Abu Ghraib: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is NOT Us

by John Spritzler
June 2, 2004



The terrible things that American soldiers did to inmates of Abu Ghraib prison shocked Americans not only because the actions were despicable and morally wrong, but because they did not fit into the perception that Americans have of themselves. How could soldiers like Pfc. Lynndie England and her fellow MPs, all defended by friends, neighbors and family members back home as good and decent individuals, have done such things, even under orders?

George Bush says the explanation is "a few bad apples." Other pundits blame all Americans: Crispin Sartwell, for example, writing about Abu Ghraib in the May 11, 2004 Philadelphia Inquirer, says, "[W]e offer ourselves once again as a beacon to a benighted world, perhaps we should think a little more honestly about who we actually are. Rather than a moment to prop up our self-delusions, it's a moment to gaze at the heart of our own darkness." Neither of these explanations is right. Interrogation by torture and sexual humiliation was policy from above, not the invention of a few psychopathic "bad apples" at the bottom of the chain of command. Furthermore, the revulsion to these practices felt by most Americans does not support the "heart of our own darkness" view. But what is the explanation?

A Simple Thought Experiment One Can Do Right Now

The most logical and common sense explanation for Abu Ghraib torture is one that can be found by doing the same kind of experiment that Einstein employed to develop his theory of relativity -- a thought experiment. Imagine that Lynndie England and the other MPs at Abu Ghraib (apparently mainly working class people from places like West Virginia) had first been sent to a very different kind of boot camp from the one they actually went to. Imagine they spent 6 weeks hearing credible authority figures explain the absolute truth about the aims and past deeds of U.S. foreign policy, with all the gory details about overthrowing elected governments and subjugating and killing innocent people to keep rich people in power. And then imagine that they were told the unvarnished truth about their mission in Iraq. Their job would be to subjugate the people of Iraq so that rich people in America could control them and Iraq's resources. One of their duties would be to humiliate and terrify innocent Iraqis for this purpose, in a prison once used by Saddam Hussein for the same purpose. The information they would help extract from the prisoners would be used to subjugate the Iraqi people for the benefit of the same rich Americans who also subjugate ordinary Americans in places like the coal mines of West Virginia.

Now imagine how the Lynndie Englands at Abu Ghraib would have behaved when they were made guards at that prison. I think they would have behaved very differently. Instead of the present situation, where politicians and establishment opinion leaders are telling us that the problem is "a few bad apples" or the "heart of our own darkness," opinion leaders would be scurrying around trying to quell a mutiny spreading among U.S. soldiers.

The enormous amount of lying to which these MPs were subjected (years of mass media lies and lies taught them in school from K-12, plus intense indoctrination at boot camp designed precisely to undermine their feelings of solidarity with any human beings that their officers called "the enemy") is the real explanation for their behavior. The evidence is that they believed the Iraqi prisoners to be evil anti-American terrorists. The MPs believed they were carrying out orders (explicit or implied) from the legitimate democratically elected government of the United States, for the very moral purpose of protecting Americans from terrorists. Knowing that they were in the middle of a dangerous war, knowing they were surrounded by hostile Iraqis many of whom were trying to kill American soldiers, having only lies about "fighting terrorism" and "liberating Iraq" with which to understand what was in fact an uprising against a foreign occupation, it is not hard to imagine why MPs believed in the moral rightness of acts that Americans back home found revolting.

Politicians and pro-establishment pundits don't like this "lies" explanation of the Abu Ghraib torture. They don't like it for several reasons. First, it lays the preponderance of the blame where it belongs: on the shoulders of top U.S. government leaders, not rank and file soldiers. Second, it highlights the tremendous amount of lying by our leaders. Third, it contrasts the ugly immorality and selfish values of America's wealthy and privileged ruling elite with the positive and decent values of ordinary Americans. If too many Americans used the "lies" explanation to make sense of atrocities like Abu Ghaib, it would make them confident that ordinary Americans are the source of what is good in America and that the ruling elite is the source of what is bad. This is how revolutionary movements gain confidence and strength. The elite certainly don't want to let that happen. And so politicians and pundits are providing wrong explanations that blame ordinary Americans -- either a few of us or all of us, take your pick. They're blaming the people who believed the lies rather than blaming the real culprits -- the Liars in Chief.  Lies on top of lies! All designed to confuse good Americans by making them feel guilty for -- instead of angry at -- the Abu Ghraib atrocities, and to thereby weaken our efforts to make a more humane and just world.

President Bush obviously likes the "few bad apples" theory because it helps to cover up the emerging revelations that the orders came from very high up, that the methods of torture and even sexual humiliation come right out of the CIA's Kubark Counterintelligence Manual of 1963, and that these interrogation methods were used not only in Iraq but at the Guantanamo detention center. ("Torture at Abu Ghraib followed CIA's manual," Boston Globe, Alfred W. McCoy column, May 14, 2004)

For most Americans who are learning that there were far more than just a "few" Lynndie Englands, however, the "bad apples" theory is a profoundly disturbing one. It is troubling because we all know what a "bad apple" really is. It is a depraved human being, a person who only needs an order or even just a wink and a nod to commit unspeakable abuses on another defenseless human being. It is a person who, for some sadistic perverted reason, likes committing atrocities just for the fun of it. If "bad apples" (and apparently lots of them) is the explanation for Abu Ghraib, then how could such people have ended up wearing an American military uniform? Why would their neighbors and relatives speak so highly of them? And, worst of all, what would the fact of their existence say about the rest of us Americans -- the tree from which these supposedly "bad apples" fell?

Notwithstanding the fact that George Bush contrasts the "few bad apples" to "the America he knows," his cover-up of the actual reason why there were so many "bad apples" implies that they were all simply depraved human beings to begin with, before they even entered the military and when they were highly regarded by their hometown neighbors and relatives -- in other words that the depravity responsible for Abu Ghraib resides in something about ordinary Americans. Bush doesn't make this point explicitly, but a number of establishment journalists do.

For example, in the Philadelphia Inquirer article cited above, in which Crispin Sartwell asked us to "gaze at the heart of our own darkness," he also waxed eloquent about how bad Americans have always been, writing that Americans may defend basic freedoms, but that we "also have an overwhelming legacy of torture, domination and genocide...Central to our values as well, and related to these forms of slaughter and oppression, is greed....[W]e are also a cruel people. We threw Vietnamese prisoners in tiger cages. We interned Japanese Americans."  Decades ago, the cartoonist, Walt Kelley, made this "heart of our own darkness" theme famous by having his comic strip character, Pogo, declare, "We have met the enemy and he is us." The "Pogo" theory serves America's rulers perfectly. Instead of blaming the liars at the top, it blames human nature.

The Famous "Stanford Prison" and Yale "Obedience to Authority" Experiments

The news media have dusted off two old but famous psychology experiments to give the Pogo theory some "scientific" credentials. They are misinforming their readers about experiments conducted by psychologists Philip Zimbardo at Stanford and Stanley Milgram at Yale, which they claim prove Pogo right. A typical example is U.S. News & World Report's article on Abu Grahib, "Sources of Sadism" [May 24, 2004] which informs its readers:

"While many theories have been advanced about the forces that tragically came together at Abu Ghraib--inadequate training, overzealous intelligence gathering, failure of leadership--none can adequately account for the hardening of heart necessary for such sadism. So the question is: Are there particular conditions in Iraq today that might shed light on why these soldiers committed these unconscionable acts?

"The usual points of reference in psychology are two classic studies that attempted to explore the capacity for evil residing in "normal" people. In 1971, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo created a simulated prison and randomly assigned students to be either guards or prisoners. With astonishing speed, the "guards" indulged in forms of torture and humiliation not unlike those horrifying us today. This followed on earlier experiments by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram on obedience to authority. Milgram recruited volunteers to participate in what he described as a study on learning. An actor sat in a chair that students believed was wired with electricity. Each time this actor would give an incorrect answer, the students would be directed by Milgram to deliver a larger shock. As the subject in the electric chair seemed to suffer more and more, 2 out of 3 of the unwitting students administered shocks that would have been lethal in real life.

"Every soldier? These experiments demonstrate that Everyman is a potential torturer."

Zimbardo conducted his "Stanford prison experiment" in 1971. On close inspection, the experiment shows that the people who design and run a prison, not any innate proclivity towards sadism in ordinary people who may be hired as guards, determine whether prisoners will be abused. But the news media spin this experiment to make the opposite point. The only thing they typically tell their readers about the experiment is that ordinary Stanford students were asked to assume the roles of guards and prisoners and then the guards, on their own, became evil and sadistic, showing how bad human nature really is. However, if one goes to the web site documenting this experiment [http://www.prisonexp.org], and if one studies the actual results in its 42 slides, one learns that this was a fatally flawed and biased experiment.

One learns first that, while the students did indeed volunteer to be in the experiment, those assigned to be "prisoners" did not know, when the experiment commenced, that they were in the experiment that they had volunteered for weeks previously; they truly believed they were prisoners of the local police department for reasons completely unrelated to a psychology experiment. As Zimbardo relates, "On a quiet Sunday morning in August, a Palo Alto, California, police car swept through the town picking up college students as part of a mass arrest for violation of Penal Codes 211, Armed Robbery, and Burglary, a 459 PC. The suspect was picked up at his home, charged, warned of his legal rights, spread-eagled against the police car, searched, and handcuffed -- often as surprised and curious neighbors looked on....The suspect was then taken to a holding cell where he was left blindfolded to ponder his fate and wonder what he had done to get himself into this mess."

Zimbardo created a simulated prison that appeared very real to the prisoners, including a "small closet which became 'The Hole,' or solitary confinement. It was dark and very confining, about two feet wide and two feet deep, but tall enough that a 'bad prisoner' could stand up." The student "guards" did not design the prison routine -- Zimbardo did. "Each prisoner was systematically searched and stripped naked...A degradation procedure was designed in part to humiliate prisoners...On each prisoner's right ankle was a heavy chain, bolted on and worn at all times...Even when prisoners were asleep, they could not escape the atmosphere of oppression. When a prisoner turned over, the chain would hit his other foot, waking him up and reminding him that he was still in prison, unable to escape even in his dreams."

The experiment purports to study how normal people will behave if they are given responsibility for guarding prisoners, but in fact the experimental results were pre-determined by the experimenters' prior beliefs about how guards must behave. For example, on slide # 26, we read what some individuals in the experiment recalled about their behavior during it, when there was a rumor of an immanent escape attempt: "Then we formulated a second plan. The plan was to dismantle our jail after the visitors left, call in more guards, chain the prisoners together, put bags over their heads, and transport them to a fifth floor storage room until after the anticipated break in." The individuals who formulated this plan were not, as one might expect, the student/guard experimental subjects; they were the experimenters in charge of running the experiment, including Professor Zimbardo himself. Zimbardo and the others who conducted the experiment designed it in such a manner that the "prisoners" were genuinely humiliated and terrified and unaware that they were even subjects in an experiment, and genuinely convinced that they needed to make a real escape from real captors. When rumors of such an escape circulated, Zimbardo completely forgot that he was running an experiment and assumed the role of a prison superintendent who had to prevent the escape at all costs.

If Zimbardo had stood aside and let the "guards" do as they wished, he would have run the risk that a) they might have decided not to use deliberate humiliation and b) they might have decided to let the "prisoners" escape rather than use extremely harsh measures to prevent them from escaping. He would have run the risk that the prison experiment would demonstrate that people, if left to their own devices, may remain quite decent even if they are assigned the role of a prison guard. Instead, Zimbardo interjected his own views (that the "prisoners" had to be humiliated and that inhumane methods would be used to prevent an escape) into the experimental outcome, thereby completely biasing the results towards his preconceived notions about human nature.

In slide # 27, Zimbardo acknowledges the serious flaw in the study, asking, "Also, what should have been done to minimize the effects of experimenter bias on the outcome of the study? What were the dangers of the principal investigator assuming the role of prison superintendent?" Even with Zimbardo intervening to insist that the "guards" do whatever it took to control the "prisoners," and even though the "guards" must have picked up on the fact that they were part of an important scientific experiment to show how brutally real guards behave, Zimbardo reports that only one third of the guards behaved badly: "There were three types of guards. First, there were tough but fair guards who followed prison rules. Second, there were 'good guys' who did little favors for the prisoners and never punished them. And finally, about a third of the guards were hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation." [slide #33]

The second experiment getting a lot of attention these days to explain Abu Ghraib is the Stanley Milgram study of obedience to authority conducted at Yale from 1960 to 1963 which, like Zimbardo's prison experiment, is also cited by the U.S. News and World Report article above and similar articles appearing after Abu Grahib. The most information that we learn about this experiment from these mass media accounts is that subjects were told by authority figures to give painful shocks to other human beings, and that they did so, supposedly proving that ordinary people follow authority blindly, no matter how cruel the orders from above.

Here's what the media don't tell us about the experiment. Subjects were made to believe that they were helping investigators study the relation between learning and punishment. Authority figures told the subject to administer electrical shocks of increasing voltages to learners when they answered a question wrongly. The authority also told subjects that, "Although the shocks can be extremely painful, they cause no permanent tissue damage." [1] (Note that the U.S. News & World Report article claims, "students administered shocks that would have been lethal in real life.") Many subjects did indeed administer the shocks, even when the learners (actors, actually) appeared to evince pain. The experiment involved varying many factors to pinpoint exactly what influences people's obedience or lack of obedience to authority.

What the study actually demonstrated, in Milgram's own words, was that "Ideological justification is vital in obtaining willing [his emphasis] obedience, for it permits the person to see his behavior as serving a desirable end. Only when viewed in this light, is compliance easily exacted...The experiment is presented to our subjects in a way that stresses its positive human values: increase of knowledge about learning and memory processes. These ends are consistent with generally held cultural values. Obedience is merely instrumental to the attainment of these ends." [2] Thus the experiment that is so often cited to show that people obey authority blindly actually shows the opposite -- that they first judge the moral legitimacy of authority to decide whether or not willingly to obey it.

Examined closely, neither of these famous psychology experiments leads to the Pogo conclusion that ordinary people will inflict pain on others if only given the chance, or will follow authority blindly, regardless of their opinion about the morality of the orders.

The Pogo explanation is intended to demoralize good people who want to stop the war and change the world. It says that we cannot realistically expect a movement for a better world to arise from ordinary Americans because the enemy is us -- our corrupt human nature. According to this view, we could replace our leaders with different ones or even make a revolution, but it wouldn't make any difference, because the evil that lurks within the hearts of men will manifest itself in acts like the Abu Ghraib torture nonetheless. Just like the old idea that royalty ruled by divine will and that feudal inequality was God's will, the Pogo explanation of events serves to justify the status quo by arguing that it cannot be improved. No wonder the Pogo explanation is so beloved by pro-establishment pundits.


1.Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, Harper & Row, 1974, paperback, pg. 19

2. Milgram, pp. 142, 176


Related articles by John Spritzler about the U.S. invasion of Iraq:



Abu Ghraib Prison Torture: a Few Bad Apples or Long Standing Policy?

John Spritzler is the author of The People As Enemy: The Leaders' Hidden Agenda In World War II, and a Research Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health.


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