Home > Abuse at Abu Ghraib, the Psychodynamics of Occupation

Abuse at Abu Ghraib, the Psychodynamics of Occupation

by Open-Publishing - Monday 3 May 2004

Wars and conflicts International Prison USA Stephen Soldz

Stephen Soldz

May 2, 2004 "ICH" — This week, CBS’ 60 Minutes II published the now infamous pictures of abuse and torture by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq (some of the pictures can be viewed on the New Yorker web site at

Seymour Hersh has documented in the May 10, 2004 New Yorker (Torture at Abu Ghraib: http://informationclearinghouse.info/article6124.htm ) that the abuse shown in these photos was just the tip of the iceberg. A 53-page Pentagon report completed in February listed some of the abuse:

"Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee."

Other evidence in Hersh’s piece indicates that in at least one instance, a prisoner was tortured to death under interrogation, then his injuries were disguised and body disposed of. Other deaths have also been referred to.

As Hersh documents, the Pentagon was well aware of the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

An internal report by the Army’s chief law-enforcement officer last November documented that the Military Police (MPs) guarding the prison faced tension between their responsibility to maintain an orderly prison and the involvement of the same MPs in softening up prisoners for interrogation. Yet, no action was taken.

One of the six military defendants in this case has emphasized the lack of any training or guidance in how to treat the prisoners, and the absence of any orientation to responsibilities under the Geneva Convention. While it is easy to dismiss this complaint as an attempt to avoid responsibility for reprehensible actions, the complaint does raise an important issue. The MPs were not provided any orientation or guidance because protecting Iraqi detainees was simply not of interest to anyone in charge. Further, no doubt the attitude, common among prison guards, was that the detainees must have done something bad to be detained there. So protecting their rights or their bodies was not important and protecting their spirit was a hindrance to the important task of extracting intelligence about resistance activities.

While the emerging official documentation of Pentagon awareness is useful, it’s important to keep in mind that the conditions in Abu Ghraib and the other US detention facilities have not been a secret from anyone who wanted to know. There have been dozens, if not hundreds of accounts of former detainees describing the abuses. The international press has repeatedly published articles on this. Of course, the abuse has seldom been reported with any prominence in the American press, but this is not surprising, as the U.S. press has until quite recently been primarily a mouthpiece for official claims.

Thus, for example, on July 23, 2003, Amnesty International published Iraq: Memorandum on concerns relating to law and order, which warned of "allegations of torture or ill-treatment" for those in US detention, including at Abu Ghraib. As stated there "the organization has received a number of reports of torture or ill-treatment by Coalition Forces not confined to criminal suspects. Reported methods include prolonged sleep deprivation; prolonged restraint in painful positions, sometimes combined with exposure to loud music; prolonged hooding; and exposure to bright lights. Such treatment would amount to ’torture or inhuman treatment’ prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention and by international human rights law. Amnesty International’s concerns with regard to allegations of inhuman treatment immediately after arrest and in detention camps run by the US military have been raised in its letter to Ambassador Paul Bremer of 26 June 2003. Regrettably, testimonies from recently released detainees held at Camp Cropper and Abu Ghraib Prison do not suggest that conditions of detention have improved."

That report further states "Amnesty International has received a number of reports of cases of detainees who have died in custody, mostly as a result of shooting by members of the Coalition Forces. Other cases of deaths in custody where ill-treatment may have caused or contributed to death have been reported." This report contains several case studies of abuse and torture of detainees. Saudi Arabian national Abdallah Khudhran al-Shamran, for example, "alleged that he was subjected to beatings and electric shocks."

As one other example from this report, Khreisan Khalis Aballey reported that while detained "he was made to stand or kneel facing a wall for seven-and-a-half days, hooded, and handcuffed tightly with plastic strips. At the same time a bright light was placed next to his hood and distorted music was playing the whole time. During all this period he was deprived of sleep (though he may have been unconscious for some periods). He reported that at one time a US soldier stamped on his foot and as a result one of his toenails was torn off. The prolonged kneeling made his knees bloody, so he mostly stood; when, after seven-and-a-half days he was told he was to be released and told he could sit, he said that his leg was the size of a football."

This July 23rd, 2003 report was not Amnesty International’s first complaint about the conditions of US detainees in Iraq. For example, the June 30, 2003 BBC News had this story: U.S. condemned over Iraq rights, which reported that Amnesty International warned that "conditions of detention Iraqis are held under... may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, banned by international law."

As another instance, in the July 22nd issue of the British newspaper the Independent, veteran middle east journalist Robert Fisk published The ugly truth of America’s Camp Cropper, a story to shame us all (available at: http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article41
). In this article, Fisk tells the story of Qais Mohamed al-Salman, an engineer and Iraqi exile who returned after Saddam was overthrown to help his country. He was lucky; he was only abused and had a label of "suspected assassin" pinned on his clothes. As Fisk reports, based on what he considers to be an impeccable Western source: "only ’selected’ prisoners are beaten during interrogation" there. Eventually, Qais al-Salman was released, but his mother had already given him up for dead as the Americans never notified the families of those they detained.

As a final example, the Iraqi blogger "Riverbend", in her blog Baghdad Burning, included in her March 29, 2004 entry: Tales from Abu Ghraib..., the story of a young woman, M., who had recently been released in mid January from Abu Ghraib, after being arrested with her mother and four brothers. While in detention, she herself was beaten and she witnessed several other beatings, including that of her mother, and "the rape of a male prisoner by one of the jailors." Riverbend concludes the heart wrenching tale with "By the end of her tale, M. was crying silently and my mother and Umm Hassen were hastily wiping away tears. All I could do was repeat, ’I’m so sorry... I’m really sorry...’ and a lot of other useless words. She shook her head and waved away my words of sympathy, ’It’s ok- really- I’m one of the lucky ones... all they did was beat me’" (italics added).

These stories are among the many I have included on my web page: Iraq Occupation and Resistance Report over the last year of Iraqi occupation. If I, a single individual maintaining a web page in my spare time, was well aware of the abuses being reported in the US prisons in Iraq, the only way the top generals, Pentagon officials, senior Administration policy-makers such as the President and Vice-President, and U.S. reporters could be ignorant of them is if they willfully chose to be ignorant. Much more likely, they were aware but considered these abuses - like the ones documented among detainees in Afghanistan, and those reported by the few released detainees from Guantanamo - to be the inevitable costs of war and occupation, especially, as is the case in Iraq, when that occupation now is opposed by the majority of the occupied.

Under conditions of occupation, the occupier is faced with the task of attempting to win the support of the occupied population when possible and of instilling fear and a sense of hopelessness when winning them over is not possible. Further, the occupation must be justified to the soldiers of the occupying power, who may have reservations about the role they are expected to play. Humiliation of the occupied is an important element in both of these tasks. The occupying army learns to view the occupied as inferior, as not as "civilized" as the occupiers view themselves. Thus, Hersh quotes the testimony of Specialist Mathew Wisdom, an M.P. at Abu Ghraib as he described one of the scenes of coerced sex between detainees depicted in the photographs: "I saw SSG Frederick walking towards me, and he said, ’Look what these animals do when you leave them alone for two seconds’" (italics added). In case we are tempted to dismiss this as simply the aberration of a sick individual, consider the comments of a senior British officer in Iraq to a reporter from the British Daily Telegraph on April 12, 2004 (available at: British commanders condemn US military tactics:


about the attitude of the U.S. military toward the Iraqi populace: "They don’t see the Iraqi people the way we see them. They view them as untermenschen. They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life in the way the British are." (Of course, recent revelations of torture of detainees at British hands raise questions as to the degree of concern the British have for Iraqi life. And the over 100,000 Iraqis killed in the British occupation earlier in the century make clear that Iraqi life was cheap when Britain was the dominant colonial power. See Hussein Askary: Lessons To Be Learned: Iraqi Resistance to British Occupation 80 Years Ago)

To view the Iraqis as animals, or as subhuman, as untermenschen, makes it easier to dominate them, to break down their doors in the middle of the night, to imprison them without charges and without notifying their families, and to use torture and "torture lite" (to use that apt term of Ira Chernus: U.S. "Torture Lite Led to Saddam Capture) in order to break their spirit as an aid to interrogation. If, further, one can get the occupied to view themselves as inferior to the occupiers, the occupation may eventually be seen as acceptable, as natural, even as beneficial. This was the psychology of colonialism and it is the unconscious logic dominating the Iraqi occupation.

Of course, the occupiers usually begin more benevolently. The occupied are more akin to children, who need to be "educated", to the standards of "Christian civilization" in the old days, to "Western democracy" in the present world. Trouble arises when this projected image - with all its accompanying fantasy of being welcomed with open arms by the "children" eager to be educated - collides with the unfortunate reality that the occupied are really adults from a different culture, with their own traditions, wishes, and dreams. Then the occupation gets ugly. If the children are so ungrateful as not to welcome the education the invaders so graciously provide, it’s surely a sign of their inferiority. Only animals or untermenschen would be so crass as to refuse the kind offer of civilization. Well, they’re not worthy of us any way, so it doesn’t much matter how we teat them.

If one thing became clear in the 20th century, it is that ordinary people are capable of the most horrendous acts. As both psychoanalysts and social psychologists have pointed out, the capacity to do evil resides in us all. Certain circumstances are more likely to encourage the _expression of this universal capacity. These circumstances include being one of a group, being able to attribute responsibility to others or to lofty goals, being in an environment experienced as alien and dangerous, and being in an overall climate in which there is little or no accountability. All of these circumstances are present to a great degree among the occupying army in Iraq.

We have known for a long time that absolute power corrupts. Therefore, those who create an environment in which occupying soldiers - Americans - have absolute power with virtually no limits and no accountability, bear the ultimate responsibility for the horrors that occurred at Abu Ghraib, and that continue to occur on a daily basis throughout occupied Iraq.

If President Bush, the senior US generals, and all the other commentators filling the airwaves with pious outrage are not directly lying, it is solely because of that marvelous human ability, identified by psychoanalysts and novelists, to know and not know something at the same time. As the soldiers caught in those horrifying photos are crucified in the press and in the courts, let’s not pretend that its because of their personal weaknesses that these horrors occurred. Let’s not protect ourselves by pretending that it’s only the evil that resides in a few bad soldiers that allows such barbarities to occur. Such pretense is but a defense, in both the legal and the psychoanalytic meanings of that term. Rather, let’s remember that it’s a direct consequence of the logic of occupation and it is the planners and organizers of that occupation who bear primary responsibility. Further, each and every one of us who has not done our best to know what was being done by our country in a foreign country, who has let ignorance, hopelessness, and the desire for a normal life interfere with the citizens’ responsibility to know, and to act to change that which is bad in our country’s behavior, bears our own responsibility. These atrocities were truly committed in our name. They are our atrocities.

So what should be done? Of course, the overall goal must be to end the occupation, to bring the soldiers home and allow the Iraqis to determine their own fate. They may not make the decisions we would make, but that’s what adults do, they make their own decisions. And the occupation will end. The recent CNN/USA Today poll of Iraqi attitudes demonstrated strong opposition to occupation before the recent uprising. All accounts indicate that, over the last three weeks, Iraqi sentiment has moved decisively against the occupation. The release of these photographs will be the final straw. No claims to moral authority or legitimacy with Iraqis will survive. All that will remain is brute force, and brute force is a weak weapon against modern nationalism. Thus, the US will either withdraw soon, without further loss of life, or it will be thrown out after massive conflict, suffering, and death. But it will leave.

In the meantime, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the levels of abuse at Abu Ghraib and other detention facilities. These must be based on limiting the corrupting absolute power that naturally adheres there, as well as on recognizing that institutions usually place self-protection at the top of their list of priorities. Thus, the world should not allow this be a matter for the American military alone to deal with. We must support the call of Amnesty International for an independent investigation of the conditions at Abu Ghraib and the other detention facilities. But, we must not stop there. It is vital that all prisons and detention centers be routinely monitored by independent observers not bound to speak privately. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) does occasionally visit these centers, but they do not have observers based there and the ICRC policy is only to make their conclusions known privately to the institution they inspect while not releasing any report to the public. These horrors make clear that this level of oversight is no longer sufficient. We need an international campaign to demand permanent, independent, international observers in every Iraqi prison and detention center. Further, this is the time to demand the same for the detention centers in Afghanistan and Guantanamo. The world outcry over these atrocities creates a moment to have our message paid attention to and an opportunity to act. Let’s not lose the opportunity to start turning around the barbarities we have come to accept as normal, or despicable but impossible to challenge.

Stephen Soldz (mailto:ssoldz@bgsp.edu) is psychoanalyst and a faculty member at the Institute for the Study of Violence of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is also a founder of Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice ( http://psychoanalystsopposewar.org ), and maintains the the Iraq Occupation and Resistance Report web page ( http://psychoanalystsopposewar.org/ORR.htm ).