> function openMain() > { > window.open("main.jsp","main","width=200,height=325,location=0,status=0,scrollbars=0"); > } > Abu Ghraib: Psychological and Cross-Cultural Issues in Sexuality, Individual Conscience, and Torture
My presentation at the 2005 Convention of the American Psychological Association in Washington D.C. (reproduced below) resulted from the revelations, in the spring of 2004, of the abuses of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. One thing that was striking in those revelations was the element of sexual abuse to which Iraqi men were subjected by members of the United States military. While the primary abusers were male, women were also enlisted to join in. As I began to look at those abuses, it quickly became clear that they could only be understood in a broader context that included: obedience to authority, group dynamics, and the transformation of repressed male to male sexual feeling into something darker—sadism.
Abu Ghraib: Psychological and Cross-Cultural Issues in Sexuality, Individual Conscience, and Torture

Ed Tejirian, Ph.D.

In Algiers, in 1957, Henri Alleg was arrested by French military authorities. Alleg was a leftist journalist and a supporter of Algerian independence. “The Question” was the book he secretly wrote  in prison after the elite paratrooper unit in charge of his interrogation had finished torturing him. It was smuggled out of prison and published in France. Even though it was banned and confiscated within two weeks, it sold 150,000 copies. The introduction to the book was by philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. The passages below are from Sartre’s introduction:

“In 1943, in the Rue Lauriston (that was the Gestapo headquarters in Paris), Frenchmen were screaming in agony and pain; all France could hear them. In those days the outcome of the war was uncertain and we did not want to think about the future. Only one thing seemed impossible in any circumstances: that one day men should be made to scream by those acting in our name.

“During the war, when the English radio and the clandestine Press spoke of the massacre of Oradour, we watched the German soldiers walking inoffensively down the street, and would say to ourselves: ‘They look like us. How can they act as they do? And we were proud of ourselves for not understanding.’

“Today we know that there was nothing to understand….now when we raise our heads and look into the mirror we see an unfamiliar and hideous reflection: ourselves.

“Appalled, the French are discovering this terrible truth: that if nothing can protect a nation against itself, neither its traditions nor its loyalties nor its laws, and if fifteen years are enough to transform victims into executioners, then its behavior is no more than a matter of opportunity and occasion. Anybody, at any time, may equally find himself victim or executioner.”

Alleg’s book showed that what Freud called the superego—the conscience—was  not set in stone—it could be influenced by both authority and the group. WW II, of course, had shown that on a ghastly scale. Later, psychological experiments by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo were  to show the same thing with good, law-abiding American citizens.

Background to Torture

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Physicians for Human Rights, and the International Committee of the Red Cross have all condemned our treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo. All these organizations agree that these abuses are NOT accidental  or random acts by a few sadistic individuals.  Rather, they’re the outcome of a systematic policy approved by the President and put into place by the Secretary of Defense. (The American Psychological Association, in contrast, has remained silent.)

A few months ago Amnesty International referred to Guantanamo as “America’s Gulag.” The President said: “It’s absurd. America is promoting freedom around the world.”

Like the French in the fifties, we Americans don’t want to see the face of the torturer looking back at us from the mirror. It bothers our conscience. How, then do we deal with the fact that people are looking at what we are doing to prisoners and calling it torture? In “The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense” Anna Freud talked about the mechanism of denial. The president denies that we’re torturing people because we can’t do that—we’re Americans. But the vice-president doesn’t have as much trouble with matters of conscience. Sometimes, he said, you have to go the “dark side.” And why do you have to do that? Because these people are “bad”—that’s what he said about everyone who was being held at Guantanamo. As for the Geneva Convention, it doesn’t apply here. Its provisions were called “quaint” and “obsolete” by the man who is now Attorney General of the United States. The result of the suspension of these provisions is illustrated in this and other images in this document.

When the Geneva Convention is suspended.

Iraqi father and his little son.
However,  the president said, even if they don’t deserve the Geneva  Convention, people will be treated humanely. But further down the chain of command, the “dark side” of the government’s double message was getting through. As one intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib said in an e-mail message he sent  in August 2003:  “The gloves are coming off, gentlemen, regarding these detainees. Col. X has made it clear that we want these individuals broken.”

In the first quarter of the 13th century the Inquisition was put in place by Pope Gregory IX. In 1252, it was authorized to use torture by Pope Innocent III. Torture in the name of God. (Al Quaeda’s atrocities are also committed in the name of God.) Torture is always justified by ends of which the superego—the conscience—approves. It’s okay to torture someone for a good cause—to root out heresy, to save lives, to save the country.

As  a species, we’re not all that nice—we do have a dark side—the vice president got that part right. Freud called it the “Death Instinct.” Wilhelm Stekel, a psychoanalyst and a contemporary of Freud, said: “In the human breast, cruelty crouches like a savage beast, chained, but ready to spring.” Permission to torture, like war itself, slips the chain and lets the beast out of the cage. What you then have is a supremely dangerous combination: The superego—the part of the self that civilization counts on to keeps the instinct to violence in check—teams  up with the worst in the human personality and justifies, maybe demands—violence. This is a pretty deadly alliance—worlds can be destroyed. But let’s scale it back to the individual level, and see what happens when “the gloves come off.” In fact, something truly sinister happens: what began as a means to an end…..becomes the end in itself. Torture for it’s own sake. Here is an example.

The Beginning of Torture

In Afghanistan in 2002, there had been a rocket attack on an American military camp and a 22 year old Afghan—he was a farmer and taxi driver,  and the father of a 3 year old girl—was turned over to our troops by a local Afghan guerilla commander. It later turned out that the guerilla commander had probably organized the attack himself and that the taxi driver was certainly innocent.

The scene I want to describe took place  at Bagram Air Base, about an hour’s fast drive from Kabul.

In 2002 anyone brought in for interrogation to Bagram—whether  innocent or guilty—was  routinely kept hooded and shackled for the first 24 hours. So, this young man—whose name was Dilawar—was hooded, and chained by his wrists to the ceiling. The other person in the scenario was Specialist Corey Jones of the First Platoon MP’s, probably also quite young.

As Specialist Jones tells it, he took the hood off the prisoner’s head  to give him water and Dilawar spit at him. Specialist Jones responded with a couple of knee strikes to his leg just above the knee.

This knee strike to the upper leg is very painful and also disabling; it has a special name: the common peroneal strike. 

Here are Specialist Jones’own words:

“He screamed out Allah! Allah! Allah! And my first reaction was that he was crying out to his god. Everybody heard him cry out and thought it was funny. Other Third Platoon MP’s later came by to see for themselves….It became a running joke, and people kept showing up to give this detainee a common peroneal strike, just to hear him scream out, “Allah.” It went on over a 24-hour period, and I would think that it was over 100 strikes.”

Permission to torture had transformed these young Americans into sadists.

After something like four days shackled to the ceiling, during which time he was beaten about the legs, alternating with being taken down for questioning and abuse by interrogators of both sexes, Dilawar died. The coroner said that the tissue in this boy’s legs had “basically been pulpified.” She said,  “I’ve seen similar injuries in an individual run over by a bus.”

Cross-cultural note: Specialist Jones apparently didn’t realize that “Allah” simply means God in Arabic and was the same God that Specialist Jones himself probably believed in.

In Bagram, as at Abu Ghraib, when these abuses were exposed, the only people so far held to account have been at the lowest level in the hierarchy.

Apart from one female reserve general, none of the officers in the middle or upper reaches of the hierarchy have been reprimanded and none will be prosecuted. How could they be? The policy that led to these abuses lead right up the chain of command to the Secretary of Defense and the President. Let’s look at how responsibility was distributed along the chain of command in Afghanistan when the abuses at Bagram were exposed.

At the top of the chain:

Gen. Daniel K. McNeil, commander of allied forces in Afghanistan: “No people were chained to ceilings; all methods of interrogation used were in accordance with generally accepted interrogation techniques.”

Col Theodore C. Nicholas II, Director of Intelligence, Amer. Task Force in Afghanistan: “I did not pressure the interrogation cell to violate standards to gain information. I would rather not receive the information than to harm an individual to receive it.”

Moving further down the chain:

Capt. Britton T. Hopper, Company Commander 519th Military Intelligence Batallion, Bagram, Aug. 2002-Jan. 2003: “There was a lot of pressure to get more intelligence…coming from top down, and probably the perception, on occasion was that we weren’t being as aggressive as we should have been.”  

Capt. Carolyn A. Wood, Operations officer in charge of interrogations at Bagram Control Point, July 2002-Jan, 2003: “Would like to get additional legal guidance. We would like to know what our left and right limits are in respect to stress positions and sleep adjustment, for instance.” (She apparently needed clearer guidelines for abuse. Apparently, it was not forthcoming so we have....)

Former Sgt. James A. (Alex) Leahy, interrogation team leader saying “Due to lack of clear policy concerning the legality of safety positions and the sleep adjustment schedules, we did not keep records of it.” (In other words, if in doubt, put nothing in writing.)

If General McNeill and Col. Nicholas truly didn’t know what was going on—and I don’t believe for a minute that they did not—it was because they didn’t want to inquire too closely into what their underlings further down the chain were doing, because they wanted to give them carte blanche to do whatever  it takes. (Captain Carolyn Wood and some of her team of interrogators later departed for Iraq and Abu Ghraib where, an army inquiry said, she applied techniques “remarkably similar” to those used at Bagram. Incidentally, she arrived at Bagram a lieutenant and left a captain. Apparently her work earned her a promotion.)

The evidence that upper echelons either turned a blind eye toward abuse of prisoners or actively encouraged it keeps on mounting. Captain Ian Fishback of the 82nd Airborne Division took the extraordinary step of meeting with Senator John McCain about the persistent abuse of prisoners by members of the First Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry of that division. These abuses included beatings, subjecting men to extremes of hot and cold and stacking them in human pyramids. For seventeen months, he failed to get his superiors to intervene to stop these abuses or even issue clear guidelines for the treatment of prisoners. James Yee, the Muslim chaplain at Gunantanamo, against whom charges of espionage were first made and then dropped, tells of how Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the camp’s commander regularly incited anger toward the prisoners by emotional slogans delivered to the troops. Guards responded, Yee said, by retaliating against prisoners both physically and psychologically.

Experiments on Obediance to Authority

In the now famous experiments done by Stanley Milgram in the sixties an ordinary person was put into a situation where an authority figure—a Yale professor directing a so-called “learning” experiment—was telling him he had to give higher and higher levels of shock to someone—actually Milgram’s confederate—for giving the wrong answers—or even no answer—to questions. (Not a bad paradigm for torture.)

There were signs of anxiety and conflict—sweating, trembling, nervous laughter. Still, a majority of the subjects went on giving shocks to the very end of the scale, which was marked by triple XXX’s in red. But a minority did not. Instead of obeying the authority, they obeyed the  individual voice of conscience and refused to go on.

The Stanford Experiment

In Philip Zambardo’s experiment at Stanford young men were recruited through an ad in a Palo Alto newspaper to take part in an experiment. They were randomly divided into two groups—guards and prisoners. The prisoners were made to wear smocks as their only article of clothing and stockings were put on their heads to make it look like their heads were shaved. The guards wore uniforms and mirrored sunglasses. The guards called prisoners by their numbers while the prisoners had to address the guards as “Mr. Correctional Officer.”

“Thumbs up” over body of a prisoner.
Zimbardo stopped the experiment after six days. A group dynamic very quickly developed among the guards where rebelliousness among the prisoners was met by escalation of ever stricter and more arbitrary deprivations and humiliations. No actual physical abuse took place, but psychological abuse did. And sexual abuse too—in  the form of making the prisoners simulate various forms of sex with each other—remarkably like what happened at Abu Ghraib.

Abu Ghraib

After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, there was much soul-searching about what the rules for interrogation were and the clarity with which they had been communicated down the chain of command. Seymour Hersh described the rules very concisely at a symposium in New York in 2004: “Do whatever you want short of killing him and if you kill him, put him on ice.” That is exactly what was done, as we can see this picture taken at Abu Ghraib [right].

While the hierarchy dithered about what  gradations of abuse were permissible, advancing and then revising what could and could not be done—stripping, isolation, sleep deprivation, stress positions, dogs—those in charge of the hands-on treatment of prisoners were  free to improvise, as in the picture below.

Man bleeding and abused after being bitten by a military dog.

What we had then was a situation that was similar to the Stanford experiment: guards had near absolute authority over  prisoners in a situation where what could and could not be done to them was fluid, uncertain, and ambiguous. They had authority but there was no authority FIGURE standing over them, directing them—as in the Milgram experiment—to turn up the current in precise stages. What then happened was what William Bion, the father of group psychoanalysis in the 1950’s at the Tavistock Institute in London talked about. As the psychiatrist in the group, Bion refused to play the traditional directive role that the members of the group  expected. With this vacuum in leadership, Bion said that the most pathological member of the group inevitably put himself forward as a candidate to fill the role.

Enter Charles Graner, the former civilian corrections officer. He stepped in to take the lead as the ringmaster. And it wasn’t just a question of the ends justifying the means. As at Bagram, it seems that the means—torture, and in this case, sexual sadism—had become the END in itself.

As de facto leadership of the group fell to Graner and a few others, a group dynamic coalesced and a group superego formed that declared the abuse of prisoners to be acceptable. People took pictures, shared CD’s. In one of the photographs that was circulated people are shown standing around in groups chatting while naked men are being shackled to each other on the floor of a corridor.  Those higher up in the hierarchy were demanding that pressure be put on people to talk and those down below were trying to deliver what they thought was needed.

The Prisoners

Our treatment of  prisoners in Iraq has been replete with the racism of a conquering power.  Who were the prisoners at Abu Ghraib? Why were they there? According to the Red Cross, a great many were caught up in sweeps in which whole areas were cordoned off and everybody within range scooped up and deposited there. Military intelligence estimated that 70%-90% of those held at Abu Ghraib were innocent of any wrongdoing. The Red Cross estimate was 90 %. General Taguba estimated low at 60%. So, of those tortured at Abu Ghraib we can say that the chances that the victim was innocent were pretty high—anywhere from 6 to 9 chances out of 10. Is it not racist to throw thousands of innocent citizens into prison in their own country and subject them to torture and sexual abuse?

Sexual Abuse

In what must be something of a first in the modern annals of war—at Abu Ghraib we had MEN sexually abusing other MEN. And in what must be something of a first at any period of history, women were doing it too.

CROSS-CULTURAL NOTE: One of the explanations was that these things were done because they were thought, psychologically, to be especially humiliating to Arab men’s sense of masculinity, for which homosexuality and being naked in the presence of other men (not to mention women) were presumably shameful. If so, these are ideas that reflect simplistic stereotypes about Arab culture. There are wide cultural variations among Arab and Muslim countries. Iraq under Saddam had been a secular state. Homosexuality wasn’t illegal. I don’t think that it was a big deal in Iraq, but I know that it is in the American military and—with the religious right riding high in congress and many parts of the country—the home front as well.

When I was traveling in Syria and Jordan some years ago, I was struck by the easy physical intimacy between men in both countries. Men walking on the street arm in arm or hand in hand, kissing in greeting were routine, things that even today many American men would be afraid to do. So, it was supremely ironic that Iraqi men, as in the picture below, were forced to be in intimate contact with each other’s naked bodies and to simulate having sex with each other—things that the American military would kick soldiers out of the army for if they were caught doing them with each other.

Sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners by United States military.
Research shows that many men whose identity is heterosexual can feel some degree of sexual attraction for their own sex. In my own research, it was just over forty-five percent. Concerns about masculinity, fears about touching each other, shame and ambivalence about  unspoken sexual feelings about other men—these are things that contemporary Americans are worried about. Half-baked theories about Arab male psychology and a lack of comprehension of Iraqi culture rationalized using the bodies of Iraqi men as a screen on which American men projected the conflicts of OUR culture, not theirs.

Pornography as Protest

But there was something else going on, I think.  By late 2003 many people sensed that the war had been launched on false if not fraudulent premises. Especially for the reservists and National Guard, they had been plucked out of their lives, taken from their families, had their plans for the future disrupted and dropped in the hell-hole that was Saddam Hussein’s former prison to work exhausting 12-hour shifts under uncomfortable and dangerous conditions. The place was overflowing with people—something like 10, 000 or more prisoners, and in turmoil. Outside roadside bombs and rocket propelled grenades were picking off their comrades who were being sent out in inadequately armored vehicles in a strategy that made them—and still makes them—sitting  ducks in what Senator Kennedy called a “shooting gallery.”

Those who wrap themselves in the flag of patriotism like to talk about “the sacrifices of our brave men and women.” There is no question that they are brave. But there is a difference between “making a sacrifice” yourself and being sacrificed by someone else—and many of them knew that. In today’s polarized America, sexual images are a battleground in the culture wars. For some people Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Superbowl shook the foundations of the republic and threatened the future of America’s youth. At some level,  I think it was understood—though maybe not consciously—that just taking the pictures—creating do-it-yourself pornographic images—nudity, masturbation, male-to-male sex, female-to-male sex—PHOTOGRAPHING IT—were blowing all the taboos that the religious right and the President’s party hold so dear. It was pornography as protest—one  of the few ways  in which those stuck in the nightmare of the war and Abu Ghraib could register their protest and thumb their noses at the people who had sent them there.