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The Psychodynamics of Occupation and the Abuse at Abu Ghraib: An Interpretation After One Year of Revelationsby Open-Publishing - Monday 11 April 2005
by Stephen Soldz
There are various explanations for what went on at Abu Ghraib. The official US position is that a "few bad apples" among the reservist military police (MPs) there went out of control, violating orders to treat the prisoners humanely — "Animal House on the night shift," as former defense secretary James Schlesinger described it.(1) The MP defendants claim that they were following orders to soften up the prisoners as a prelude to interrogation. Investigative journalists have documented in detail the chain of memos, orders, and "advice" that led from the top reaches of the US administration to the actions of those MPs.
To write about the psychological aspects of the Abu Ghraib horrors, one must have a theory of what actually happened. So let me make explicit my view of what happened, derived from reading hundreds of newspaper and other accounts of abuse throughout the developing network of US detention centers in Iraq and elsewhere. After 9/11, decisions were made at the upper reaches of the US administration that detainees in America’s "War on Terror" did not deserve traditional protections.(2, 3) Justified by the needs of developing intelligence, brutal methods of treatment of detainees — "tantamount to torture" as the International Committee of the Red Cross calls it(2, 4) — became routine.(1, 2, 5-18)
The decision was made to adopt brutal techniques in order to "break" the detainees. As one e-mail in August 2003 from a Military Intelligence officer put it: "The gloves are coming off gentlemen regarding these detainees, Col Boltz has made it clear that we want these individuals broken. Casualties are mounting and we need to start gathering info to help protect our fellow soldiers from any further attacks. I thank you for your hard work and your dedication."(19)
The prison was put under the control of military intelligence.(2, 20) As recommended by Guantánamo commander Major General Geoffrey Miller, techniques of total control and torture in use at Guantánamo(4, 12, 19, 21, 22) were imported as Abu Ghraib was "Gitmoized."(1) As a former Army intelligence officer described Miller’s recommendation: "It means treat the detainees like shit until they will sell their mother for a blanket, some food without bugs in it and some sleep."(23) Waterboarding was imported and dogs were frequently used to instill fear in the detainees.(17) Pressure was put on the MPs guarding prisoners to "set the conditions" for interrogations, and to "manipulate an internee’s emotions and weaknesses."(20) Typical of large bureaucratic organizations, the MPs were given no clear instructions, allowing for "plausible deniability." Thus, the official story of a "few bad apples" doesn’t stand up to scrutiny as abuse was typical of the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib and at the myriad (over 20) other detention facilities in Iraq, as well as those in Cuba and Afghanistan. Further, it is not plausible to believe that these MPs, unschooled in interrogation techniques, rediscovered so many of the CIA’s standard torture techniques, designed to humiliate and "break" detainees, as well as special forms of sexual humiliation that would be especially humiliating and degrading to Arab males.(2)
However, the official story isn’t totally false, either. While it is hard to be certain, testimony at the trials of the Abu Ghraib MPs designated as the "fall guys" suggests that they did their share of freelancing. A number of these MPs were having quite a good time abusing the prisoners. As Pvt. Jeremy Sivits testified at the court martial of Spc. Charles Graner, "The soldiers were laughing, seeming to be having a good time" and Pvt. Ivan Frederick II testified that "everybody was smiling and carrying on."(24)
While I have no doubt that torture was policy, we still are faced with the questions of why MPs not trained in interrogation and torture proved so willing to adopt these techniques, and enjoyed themselves along the way, and why soldiers throughout Iraq and Afghanistan engaged in repeated acts of torture and abuse.
What I want to focus on here are a few relatively underemphasized aspects of the war and occupation that contributed to the pervasiveness of abuse. Like all wars, the 2003 Iraq invasion was proceeded by a propaganda barrage. Fantasies of weapons of mass destruction were propagated repeatedly by the Administration, politicians of both parties, and the corporate media, despite serious doubts having been raised as to the existence of these weapons by numerous knowledgeable critics.(25-27) Unstated, but understood by all, was that this war was to be revenge for 9/11; revenge for the death, but even more, revenge for the humiliation.(28, 29) When Saddam’s statue was toppled in Firdos Square in April 2003, the US troops draped it with an American flag. The desire for revenge, while unstated, suggested that anything visited upon the Iraqis was acceptable, as revenge creates its own logic.
Stated, rather, was the avowed aim to "liberate" Iraqis from an oppressive regime. Iraqis would greet the invading troops with flowers and open arms, it was claimed. Despite cute propaganda exercises like the stage-managed toppling of Saddam’s statue, the flowers and open arms never materialized. Iraqis were decidedly ambivalent about being invaded and occupied by a foreign power. Within weeks American troops were firing into crowds of Iraqis, killing a number,(30, 31) and lying about the events. Deaths of civilians at roadblocks were a constant.(32-35) And the insurgency grew and grew, its supporters coming to number perhaps 200,000, as estimated by the head of the Iraqi Interim government’s intelligence service.(36)
So what do occupation soldiers do when the stated reason for their occupation of another country is to liberate the populace, but many of that populace regard them as invaders and either respond sullenly to their presence, or actively resist occupation? One coping strategy is to try and distinguish between the "good guys" and the "bad guys." As Staff Sgt. Riley Flaherty expressed it: "What’s really hard is the fine line between the bad guys and the good guys.... Because if you piss off the wrong good guys, you’re really in trouble. So you’ve really got to watch what you do and how you treat the people."(37) That is, the occupied population is split into its good and bad elements, with evil projected onto the bad, and the good construed as largely childlike and in need of protection, but also prone to turn bad at a moment’s notice.
However, the task of an occupation army is one of control of the populace. As Sgt. 1st Class Glenn Aldrich, from the same unit as Sgt. Flaherty, put it: "I’ve got 200,000 Iraqis I’ve got to control with 18 people... so I’ve got to command respect. And unfortunately, all that hearts and minds stuff, I can’t even think about that." He goes on to explain "There are things I have to do out here that I can’t explain to my chain of command, and that the American people would never understand."(37) Given this requirement, the definition of a good Iraqi becomes one who aids the occupiers in their lonesome task, and there are precious few of them. As Sgt. Aldrich explains: "Because you aren’t helping me catch the bad guys, and if you’re not helping me, you are the bad guy."(37) Given this definition, the distinction between good and bad easily breaks down and nearly the entire occupied populace can become bad.
Another characteristic of occupation is the difficulty the occupation troops have in viewing the occupied as adults, as individuals with wishes, dreams, and intentions of their own. Rather, they are essentially childlike, deserving protection when good, and a spanking when bad. The same Sgt. Flaherty, on a frustrating day, explained: "These people don’t understand nice... You’ve got to be a hard-ass."(37) The entire populace becomes the enemy, as expressed by Sgt. Aldrich: "The one thing you learn over here is that there are no innocent civilians, except the kids. And even them — the ones that are all, ’Hey mister, mister, chocolate?’ — I’ll be killing them someday."(37) Note, the absence of any pretense that the occupation is intended to help the occupied. Such illusions are left for the media and PR flacks.
War, including war of occupation, of course involves fear, a pervasive fear and an awareness that death is possible at any moment. That fear, and that awareness, we are reminded by Terror Management Theory,(38) leads to a defense of one’s worldview, which in most cases means an increased attachment to the cultural norms of one’s society, and a rejection and punitive attitude towards those that threaten that worldview. For the occupier, it is the natives, the occupied and their culture, who are rejected.
Another aspect of war is its overwhelmingly masculine quality; war is an assertion of dominance over the other, perceived as weak, as cowardly, as a wimp.(39) Thus, the repeated description of the 9/11 attackers as "cowardly," probably the characteristic least accurately descriptive of them. As President Bush said that day: "Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward,"(40) attempting to remove the shame by describing the attackers with the most denigrating description. By this means the attacker is made both morally depraved and weak, not really masculine. Yet, the rhetoric simultaneously betrays the fear that underlies it. For today’s women in combat, proving that they are "one of the guys" can be the key to survival.(41)
As the occupied are rejected and become the repository of all that which is rejected by the occupiers, it is but a step to portraying the enemy, those unwilling to meekly submit to occupation, as absolute evil, as was expressed by Lieutenant Colonel Gareth Brandl on the eve of the November, 2004 assault on Falluja: "The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He lives in Falluja. And we’re going to destroy him."(42) Is it any wonder that Falluja was almost totally destroyed, with virtually no buildings left undamaged ? Or that Fallujans who return to their city are treated as if they are concentration camp inmates?(43, 44) Or that this new concentration camp was described as the "safest city in Iraq" by Marine Cpl. Daniel Ferrari,(45) while an anonymous soldier left a memento on a random household’s mirror: "Fuck Iraq and every Iraqi in it!"(44)
Now return to Abu Ghraib. A small contingent of ill-trained reservist MPs was in charge of guarding thousands of unruly prisoners who were enraged at being imprisoned, largely unjustly, and enraged at the squalid conditions in which they were kept, perhaps best symbolized by the bugs infesting their rancid food.(46) The MPs didn’t speak the language of the prisoners, and had few translators; communication difficulties were so great that the guards evidently did not know that a prison riot was a response to the food situation.
These guards were of low status in the military, being reservists, and were assigned to the undesirable task of guarding prisoners. They lived in constant fear, as nightly attacks on the prison were complemented by riots and attacks from the prisoners. Their military comrades-in-arms were dying in large numbers from the growing insurgency.
The pressure built to generate actionable intelligence from the prisoners, so that the anti-occupation insurgency could be broken. General Miller visited and recommended that the prison be dedicated to the gathering of intelligence, and that the brutal torture techniques developed at Guantánamo(4, 12, 21, 47-51) be utilized. MPs were to "set the conditions" for interrogation(20) by abusing and terrorizing prisoners. Military intelligence was placed in control of the prison by the head of US forces in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez.(20) Many arcane torture techniques, such as waterboarding and forced homosexual sex, developed by the CIA over decades, were put into general use.(3, 19, 52) The message was communicated that senior officials, including Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, were very interested in the intelligence being generated at Abu Ghraib, that the work of these lowly reservists was truly important.(19)
The effort to generate intelligence out of the prisoners was especially difficult as, according to military intelligence sources, perhaps 70%-90% of them were innocent of any involvement with the insurgents,(19, 53) and just happened to be present at a checkpoint, or in their home, when one of the brutal "cordon and capture" raids occurred.(19) Nonetheless, the response of top military leaders to their innocence was callous at best. Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski is quoted as telling Brig. Gen. Janice Karpinski, the officer in charge of Iraqi prisons: "I don’t care if we’re holding 15,000 innocent civilians! We’re winning the war!" while the officer in charge of US forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, retorted: "Why are we detaining these people, we should be killing them."(54)
The nature of prisons is such that prisoners are usually presumed guilty by the guards. If they didn’t commit the offense for which they were arrested, they must have done something wrong; why else would they be in prison? Under interrogation, those prisoners who refuse to divulge important information must be withholding, providing further evidence of their perfidy. These dynamics must have been even stronger in the Abu Ghraib situation, where the MP guards felt in constant danger and under pressure to demonstrate their worth through breaking the prisoners. To accept that many of the prisoners being kept in such abominable conditions were innocent could only be rationalized by dehumanizing them, by making them the embodiment of all that was unacceptable to the guards. If they weren’t guilty of serious offenses, they were, after all, only "hajis"(29) who, outside the prison, were kept in line with metal "haji-be-good sticks."(37) The very fact that these inferior hajis objected to their unfair imprisonment demonstrated that they were dangerous, and cried out for control. How could such dangerous inferior beings expect to be treated better once they were found guilty by reason of imprisonment? Surely the lowly MPs could demonstrate their worth by providing the punishment these unruly natives, the ungrateful occupied, deserved. To do less was not to do one’s duty.
As these guards did their work keeping the evil recalcitrant hajis in line, which, after all is a rather dirty task, it was not surprising that they tried to make the job interesting, even fun. How many of us can carry out an unpleasant job for months on end without finding ways to enjoy the work? Why should we expect that these poor prison guards in an alien land would do less?
Thus we see that the logic of war, the logic of occupation, the logic of imprisonment, and the post 9/11 logic of revenge all came together in an Iraqi torture center in 2003. The fact that similar actions have been reported in numerous other Iraqi prisons, as well as those in Afghanistan demonstrates that the horrors of Abu Ghraib were emblematic of the new American empire, indeed of empire itself.
Also emblematic of empire, is the denial with which this torture was met. The officials responsible ignored and denied numerous reports of prisoner abuse in newspapers and from non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross.(55-59) Within days of the release of the Abu Ghraib photos, I, a single concerned citizen with no special resources, had no difficulty detailing this long record of abuse claims.(14) The publication of the Abu Ghraib photographs and all subsequent revelations about the widespread nature of detainee abuse and torture were met with official denials that anything more than a "few bad apples" were to blame.(60) Furthermore, denial, in the psychological sense of unconsciously ignoring the importance of a fact or event, has characterized the American public reaction. While the majority of Americans told pollsters that the torture was wrong and that the US government was lying about it, and also that those who wrote the legal opinions justifying torture bore some blame,(61, 62) there was no major public outcry over the issue. It was hardly mentioned during the American elections by either major party candidate, or at either party’s convention. Those in charge when the torture happened were reelected, and many of those who developed and justified the policy of torture were promoted,(63-65) with little public outcry. Torture is now out of the closet, it has become an accepted, however distasteful, aspect of American life. As Mark Danner puts it: "We are all torturers now."(66)
I’d like to close with words from Chris Hedges’ haunting meditation on war:
"Each generation responds to war as innocents. Each generation discovers its own disillusionment — often after a terrible price. The myth of war and the drug of war wait to be tasted.... Those who can tell us the truth are silenced or prefer to forget. The state needs the myth, as much as it needs its soldiers and its machines of war to survive." (67, p. 173)
And we might add, it needs its torturers.
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Stephen Soldz (mailto:email@example.com) is psychoanalyst and a faculty member at the Institute for the Study of Violence of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is a member of Roslindale Neighbors for Peace and Justice and founder of Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice. He maintains the Iraq Occupation and Resistance Report web page.