Psychodynamics of Occupation and the Abuse at Abu Ghraib:
Interpretation After One Year of Revelations
04/06/05 "ICH" - - 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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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)
like to close with words from Chris Hedges' haunting meditation on
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
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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.
Copyright © Stephen
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