Abuse at Abu Ghraib, the Psychodynamics of Occupation

Stephen Soldz

May 2, 2004 "ICH" -- This week, CBS' 60 Minutes II published the now infamous
pictures of abuse and torture by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib detention
facility in Iraq (some of the pictures can be viewed on the New Yorker web site at

Seymour Hersh has documented in the May 10, 2004 New Yorker (Torture at Abu
Ghraib) that the abuse shown in these photos was just the tip of the iceberg. A
53-page Pentagon report completed in February listed some of the abuse:

"Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees;
pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and
a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police
guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed
against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and
perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate
detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a

Other evidence in Hersh's piece indicates that in at least one instance, a
prisoner was tortured to death under interrogation, then his injuries were
disguised and body disposed of. Other deaths have also been referred to.

As Hersh documents, the Pentagon was well aware of the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

An internal report by the Army's chief law-enforcement officer last November
documented that the Military Police (MPs) guarding the prison faced tension
between their responsibility to maintain an orderly prison and the involvement
of the same MPs in softening up prisoners for interrogation. Yet, no action was

One of the six military defendants in this case has emphasized the lack of
any training or guidance in how to treat the prisoners, and the absence of any
orientation to responsibilities under the Geneva Convention. While it is easy
to dismiss this complaint as an attempt to avoid responsibility for
reprehensible actions, the complaint does raise an important issue. The MPs were not
provided any orientation or guidance because protecting Iraqi detainees was simply
not of interest to anyone in charge. Further, no doubt the attitude, common
among prison guards, was that the detainees must have done something bad to be
detained there. So protecting their rights or their bodies was not important
and protecting their spirit was a hindrance to the important task of extracting
intelligence about resistance activities.

While the emerging official documentation of Pentagon awareness is useful,
it's important to keep in mind that the conditions in Abu Ghraib and the other
US detention facilities have not been a secret from anyone who wanted to know.
There have been dozens, if not hundreds of accounts of former detainees
describing the abuses. The international press has repeatedly published articles on
this. Of course, the abuse has seldom been reported with any prominence in the
American press, but this is not surprising, as the U.S. press has until quite
recently been primarily a mouthpiece for official claims.

Thus, for example, on July 23, 2003, Amnesty International published Iraq:
Memorandum on concerns relating to law and order, which warned of "allegations
of torture or ill-treatment" for those in US detention, including at Abu
Ghraib. As stated there "the organization has received a number of reports of
torture or ill-treatment by Coalition Forces not confined to criminal suspects.
Reported methods include prolonged sleep deprivation; prolonged restraint in
painful positions, sometimes combined with exposure to loud music; prolonged
hooding; and exposure to bright lights. Such treatment would amount to 'torture or
inhuman treatment' prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention and by
international human rights law. Amnesty International's concerns with regard to
allegations of inhuman treatment immediately after arrest and in detention camps run
by the US military have been raised in its letter to Ambassador Paul Bremer of
26 June 2003. Regrettably, testimonies from recently released detainees held
at Camp Cropper and Abu Ghraib Prison do not suggest that conditions of
detention have improved."

That report further states "Amnesty International has received a number of
reports of cases of detainees who have died in custody, mostly as a result of
shooting by members of the Coalition Forces. Other cases of deaths in custody
where ill-treatment may have caused or contributed to death have been reported."
This report contains several case studies of abuse and torture of detainees.
Saudi Arabian national Abdallah Khudhran al-Shamran, for example, "alleged
that he was subjected to beatings and electric shocks."

As one other example from this report, Khreisan Khalis Aballey reported that
while detained "he was made to stand or kneel facing a wall for
seven-and-a-half days, hooded, and handcuffed tightly with plastic strips. At the same time
a bright light was placed next to his hood and distorted music was playing the
whole time. During all this period he was deprived of sleep (though he may
have been unconscious for some periods). He reported that at one time a US
soldier stamped on his foot and as a result one of his toenails was torn off. The
prolonged kneeling made his knees bloody, so he mostly stood; when, after
seven-and-a-half days he was told he was to be released and told he could sit, he
said that his leg was the size of a football."

This July 23rd, 2003 report was not Amnesty International's first complaint
about the conditions of US detainees in Iraq. For example, the June 30, 2003
BBC News had this story: U.S. condemned over Iraq rights, which reported that
Amnesty International warned that "conditions of detention Iraqis are held
under... may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, banned
by international law."

As another instance, in the July 22nd issue of the British newspaper the
Independent, veteran middle east journalist Robert Fisk published The ugly truth
of America's Camp Cropper, a story to shame us all (available at: In this article, Fisk tells the
story of Qais Mohamed al-Salman, an engineer and Iraqi exile who returned
after Saddam was overthrown to help his country. He was lucky; he was only abused
and had a label of "suspected assassin" pinned on his clothes. As Fisk
reports, based on what he considers to be an impeccable Western source: "only
'selected' prisoners are beaten during interrogation" there. Eventually, Qais
al-Salman was released, but his mother had already given him up for dead as the
Americans never notified the families of those they detained.

As a final example, the Iraqi blogger "Riverbend", in her blog Baghdad
Burning, included in her March 29, 2004 entry: Tales from Abu Ghraib..., the story
of a young woman, M., who had recently been released in mid January from Abu
Ghraib, after being arrested with her mother and four brothers. While in
detention, she herself was beaten and she witnessed several other beatings, including
that of her mother, and "the rape of a male prisoner by one of the jailors."
Riverbend concludes the heart wrenching tale with "By the end of her tale, M.
was crying silently and my mother and Umm Hassen were hastily wiping away
tears. All I could do was repeat, 'I'm so sorry... I'm really sorry...' and a lot
of other useless words. She shook her head and waved away my words of
sympathy, 'It's ok- really- I'm one of the lucky ones... all they did was beat me'"
(italics added).

These stories are among the many I have included on my web page: Iraq
Occupation and Resistance Report over the last year of Iraqi occupation. If I, a
single individual maintaining a web page in my spare time, was well aware of the
abuses being reported in the US prisons in Iraq, the only way the top generals,
Pentagon officials, senior Administration policy-makers such as the President
and Vice-President, and U.S. reporters could be ignorant of them is if they
willfully chose to be ignorant. Much more likely, they were aware but
considered these abuses - like the ones documented among detainees in Afghanistan, and
those reported by the few released detainees from Guantanamo - to be the
inevitable costs of war and occupation, especially, as is the case in Iraq, when
that occupation now is opposed by the majority of the occupied.

Under conditions of occupation, the occupier is faced with the task of
attempting to win the support of the occupied population when possible and of
instilling fear and a sense of hopelessness when winning them over is not possible.
Further, the occupation must be justified to the soldiers of the occupying
power, who may have reservations about the role they are expected to play.
Humiliation of the occupied is an important element in both of these tasks. The
occupying army learns to view the occupied as inferior, as not as "civilized" as
the occupiers view themselves. Thus, Hersh quotes the testimony of Specialist
Mathew Wisdom, an M.P. at Abu Ghraib as he described one of the scenes of
coerced sex between detainees depicted in the photographs: "I saw SSG Frederick
walking towards me, and he said, 'Look what these animals do when you leave them
alone for two seconds'" (italics added). In case we are tempted to dismiss
this as simply the aberration of a sick individual, consider the comments of a
senior British officer in Iraq to a reporter from the British Daily Telegraph on
April 12, 2004 (available at: British commanders condemn US military tactics:

about the attitude of the U.S. military toward the Iraqi populace: "They
don't see the Iraqi people the way we see them. They view them as untermenschen.
They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life in the way the British
are." (Of course, recent revelations of torture of detainees at British hands
raise questions as to the degree of concern the British have for Iraqi life. And
the over 100,000 Iraqis killed in the British occupation earlier in the century
make clear that Iraqi life was cheap when Britain was the dominant colonial
power. See Hussein Askary: Lessons To Be Learned: Iraqi Resistance to British
Occupation 80 Years Ago)

To view the Iraqis as animals, or as subhuman, as untermenschen, makes it
easier to dominate them, to break down their doors in the middle of the night, to
imprison them without charges and without notifying their families, and to
use torture and "torture lite" (to use that apt term of Ira Chernus: U.S.
"Torture Lite Led to Saddam Capture) in order to break their spirit as an aid to
interrogation. If, further, one can get the occupied to view themselves as
inferior to the occupiers, the occupation may eventually be seen as acceptable, as
natural, even as beneficial. This was the psychology of colonialism and it is
the unconscious logic dominating the Iraqi occupation.

Of course, the occupiers usually begin more benevolently. The occupied are
more akin to children, who need to be "educated", to the standards of "Christian
civilization" in the old days, to "Western democracy" in the present world.
Trouble arises when this projected image - with all its accompanying fantasy of
being welcomed with open arms by the "children" eager to be educated -
collides with the unfortunate reality that the occupied are really adults from a
different culture, with their own traditions, wishes, and dreams. Then the
occupation gets ugly. If the children are so ungrateful as not to welcome the
education the invaders so graciously provide, it's surely a sign of their
inferiority. Only animals or untermenschen would be so crass as to refuse the kind offer
of civilization. Well, they're not worthy of us any way, so it doesn't much
matter how we teat them.

If one thing became clear in the 20th century, it is that ordinary people are
capable of the most horrendous acts. As both psychoanalysts and social
psychologists have pointed out, the capacity to do evil resides in us all. Certain
circumstances are more likely to encourage the expression of this universal
capacity. These circumstances include being one of a group, being able to
attribute responsibility to others or to lofty goals, being in an environment
experienced as alien and dangerous, and being in an overall climate in which there is
little or no accountability. All of these circumstances are present to a
great degree among the occupying army in Iraq.

We have known for a long time that absolute power corrupts. Therefore, those
who create an environment in which occupying soldiers - Americans - have
absolute power with virtually no limits and no accountability, bear the ultimate
responsibility for the horrors that occurred at Abu Ghraib, and that continue to
occur on a daily basis throughout occupied Iraq.

If President Bush, the senior US generals, and all the other commentators
filling the airwaves with pious outrage are not directly lying, it is solely
because of that marvelous human ability, identified by psychoanalysts and
novelists, to know and not know something at the same time. As the soldiers caught in
those horrifying photos are crucified in the press and in the courts, let's
not pretend that its because of their personal weaknesses that these horrors
occurred. Let's not protect ourselves by pretending that it's only the evil that
resides in a few bad soldiers that allows such barbarities to occur. Such
pretense is but a defense, in both the legal and the psychoanalytic meanings of
that term. Rather, let's remember that it's a direct consequence of the logic of
occupation and it is the planners and organizers of that occupation who bear
primary responsibility. Further, each and every one of us who has not done our
best to know what was being done by our country in a foreign country, who has
let ignorance, hopelessness, and the desire for a normal life interfere with
the citizens' responsibility to know, and to act to change that which is bad
in our country's behavior, bears our own responsibility. These atrocities were
truly committed in our name. They are our atrocities.

So what should be done? Of course, the overall goal must be to end the
occupation, to bring the soldiers home and allow the Iraqis to determine their own
fate. They may not make the decisions we would make, but that's what adults do,
they make their own decisions. And the occupation will end. The recent
CNN/USA Today poll of Iraqi attitudes demonstrated strong opposition to occupation
before the recent uprising. All accounts indicate that, over the last three
weeks, Iraqi sentiment has moved decisively against the occupation. The release
of these photographs will be the final straw. No claims to moral authority or
legitimacy with Iraqis will survive. All that will remain is brute force, and
brute force is a weak weapon against modern nationalism. Thus, the US will
either withdraw soon, without further loss of life, or it will be thrown out after
massive conflict, suffering, and death. But it will leave.

In the meantime, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the levels of
abuse at Abu Ghraib and other detention facilities. These must be based on
limiting the corrupting absolute power that naturally adheres there, as well as on
recognizing that institutions usually place self-protection at the top of
their list of priorities. Thus, the world should not allow this be a matter for
the American military alone to deal with. We must support the call of Amnesty
International for an independent investigation of the conditions at Abu Ghraib
and the other detention facilities. But, we must not stop there. It is vital
that all prisons and detention centers be routinely monitored by independent
observers not bound to speak privately. The International Committee of the Red
Cross (ICRC) does occasionally visit these centers, but they do not have
observers based there and the ICRC policy is only to make their conclusions known
privately to the institution they inspect while not releasing any report to the
public. These horrors make clear that this level of oversight is no longer
sufficient. We need an international campaign to demand permanent, independent,
international observers in every Iraqi prison and detention center. Further,
this is the time to demand the same for the detention centers in Afghanistan and
Guantanamo. The world outcry over these atrocities creates a moment to have
our message paid attention to and an opportunity to act. Let's not lose the
opportunity to start turning around the barbarities we have come to accept as
normal, or despicable but impossible to challenge.

Stephen Soldz (mailto:[log in to unmask]) is psychoanalyst and a faculty member
at the Institute for the Study of Violence of the Boston Graduate School of
Psychoanalysis. He is also a founder of Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice,
and maintains the the Iraq Occupation and Resistance Report web page.