The psychology of Iraqi prison torture

Opinion

Margaret Warner, on a recent PBS News Hour, did a masterful job in opening up an important piece of the puzzle of why the torture of Iraqi prisoners. The psychological setting has to be understood if America and the UK are to avoid more of such sadism by their soldiers in the future.

Warner had four guest psychologists on the TV show whom she questioned on how ordinary American citizens could become so sadistic. But Warner’s questions failed to pick up the environment described by her panelists. They pointed out repeatedly that there were three phases to the torture. The prison guard is the lowest and end level. The immediate command above is a second level. The third level is the milieu of the war itself, set at the highest level.

Warner did well in exploring how soldiers can be made sadistically brutal. She explored only briefly, but well, the command level that was well covered during the Senate hearings. But, she, like the Senate hearings, ignored the most important phase: the orders from the top and the justification they gave for what happened below.

“Shock and awe” has been the hallmark of the Iraq war since its beginning. President Bush on 9/11 asked, “Why do they hate us?” and gave his own perfunctory answer as he initiated a war of overwhelming military power. “Shock and awe” was driven home to every soldier in the field, and to the military commanders. To those taught to do the killing, “shock and awe” translates into “fear and humiliation.”

It is not hard to realize why the reports of Human Rights Watch and the International Red Cross were ignored. And even why the warnings of Colin Powell and some of the military officers were ignored.

The thousands of brutal actions being taken were not mentioned to the echelons at the top because it was well understood that those actions are what was expected by “shock and awe.”

American imperialism, as spelled out by Perle, Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice, even before Bush assumed the presidency, demanded a show of massive military power. “Those who are not with us are against us” was the watchword. It was followed by Bush’s “bring ’em on” bravado.

Such threats and arrogance set the milieu in which soldiers in the field could feel justified, if not required, to participate in a little “fear and intimidation.”

Two psychiatrists on the News Hour emphasized the top level – the milieu of this war. But the press and the Senate hearings have done nothing to explore this most important issue – the meaning and intention of “shock and awe.”



Bill Ellis is a retired physicist living in northern New England. He can be reached at tranet@rangeley.org.