the term “well-documented” or this is a resource without any documentation.

I’m trying to get across that you will need to provide evidence for your assertions in order to persuade people of your position. Just expressing impatience with people for not already agreeing with you (or just telling them to go to google, where they will find plenty of evidence to support your position – is there any position for which google does not lead you to supporting evidence?) is not likely to help others see things your way.

There is a problem with the way the U.S. conducts itself in the world. There is a problem with the way our military behaves when it is deployed internationally. We cannot excuse this behavior through condescending analysis of how “the bottom rungs of society” don’t know any better than to abuse prisoners of war. We cannot convince others that there are problems without a more carefully constructed argument.

27

Steve 04.30.04 at 5:01 pm

Note: The question of whether the military recruits from the ‘bottom rungs of society’ is utterly meaningless. Of course the military recruits from the ‘bottom rungs of society’ if we mean by that ‘among those who won’t be going to college.’ Its an organization, just like most organizations, which is manned by non-college educated people and run/managed by college educated people. By this standard, Ford Motorcompany is an organization that recruits from the ‘bottom rungs of society’ (non-college educated factory workers, college educated management). Walmart is an organization that recruits from the ‘bottom rungs of society’. Your local city government is an organization that recruits from ‘the bottom rungs of society’ (sewer workers, road workers, etc). Its a meaningless categorization.

Steve

28

Ben Benny 04.30.04 at 5:03 pm

George, I’m not going to spend the rest of my life doing google searches to satisfy you. If you want to make the case that “grunt soldier” is as popular a career option among the middle and upper classes as it is among the lower, go right ahead.

29

t 04.30.04 at 5:13 pm

ben benny: “educated people tend to exhibit more restraint”? that’s a ludicrous statement. presumably all you mean is that education is a class marker. this is true, but it is no guarantee that one will not abuse one’s power given an opportunity. anyway, my real point, since i must spell it out, is that saying that one shouldn’t be surprised at such things since the military recruits from the bottom rungs of society including illegal immigrants is, to be blunt, racist and classist. being educated does not free one from basic facts of human psychology.

halfway educated: i’m not sure i quite follow your point. is it that the military has a clear cut distinction between the responsibilities of enlisted and officers? i know this to be true. i also know that what you call “moderate torture” is a routine part of military training and interrogation techniques, and that soldiers (officers and enlisted) are taught both to withstand and to practice such techniques. but i don’t agree that enlisted people as a group don’t know when they’re crossing that line. i think that the soldier who is defending himself by saying he asked for guidance and received none has a fairly good defense, in military/legal terms: it is the responsibility of the supervising officers to supervise, as you say. and yes, officers are insulated from responsibility, to some extent, by not performing the manual labor themselves. on the other hand, the fact that at least one soldier asked–he claims repeatedly–for guidelines indicates that he had a sense that there was a line being crossed. i do take the point that not all soldiers may be up on the geneva convention and the rules of war; on the other hand, i think that even those who ARE up on such things can and do break the rules in the right circumstances. my point was only that there is no inherent reason why the “bottom rungs” are more prone to torture than the upper crust. even if, as i think you’re pointing out, the system, when it’s functioning, is set up to insulate the uppers from getting their hands dirty; remove the safeguards, and (some) officers will do the same sort of thing. most people would.

30

George Williams 04.30.04 at 5:21 pm

Ben Benny, if you think that I’m the only one who will remain skeptical of your position until you provide examples of the “well documented” sources that exist in support of your argument, good luck to you. If it will take you the rest of your life to find such a source using Google, how well known can these sources be?

I am not trying to “make the case that ‘grunt soldier’ is as popular a career option among the middle and upper classes as it is among the lower.”

It seems there are two parts to your argument: 1) the military recruits from “the bottom rungs of society,” 2) recruits from “the bottom rungs of society” are more likely to abuse prisoners of war than those from the middle and upper class.

I asked for evidence to support the first part of the argument, and I am apparently not the only one in this thread who finds the second part of the argument questionable.

I am sorry that you are angered by this discussion. I promise to shut up, now.

31

jdw 04.30.04 at 5:25 pm

_It’s hard to imagine a cheesier apologia._

That would indeed be a pretty cheesy apologia, if it were an apologia.

_What do you suppose “turning a blind eye” means, if not condoning?_

A sin of omission versus a sin of commission?

As for the whether this could properly be called torture, see this._

Your link doesn’t work.

_I see that CNN is with you, however. They’re putting “Abuse” in quotes on their headlines._

Calling it “not torture” means I agree with CNN, who puts scare quotes around “abuse”? Isn’t there some sort of continuum here, where something can be one but not the other?

Apparently I need to make it clear that I think abusing prisoners is wrong. I do. I also find it hard to believe that abuse — of this kind, at least — is widespread. But the soldiers responsible are being court-martialed, and I would think that there will probably be a crackdown. It’s pretty disheartening to say it, but the military is probably the branch of government that currently shows the most respect for human rights, and is least likely to countenance this kind of activity: had the CIA been doing this and we heard about it at all, it’d probably be left up to the Supreme Court to decide whether it’s legal, and Congress and the President would be hollering about judicial activism and talking about amending the Constitution in behalf of national security if the court found wrongly.

To my mind, weird sex photos in a military prison doesn’t come close to the enormity of exporting people for honest-to-goodness torture, or building a concentration camp in Cuba. But I’m an apologist, I guess.

32

Another Damned Medievalist 04.30.04 at 6:50 pm

I’ve had many military and ex-military folks among my students (there are something like 5 or 6 bases of various branches in a 40 mile radius). They’ve all been very bright and mostly well-informed before they step into a college classroom. For all of them, the military is a perfectly viable option for people who have graduated high school and haven’t decided what they want to do with their lives. Many of them go into it with eyes wide open, but see the possibilities of some job training, travel, and future college money. I think that it does these people a great disservice to assume that they are joining the service because they’re too ignorant to know better.
As far as the treatment of prisoners goes, I’m not sure what’s more appalling — the treatment itself, or the attitudes ranging from, “no one told us how to treat them,” to the arrogance of thinking that bending the rules is ok if it’s in a good cause. perhaps I’m wrong, but I thought that the Geneva conventions existed precisely because wartime fears and anxieties were particularly conducive to torture and human rights abuses. It is therefore mind-boggling to think that people are excusing the means because we’re at war.

33

No Preference 04.30.04 at 7:36 pm

That would indeed be a pretty cheesy apologia, if it were an apologia.

It was a little strong to label your post an “apologia”. My “apologias”. I think I was reacting to other posts as well as yours.

What do you suppose “turning a blind eye” means, if not condoning?
A sin of omission versus a sin of commission?

Officers have a clear responsibility to stop that kind of behavior. Deliberately ignoring it is a sin of commission in that context.

Your link doesn’t work.

Here’s a link that does.

I also find it hard to believe that abuse — of this kind, at least — is widespread.

First of all, Abu Ghraib by itself is a large, high-profile facility. Second, this activity appears to have been going on for months. Riverbend discussed this a month ago. Third, there have been reports of mistreatment at other facilities. Earlier today the BBC’s David Willis said that he had heard stories of other abuses at the US prison at Baghdad Airport.

I don’t think this is an isolated story. I think it’s emblematic of how many Americans view Iraq and Iraqis. That appears to be the main reason why Iraqis have turned against the occupation.

34

msg 04.30.04 at 7:38 pm

Ben Benny-
I still mostly agree with you, but I want to emphasize the similarities between the kids who wash up against the grates of the employment gutters, and the ones who enter the military as a career enhancement.
Some of those kids who stay home get to choose only between Wal-Mart and some other slave-portal, that’s a kind of passive recruitment right there. And it’s ultimately the same hive-energy drawing them in.
The fact that the military promises things which it doesn’t make good on, and the big box stores don’t, isn’t quite the essential difference you make it out to be.
And, there’s an unspoken assertion it seems, behind the idea of the “bottom rung” volunteer military, that things would be better if the more noble, or middle-class, or whatever, were being recruited into the armed forces.
But it seems clear that the whole point is to use disposable men and women, young ones, in the military, and at the “bottom rung” of the job market.
They both draw from the same, essentially surplus, population. Their executives both act with the same disdain for that population.
It’s that disdain I almost see in what you said.
Again, the “bottom rung” of a sick society is not the same as that of a healthy society.
For one thing, in a sick society many of the misfits and losers, the unsuccessful, are, perforce, themselves “not-sick”.

35

halfway educated 04.30.04 at 8:35 pm

t,

The relation between education and torture in the (US) military, is that the educated are staying within the written and unwritten rules, and the uneducated, I assume because they know neither, are more prone to violate those rules and cause things like this scandal.

It is in that sense I do agree with the original statement by Ben Benny.

It isn’t that difficult to maintain military discipline in these issues. But it does require an effort. And education.

To make a well educated guess, those that are going to be court marshalled over this issue aren’t those with the college degrees. As I said they will get off with some administrative punishment.

Your assesment


i also know that what you call “moderate torture” is a routine part of military training and interrogation techniques, and that soldiers (officers and enlisted) are taught both to withstand and to practice such techniques.

is almost certainly wrong. It may be routine for a very limited part of the military. But basic training for a standard soldier is a few weeks to a few months and almost certainly doesn’t include that. The most famous US POW couldn’t handle basic rifle maintenance, and the soldiers involved in this scandal complained that they received a days worth of training to handle prison issues. It would be a bit strange if they received a complete training in interrogation techniques.

Because if they did they wouldn’t have made such a mess of themselves.

36

Ted Barlow 04.30.04 at 9:53 pm

Re: the “bottom rungs.”. When I saw these photos, I couldn’t help think of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. It wasn’t even a week before students randomly selected as “guards” started to abuse the other students designated as “prisoners”. It didn’t go nearly as far as we see in these photos. However, the “guards” had no rational reason to be vengeful toward the “prisoners”, and the experiment was quickly stopped.

The participants were far from the bottom rung- most of them went to Stanford. Absolute power corrupts all over.

37

BP 04.30.04 at 10:11 pm

The chances that this happened to be the only (or even merely the worst) incidence of human rights abuses by the US army in Iraq, coincidentally captured on film, seems to me to be exceedingly low.

38

John Isbell 04.30.04 at 11:40 pm

Jeane d’Arc at Body and Soul posts and links to a new Amnesty International document reporting widespread allegations. The thread notes a year-old UK allegation and that the Brits are now investigating.
People may find it offensive to note that the military recruits from the poorest and least educated ranks of society, but that won’t make it less true (and I have 6 immediate family members who served). I won’t defend Benny’s second claim.

39

Gary Farber 05.01.04 at 1:04 am

I e-mailed both Chris and Ted with links to the original CBS story, the Times and my own set of links and comments at 2:48 p.m. Mountain Time on April 29th, thinking CT might want to post on it. I guess they were busy.

40

Tom T. 05.01.04 at 1:55 am

In any population of sufficient size, particularly a military predominantly of young men, there will be a certain number of crimes committed. Even if all of the American servicemen over there left the military and pursued graduate degrees in English Literature, a certain number of them would still commit violent crimes. The larger issue is the response from authority. So far, the military brass has generally said all the right things, although we still have yet to see how long this went on and who knew about it.

41

halfway educated 05.01.04 at 3:27 am

I find it surprising that education is so easily dismissed in this case. If someone is to be educated to work in a nuclear plant, you will require good high school results. Because that would be a good predictor for the results of the on the job training. If someone is going to work in various jobs in the military, it would also be appropriate to require some amount of education.
Just saying there are bad apples anywhere, regardless of education, is not an argument against the benefit of education.

The Stanford prison experiment looks convincing, in that it shows that even Stanford students are capable of this kind of ugly behaviour. Yet these students hadn’t had any training regarding the handling of prisoners.

To quote from the original rant from Mr. Benny:


It’s what comes of recruiting the vast bulk of your soldiers from the bottom rung of society, doing nothing to further their education, and turning them loose in a country where people shoot at them, which they resent. It’s hardly counterintuitive that they would take out their resentment upon whatever prisoners come to hand.

Were those soldier trained in proper procedure in handling prisoners, the chance of something going wrong would IMO definitely be less.

But if you recruit high school dropouts, it won’t be easy to educate them, (otherwise they probably would have finished high school), and apparently the US army didn’t even try to educate them in these issues. But they were from the 372nd Military Police Company. And it can’t be totally unexpected for MP’s to handle prisoners. They should know about the Geneva stuff, about proper procedure.

So the army left it to the good judgment of these soldiers how to treat those prisoners. And as the quote says, that is a sure way to make it go wrong. And to make things worse, according to the referenced Stanford experiment, even without any resentment, there would be a good chance of mistreatment.

All the more reason for the military to supply these MP’s with good training and education to prevent these kind of things.

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mitch 05.01.04 at 3:48 am

Is anyone else wondering if these prisoners were the guys who use to run Abu Ghraib?

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msg 05.01.04 at 5:09 am

Ted Barlow-
Yeah. And lovely Stanley Milgram’s contribution to the inhuman progress of the race.
The assumption is the experiment is a self-contained world in which the veneer of civility and decency is lost, while outside the laboratory context things continue to be morally sound.
I still think there’s an important point in Mr. Benny’s original post.
But it’s not about the isolated world of Abu Ghraib, or even the American military in Iraq; it’s about an us, not a them. We’re the ones, we have that absolute power.
At the same time as individuals most of us feel powerless to affect much of anything, collectively we’re changing the entire world, massively, permanently.
So that Acton’s corruption virus is at work, not so much on select powerful individuals, but on all of us collectively; though we’re mostly blind to it, and the power isn’t a direct expression of our will.
I won’t accept responsibility for anything that’s happened in Iraq, but I can’t wash my hands of it either. And the idea that it’s only the lack of mature instruction and a detailed lesson plan that’s given us these latest images of inhuman brutality just doesn’t get it.
The whole of American society’s in the midst of a grand Stanford Experiment, and it’s gotten ugly beyond bearing.
Maybe this will be enough to wake the more complacent among us.

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nick 05.01.04 at 6:03 am

Takes some of the steam out of GW’s constant harking back to the bad old days of “rape rooms” and the like.

Sadly not: he managed to express disgust at the reports while excusing his ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech by saying:

A year ago, I did give the speech from the carrier, saying that we had achieved an important objective, that we’d accomplished a mission, which was the removal of Saddam Hussein. And as a result, there are no longer torture chambers or rape rooms or mass graves in Iraq.

Indeed.

[off-topic: the official White House account of the Bush-Martin press conference includes such detailed transcription as Martin’s ‘We also — (begins speaking in French)’ and ‘(Responding in French.)’, along with Bush’s hilarious ‘Some of these guys understand French. (Laughter.) Raise your hand, Gregory. (Laughter.)’ Just wonderful.]

45

bryan 05.01.04 at 5:20 pm

tinfoil hat comes out: hey, maybe this was why Bush was so concerned about getting immunity for war crimes charges against U.S troops, it was already in the planning stages.

oh, sorry if that sounds like I’m hating.

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meanregression 05.01.04 at 6:48 pm

educated people from the so-called top rungs of society are also torturers, but they do it supported by their entrenched privilegesystem . even in the good ole u s of a.

case study: slavery in the southern u.s. while it’s true that poor white overseers and patrollers and just regular average working whites were responsible for the torture of slaves, so were the educated, moneyed masters. they didn’t just order torture, they did hands on torturing too. remember basic sociology, as in-group/outgroup divisions become more distinct, activities like torture become more likely.

it’s very possible that the military’s institutional practice of othering and dehumanizing iraqis is at the bottom of this torture. and it’s quite probable that this is not an isolated case. and it’s almost certain that higher ups, at the very least, knew of this and did nothing and will not catch any of the blame.

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msg 05.01.04 at 11:56 pm

Maybe we went through the wormhole.
Maybe we’re going backwards through time now, so that Negroponte gets nominated, and then the atrocities are made public before he can authorize them, the blood starts to vanish from his manicured hands before it’s been spilled, and the public outrage gathers in advance of what would have been intolerable offenses against human decency and justice.
Except they happened already, but still… maybe the good part, where these things don’t exist except in nightmare, is ahead of us now, instead of receding far behind.

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