10 Years After Abu Ghraib, Textbook Story Often Oversimplified (Op-Ed)
Electrically stimulating the brain can make people comply with social rules more or less, depending on whether they could be punished.
Credit: Human brain image via Shutterstock

George Mastroianni is a professor of psychology at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

 Ten years ago, during the months of October, November and December 2003, events that would soon engage the attention of the world were taking place at the Baghdad Central Confinement Facility. This Saddam Hussein-era prison complex was located near Abu Ghraib, Iraq. "Sixty Minutes II" broke the story a few months later, and "Abu Ghraib" soon took its place in the public consciousness, like the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, as a symbol of much that was wrong with an unpopular war. An article in The New Yorker by Seymour Hersh a few weeks later set the tone for much of the discussion that would follow.

 The events at Abu Ghraib were the subject of several high-level U.S. investigations, and resulted in the court-martial and conviction of 11 soldiers. One commissioned officer received non-judicial punishment; another was court-martialed but acquitted, and several others received administrative sanctions, such as letters of reprimand, through the personnel system. The highest-ranking soldier to serve time in prison was a staff sergeant.

 Placing blame for the abuses, however, soon became a highly politically charged controversy. The administration of President George W. Bush, the military and the political right sought to identify the abuses with the individuals who were charged and convicted (the "bad apple" approach), while others sought to expand and elevate responsibility for the abuses much higher up the chain of command, to include the president, secretary of defense, vice president and other officials. These leaders, it was claimed, had created conditions making those abuses nearly inevitable by supporting new "enhanced interrogation techniques" to be used in interrogating detainees (the "bad barrel" approach).

 This bad barrel explanation soon received scientific support from social scientists, who invoked the Milgram obedience experiments and especially the Stanford Prison study conducted by Dr. Phillip Zimbardo to explain the crimes. Dr. Zimbardo testified at the sentencing hearing of one of the soldiers, and wrote a lengthy book entitled "The Lucifer Effect" (Random House Publishing Group, 2007) largely devoted to a comparison of the Stanford Prison study and Abu Ghraib.

 While it may be difficult to gauge the current state of public opinion about Abu Ghraib, much of the commentary seems to support the bad-barrel view. A film entitled "The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," for example, opens and closes with clips from a documentary on Stanley Milgram's obedience studies, and clearly portrays the convicted soldiers as scapegoats.

 Whatever the state of public opinion, however, there is no doubt — insofar as textbooks represent a disciplinary consensus — that the consensus in psychology favors the situationist interpretation, which states situations can cause ordinary people to commit heinous abuses. Many introductory psychology and social psychology texts mention Abu Ghraib and the lesson drawn as, "Good people can be transformed by situations into something else."

 Psychology textbooks often discuss certain iconic studies or events in ways that seemingly have drifted from the basic facts, converting those studies into something more like parables. In the Little Albert study and the Kitty Genovese story, for example, textbook discussions often repeat factual inaccuracies that serve to make a larger point. While the inaccuracies may serve to dramatize or simplify valid concepts that rest firmly on other evidence, psychologists do not set a good example of scientific rigor and rectitude for our students when we fail to hew closely to the facts, or fail to report all the facts. Abu Ghraib seems headed for this same fate. [Contrary to Belief, Not Everyone Will Blindly Follow Orders]

 One powerful element of the situationist account of bad behavior lies in the notion of transformation. The fact that Milgram's subjects were average people drawn from the population of New Haven, Conn., brings their behavior home in a very personal way. The fact that the participants in the Stanford prison study were randomly assigned as guards or prisoners seems to powerfully diminish the potential role of individual, dispositional factors in the outcome. The realization that evil may arise not from a few evil people, but may instead be a consequence of psychological mechanisms that affect all people is one of the central insights of social psychology. It is also one that has deservedly achieved great popular appeal.

 There is, however, good reason to challenge the applicability of the transformation scenario to Abu Ghraib. The soldiers who committed the abuses at Abu Ghraib were not randomly assigned, but made a series of personal choices that brought them into the Army Reserve, into a military police unit and in some cases into the hard site where the abuses were committed.

 Dr. Zimbardo has argued that the soldiers at Abu Ghraib were stellar, all-American soldiers whose histories and personalities could not explain their abusive behavior. But an open-minded assessment of these soldiers reveals that some, at least, were not the all-American boy or girl next door. One of the soldiers had a history of violent behavior, and several photographed themselves and their fellow soldiers posed in overtly sexual situations long before any of them had heard of Abu Ghraib.

 So there are very good reasons to locate the causes of at least some of the abuses in the soldiers themselves. Moreover, situationist explanations usually interpret the transformation as both universal and irresistible, or at least very general and very difficult to resist. But the extremely bizarre sexual abuses engaged in by this small group of soldiers are not known to have occurred elsewhere.

 As far as the public knows, abuses such as lining Iraqi men up against a wall and forcing them to masturbate did not occur at other military prisons in Iraq or Afghanistan, or at Guantanamo Bay. And such abuses did not occur at Abu Ghraib when other soldiers were on duty in these same locations with the same detainees under the same conditions.

 It is also clear that there was a wide range of individual responses to the situational factors operative at Abu Ghraib, just as at the simulated prison at Stanford. There were ringleaders and instigators in these abuses; there were semi-involved bystanders whose degree of participation varied greatly, and there were resisters, who reported the now-infamous goings-on to higher-ups. While this does not invalidate the situationist explanation, psychologists should be careful to identify the relative contribution of internal and external factors in determining the behavior of the many individuals involved.

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 Scientists know that two behaviors that appear identical may nevertheless have markedly different origins. Photographs do not provide sufficient evidence to assert a connection between Abu Ghraib and the Stanford prison study. The "Lucifer Effect" is a lengthy but (on my reading) unconvincing attempt to find much more evidence than the photos to make the case. In fact, an objective look at the available evidence highlights the role individual, personal factors played in the abuses.

 Many have interpreted the Abu Ghraib abuses as excesses committed, either directly or indirectly, at the behest of an administration willing to bend the rules to acquire "actionable intelligence" during interrogations. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi men seen in the abuse photos were never interrogated, because they were not of intelligence interest. The abuses occurred (for the most part) when the men were brought into the hard site as a result of conduct issues at the large tent-camp housing common criminals at Abu Ghraib. Most of the abuses seen in the photos were meted out as a kind of vigilante justice on the part of the guards.

 This is not to say that abuses did not occur during interrogations, or that the Bush administration's policies might not have created confusion as to what was acceptable and encouraged pushing the boundaries in ways that led to abuse. There were hundreds of cases of known detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan related to interrogations, some resulting in detainee deaths in custody. But the crimes at Abu Ghraib do not appear to have been abuses of this kind. The abuses at Abu Ghraib were mainly thuggery.

 Of the abuses seen in the photos, only the use of military working dogs was on the list of enhanced interrogation techniques ultimately approved by Central Command, and their use at Abu Ghraib was improper because the appropriate approvals had not been secured. Moreover, only a subset of the dog handlers used their dogs improperly. In those cases, the soldiers received light sentences and higher-ranking officers were punished administratively.

 For Abu Ghraib, objective and systematic analysis will be difficult, but such analysis is needed if the cases are to be used in a credible way as teaching tools in psychology.

 Abu Ghraib was a politically charged issue from the moment the public learned of the abuses. That there are political dimensions of the analyses offered by at least some social scientists seems undeniable. Moreover, Americans today have very positive attitudes toward the military — perhaps unhealthily and uncritically positive attitudes — but little trust for high officials and politicians, especially those who got the country into wars now seen as unworthy by a majority of Americans. Citizens seem eager to excuse soldiers who misbehave, and social scientists seem just as eager to abet that excusal with vague references to famous experiments.

 Now that Abu Ghraib is in textbooks, experience would suggest it is there to stay, and that oversimplified and inaccurate representations may become still further embellished and tailored to the parabolic demands of the moment.

 Note: Lengthier discussions of these issues may be found in articles by the author in "A War Examined: Allies and Ethics" in Parameters and "The Person-Siutation Debate: Implications for Military Leadership and Civilian-Military Relations" in the Journal of Military Ethics.

 The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. The views expressed also do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on LiveScience.