Why did Abu Ghraib happen?

In 1971, Stanford University researchers created an experiment in which volunteers were divided into two groups, “prisoners” and “guards.” The guards were left on their own to determine how to manage the prisoners. After only a few days, the guards had become so abusive towards their charges that the researchers, worried things were getting out of hand, halted the experiment.

Reporter Jeffrey Weiss, writing for the Dallas Morning News, cites this as one possible explanation for the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. His article, Abuse of Iraqi prisoners raises tough moral questions (registration required), examines the moral failures that may have led to the atrocious treatment of prisoners by American soldiers. (Thanks to Bob Smietana at god-of-small-things for drawing attention to this article.)

Most military men and women have a highly developed sense of morality. There are bad apples in any organization, but duty, honor and country is the foundation on which the military builds every code, doctrine and law.

At the very least, Abu Ghraib points to a failure of military leadership to instill those values in soldiers, and to make certain that those values were reflected in the treatment of prisoners under US control.

In his article, Weiss indicates that military chaplains were mostly absent from Abu Ghraib.

The chaplain corps is supposed to be one bulwark against immoral commands and commanders, said [Rev. Steve] Munson, a former Marine sergeant [and Army chaplain assigned to the Persian Gulf]. Chaplains, he said, “are the ethical or moral conscience of the battalion. How effective we are varies.”

Which leads me to think that Abu Ghraib may never have happened had there been a few men and women there who were able to see the prisoners as human beings and were willing to risk the ridicule of their peers and military discipline to stand against the tide of abuse.

The moral situation at Abu Ghraib seems strikingly similar to what was happening in Alabama in the 1960’s, when black men and women were viewed by many as less than human and, as such, were considered fair game for humiliation, torture and murder. There were those who stood against the tide back then, and it cost them dearly. But in the end, their courage shamed us and changed the attitude of the entire nation.

At the forefront of the American civil rights movement were Christians, Jews and other religious men and women who shared a basic belief in the dignity and value of every human being, regardless of race. Perhaps we will discover that Abu Ghraib happened because there were no such moral voices there.

Or perhaps, and I think this is the more likely possibility, we will discover that when the chips were down, the men and women who could have made a difference simply lacked the moral courage to do so.

In the Old Testament book of Esther, Mordecai reminds Esther that she is in a position to stand up and help her people at a time when the Jews were facing persecution. Perhaps, Mordecai says, God has placed her in a position of influence for just such a time as this. (Esther 4:14) Esther could play it safe or take a life-threatening risk for the sake of others. She chose the latter course, and in so doing, she altered the course of events.

Were there men and women at Abu Ghraib who knew in their hearts that they were carrying out immoral orders? Did they lose their nerve and play it safe at the very moment when they might have been able to stop the madness? In such a place, faced with the likelihood of jail time and court martial for refusing to obey orders, what would you have done?

We can’t really know how we might have reacted in the abstract. We can’t really know until that moment comes in each of our lives when we are faced with just such a choice, and we have to take a stand. It is no trivial thing to stand against the tide.

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  1. I thought about that very study when I first heard of the prison abuses. While this doesn’t exculpate them, a bunch of young reservists should never have been put in such a position. That said, a bad situation doesn’t absolve them from the responsibility to act with honor and decency, and I hope the guilty soldiers are given full UCMJ punishments. . .

  2. I sadly have to agree that though these young reservists were put in a situation they were not trained to handle, they must be held accountable for their actions. The military cannot serve the interests of the nation if rogue units are allowed to make their own rules. That said, there was an obvious lack of command authority over this prison which must be punished as well, and I have every confidence that it will be.

  3. As a retired reservist who served in Desert Storm, I can tell you that these soldiers were trained well enough to know that what they were doing was wrong. My training was better than that and I was in a transportation unit.

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