Thursday, May 06, 2004

More Abu Ghraib Analysis

I'm sick of blogging about Abu Ghraib, and you must be sick of reading about it. But nothing else in the political sphere seems important to me right now.

Lots of people have pointed out that the Major General Miller who argued that MPs should "set the conditions" for MI interrogations is the same General Miller who has been sent over from Guantanamo Bay to take charge of Iraqi detention facilities. I don't know how I missed that, except that I had burrowed so deeply into the Taguba report, and was trying so hard to translate it into English, that it took me a while to make connections to things outside the report. Josh Marshall does a good job of explaining why putting Miller in charge of Iraqi prisons is a horrible, horrible idea.

My Significant Otter has introduced me to the weblog of Phil Carter, a former U.S. Army MP who is now in law school. Phil's been blogging nonstop on Abu Ghraib - start here and scroll up to get his read of the Teguba report. I was particularly struck by this:
"Lawyers representing two of the accused soldiers, and some soldiers' relatives, have said the pictures were ordered up by military intelligence officials who were trying to humiliate the detainees and coerce other prisoners into cooperating.

'It is clear that the intelligence community dictated that these photographs be taken,' said Guy L. Womack, a Houston lawyer representing Spec. Charles A. Graner Jr., 35, one of the soldiers charged."

Is this right? I floated this argument on the national security list-serv that I subscribe to, and was met with a barrage of criticism for it. Most people agreed that this was a far-fetched argument, and that practically speaking, such a tactic just wouldn't work. But I'm not so sure. I'm not ready to believe that all of these MPs were that sociopathic as to document their abuses in such graphic and voluminous fashion. [...]

The literature suggests that a small portion of the population does harbor such psychopathic and sociopathic tendencies -- somewhere around 2% of the population. [...] Yet, we see a lot more soldiers involved than this statistic would indicate, and I think there may have been a larger plan in place which rationalized, justified, and sanctioned the taking of these photos for official purposes.
Psychopaths essentially have no conscience, no morals, no regard for the rights and feelings of others, no proper appreciation of other people as being real. Carter's right - there were too many people implicated in the atrocities at Abu Ghraib for all of them to be psychopaths. But you don't have to be amoral to commit horrific violations of the rights of others - you just have to be socialized to an aberrant set of morals. Street gangs, the Mafia, the KKK - these organizations aren't really places for purely amoral people, because they typically have strict moral codes and behavioral expectations to which members are expected to conform. Members of these organizations commit atrocities because atrocities are permitted (or called for) by the group's moral codes. They don't have to be psychopaths for that.

It's probably important to note at this point that the moral codes which support this kind of socialized violence need not be handed down from official superiors - they can arise on a peer-to-peer level. The aberrant moral codes in Abu Ghraib may have involved a completely different "chain of command," or chain of influence, than was depicted on military org charts. We have some evidence that happened in Taguba's report - he says that friendships, rather than military hierarchy, came to be the most important determiner of who people obeyed and who they went to for directions. In the leadership vacuum that was the 800th MP Brigade, there was plenty of opportunity for that kind of a sick peer culture to develop.

Which brings me to the Stanford Prison Experiment, which my brother, among others, has urged me to write about here. In the 1970s, a social psychologist named Phil Zimbardo converted the basement of a Stanford building into a makeshift prison and randomly assigned psychologically healthy young men to play "prisoners" and "guards." Within days, a sick and abusive "guard" culture had developed, and "prisoners" had become cowed and submissive. Zimbardo actually had to stop the study after six days because the abusive behavior of the "guards" had gotten so far out of control. (I'm not going to discuss his repellent lack of experimental ethics, except to say that no one would be allowed to do this study today.)

What does the Stanford experiment tell us about Abu Ghraib? I don't think it absolves the low-level MPs from moral responsibility, but it should steer us away from explanations which depend on their moral exceptionality. The Stanford experiment tells us that there needn't have been anything psychologically or morally deficient about these MPs at the outset of the war, just as the "guards" in Zimbardo's experiment were psychologically indistinguishable from "prisoners" when the study began.

If anything, the Stanford study damns the leadership of the 800th MP Brigade even further than they've already been damned. We know that, in the absence of continuous training, supervision, and strict controls, people given absolute power over others will tend to become vicious. No one in that chain of command has any business acting surprised that their failures of leadership led to exactly what anyone who's taken Psych 101 at any time since the mid-1970s could have predicted.