The Psychology of Abu Ghraib
Lurking in the Hearts of Men
The Shadow, the fictional hero of pulp magazines and classic radio shows, used to begin every show with the rhetorical question, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" Recent reports of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib have had the world asking the same question. According to a United States Army report, the abuses included:
a. Punching, slapping, and kicking detainees; jumping on their naked feet;
b. Videotaping and photographing naked male and female detainees;
c. Forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing;
d. Forcing detainees to remove their clothing and keeping them naked for several days at a time;
e. Forcing naked male detainees to wear women's underwear;
f. Forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped;
g. Arranging naked male detainees in a pile and then jumping on them;
h. Positioning a naked detainee on a MRE Box, with a sandbag on his head, and attaching wires to his fingers, toes, and penis to simulate electric torture;
i. Writing "I am a Rapest" (sic) on the leg of a detainee alleged to have forcibly raped a 15-year old fellow detainee, and then photographing him naked;
j. Placing a dog chain or strap around a naked detainee's neck and having a female Soldier pose for a picture;
k. A male MP guard having sex with a female detainee;
l. Using military working dogs (without muzzles) to intimidate and frighten detainees, and in at least one case biting and severely injuring a detainee;
m. Taking photographs of dead Iraqi detainees (Taguba, 2004).
No doubt, the psychology that motivated these atrocities will be examined for years to come. Already, social psychologists have drawn parallels between Abu Ghraib and the famous simulated prison experiment conducted by Philip G. Zimbardo at Stanford University in the summer of 1971. Zimbardo wanted to find out what happened when you put good people in a bad place. Would humanity overcome evil or would evil overcome humanity? To test these questions, Zimbardo recruited students in creating a facsimile of a prison. Certain students were designated "prisoners" while others were designated "guards." Initially intended to be a two-week experiment, the project had to be aborted after only six days. Why? The "guards" became abusive and sadistic while the "prisoners" became seriously depressed. Faced with the potential of worse abuses occurring, Zimbardo prematurely halted the experiment.
While Zimbardo's case study is certainly pertinent to understanding the tragedy of Abu Ghraib, another case study might prove more profitable. This case study, however, does not involve overt abuse or simulated prison experiments. Instead, as a whole, this body of work constitutes a collective psychological profile of a small, shadowy segment of the population. That insular and exclusive segment is the power elite.
In his seminal book entitled The Power Elite, sociologist C. Wright Mills defines this wealthy and powerful stratum of society:
The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences. Whether they do or do not make such decisions is less important than the fact that they do occupy such pivotal positions: their failure to act, their failure to make decisions, is itself an act that is often of greater consequence than the decisions they do make. For they are in command of the major hierarchies and organisations of modern society. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure, in which are now centered the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy (Mills, pp. 3-4, 1956).
It should not be lost on the astute reader that, in addition to running the various other machinations comprising modern society, the power elite also "direct the military establishment." Because of its firm grip on this institution, the power elite plays a large part in sculpting the paradigms that govern the military establishment. This transformation from within the military is the direct corollary of authoritarian hierarchalization. In The Architecture of Modern Political Power, Daniel Pouzzner explains this concept:
When a superior determines to encourage, discourage, demand, or forbid among his subordinates a mode of action, thought, or awareness, those modes will tend to be encouraged or discouraged among everyone below him in the hierarchy. If that superior is a nuclear establishment leader, then these modes will tend to be encouraged or discouraged throughout most of society. In this case, only those not within the conventional hierarchy of civilized society escape the brunt of the behavioral tyranny (Pouzzner, p. 17, 2001).
As modes of thought and behavior are selectively encouraged or discouraged, those who occupy the lower layers of hierarchical strata begin to tangibly enact the vision of those in the upper layers. In other words, the world above shapes the world below. This is accomplished through a Pavlovian system of reward and punishment. The lower level individual notices "whatever characteristics favor ascension to higher echelons" and adopts this mode of thought or behavior (Pouzzner, pp. 17-18, 2001). After all, given the lowly conditions of his/her current tier in the hierarchical framework, who would not want to ascend. Oh, and just who determines what characteristics guarantee ascension? The elite above, of course! Pouzzner explains:
The characteristics are arbitrarily dictated by those who are already in the upper echelons of the hierarchy, and once those who exhibit them have ascended, the characteristics are themselves efficiently spread through society (Pouzzner, pp. 17-18, 2001).
Thus, a meme (a contagious idea) is implanted and the status quo is born. The military establishment, with its hierarchical configuration and Pavlovian system of behavioral control, is the ideal transmission belt for memes. Abu Ghraib represents the final product of memetic metastasis. The characteristics exhibited by the torturers of Abu Ghraib were "arbitrarily dictated by those who are already in the upper echelons of the hierarchy." Who controls the upper echelons of the military's hierarchy? As Mills has already made clear, it is the power elite.
As Above, So Below
Indeed, the military's hierarchy seems to conform with the Hermetic dictum of "As above, so below." This prompts a very disturbing question. If the soldiers below were so horribly cruel, what modes of thought and behavior were promulgated from above? To answer this question, one must examine the collective psychology of the elite a little closer.
In the book, Secret and Suppressed: Banned Ideas and Hidden History, Jim Keith reprinted a document that supposedly records much of the criminal activities of the elite throughout history. Of the manuscript, which he referred to as simply "The Franciscan Document," Keith stated the following:
It purports to be a secret history of Western civilization gleaned from secret documents in the Vatican library by a member of the Franciscan order. The inked imprint of a Vatican library entrance chit affixed to the original document and duplicated at the end of the article is a strong indication that the author does have access to Vatican sources… (Keith, 1993, pg. 215).
While some of the document's findings maybe inaccurate or disinformation, its author does provide a very precise description of the psychology of the ruling class. He writes:
The elite are an insular, clannish clique, given to raging idiosyncrasies and immense deposits of superstition. Their insulation from the rest of us, and from the world which we inhabit, has rendered them emotionally undeveloped, incapable of loving, of caring, of giving - to them, the sacrifice of an innocent is no more noteworthy than swatting of an annoying fly, and eminently more useful (Keith, Secret and Suppressed, 1993, pg.234).
The Franciscan's words should not be dismissed as hyperbole. Indeed, several elitist tracts bear out this contention. One such tract is Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars, the manual for elite control authored by Hatford Van Dyke. The document states that, in 1954, an issue of chief concern amongst the elite was the problem of managing the masses. The unknown writer claims that the hidden rulers arrived at the following conclusion:
Although the so-called "moral issues" were raised, in view of the law of natural selection it was agreed that a nation or world of people who will not use their intelligence are no better than animals who do not have intelligence (Keith, Secret and Suppressed, 1993, p. 203).
The elite surmised that:
…the low-class elements of society must be brought under total control, i.e. must be housebroken, trained, and assigned a yoke and long-term social duties from a very early age, before they have the opportunity the propriety of the matter (Keith, Secret and Suppressed, 1993, p. 203).
Other elite treatises have expressed identical sentiments and prescribed similar methods. There is no more appropriate example than Zbigniew Brzezinski's The Grand Chessboard, which delineates the geostrategy that he believes will insure the Western elite's global primacy. The methods and means prescribed by Brzezinski reflect the elite's overwhelming disdain for those they wish to subjugate. Painting a vivid portrait of his geostrategy, Brzezinski writes:
…to put it in terminology that harkens back to the more brutal age of ancient empires, the grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 40).
"Vassals?" "Barbarians?" Indeed, such terminology does recall a more brutal age. Those with the slightest modicum of moral compunction would gasp with outrage at such words. Yet, they are more than words, as is evidenced by America's military expedition into Afghanistan shortly after September 11. Returning to The Grand Chessboard, Brzezinski refers to an area known as the "Eurasian Balkans," a region that must be controlled in order to insure American primacy. Afghanistan is nestled comfortably within the "Eurasian Balkans," thus making her a nation of geostrategic significance (1997, pg. 124). The transmission of Brzezinski's virulent strain of thought to the military establishment was tangibly evidenced by America's invasion and subjugation of Afghanistan.
As for the "barbarians" of Afghanistan, the devastation visited upon them could very well keep them from "coming together" for many years. No target was spared in the attempt to capture or kill Bin Laden, civilians included. In an article in the Toronto Sun, Eric Margolis described some of the results of the "war on terrorism":
To date, the U.S. has dropped 10,000 bombs on Afghanistan, killing sizable numbers-in the range of 1,500-2,000, according to Afghan sources. U.S. bombing of cities, towns, and villages has driven over 160,000 people into refugee camps (pg. 1).
Inflicting such massive losses also carries a psychological effect for the "barbarians." It was the Western elites' hope that, after sufficient suffering had been induced, the average Afghan would become tractable enough to be "housebroken, trained, and assigned a yoke and long-term social duties from a very early age." Indeed, a new duty had been assigned to the "vassals" of Afghanistan… planting and harvesting opium.
In 2000, Taliban leader Mullah Omar decreed that opium production was illegal (Harding, 2002). At the time, Afghanistan was the largest producer of heroin and the Taliban reaped enormous profits from the trafficking of the drug (Harding, 2002). Any number of motives could have underpinned Mullah Omar's decision to ban opium, including Islamic tradition, appeasement of the international community, or increase in heroin prices (Harding, 2000). Whatever the case may be, much of the available data suggests that opium production declined significantly:
United Nations officials last month confirmed that poppy production in Afghanistan fell by 91% last year - from 82,172 hectares to 7,606, with most of that grown in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance (Harding, 2002).
Yet, with America's invasion of Afghanistan and the installation of the Northern Alliance as the dominant regime, this trend has come to an abrupt halt:
One senior UN official based in Kandahar said: "The Taliban ban was implemented almost 100%. Already we know that farmers are planting opium again. Without any proper enforcement, advocacy and assistance from the donor community, the problem won't go away" (Harding, 2002).
In the minds of the elites, Afghanis were "barbarians" who were neglecting their duties as loyal "vassals" on the global drug plantation. Through authoritarian hierarchalization, this virulent strain of thought was promulgated within America's military establishment. The final result is a paradoxical one indeed. Soldiers of a free constitutional republic subjugated another country and enforced a feudal form of control. The characteristics of those in the upper echelons are made painfully evident by the actions of their surrogates on lower levels of the hierarchy. As above, so below.
MacNamara and the "Moron Corps"
There are even more examples of when the elite have eagerly practiced what they have preached concerning the masses. These examples are almost too voluminous to document. However, one case should be cited to demonstrate that this mentality precedes the post-September 11th world. This is the case of Robert MacNamara and his "Moron Corps."
MacNamara's practice of the elitist tradition is plainly illustrated by his approach to the question of military recruitment. This Secretary of Defense devised "a cynical recruitment gambit aimed at the underclass known as ‘Project 100,000'" (MacPherson, 2002). Myra MacPherson describes this dubious project:
Under his direction, an alternative army was systematically recruited from the ranks of those who had previously been rejected for failing to meet the armed services' physical and mental requirements. Recruiters swept through urban ghettos and Southern rural back roads, even taking at least one youth with an IQ of 62. In all, 354,000 men were rolled up by Project 100,000. Touted as a Great Society program that would provide remedial education and an escape from poverty, the recruitment program offered a one-way ticket to Vietnam, where "the Moron Corps," as they were pathetically nicknamed by other soldiers, entered combat in disproportionate numbers. Although Johnson was a vociferous civil rights advocate, the program took a heavy toll on young blacks. A 1970 Defense Department study disclosed that 41 percent of Project 100,000 recruits were black, compared with 12 percent in the armed forces as a whole. What is more, 40 percent of Project 100,000 recruits were trained for combat, compared with 25 percent for the services generally (MacPherson, 2002).
It should be noted that MacNamara put this plan together after privately declaring that there was no way of winning the Vietnam conflict (MacPherson, 2002). Project 100,000 took place in 1966, a time when the civil rights movement was beginning to gain momentum. Even with the cry for equality going out everywhere, elite MacNamara was still willing to wage class warfare.
Peters' "Warrior" Thesis: Indoctrinating the Military Establishment
Recall C. Wright Mills' contention that the power elite wields a substantial amount of control over the military. With the exercise of this control, elitist thought has gradually permeated the armed forces. No doubt, many individuals have acted as conduits for the instillation of the ruling class paradigm within the military establishment. Perhaps one of the best examples of the elite's meme transmitters is Ralph Peters, a particularly smug Army Major with a penchant for unabashedly elitist rhetoric. Peters' elitist evangel is most thoroughly delineated in his article entitled "The New Warrior Class." The article can be found in Parameters Magazine, the official publication of the Army War College. He begins the tract with the following remarks:
The soldiers of the United States Army are brilliantly prepared to defeat other soldiers. Unfortunately, the enemies we are likely to face through the rest of this decade and beyond will not be "soldiers," with the disciplined modernity that term conveys in Euro-America, but "warriors"--erratic primitives of shifting allegiance, habituated to violence, with no stake in civil order. Unlike soldiers, warriors do not play by our rules, do not respect treaties, and do not obey orders they do not like. Warriors have always been around, but with the rise of professional soldieries their importance was eclipsed. Now, thanks to a unique confluence of breaking empire, overcultivated Western consciences, and a worldwide cultural crisis, the warrior is back, as brutal as ever and distinctly better-armed (Peters, 1994).
Who are the "erratic primitives" that constitute the "new warrior class?" Peters states: "Most warriors emerge from four social pools which exist in some form in all significant cultures" (Peters, 1994). He proceeds to enumerate the four social pools and their respective warrior offspring:
First-pool warriors come, as they always have, from the underclass (although their leaders often have fallen from the upper registers of society). The archetype of the new warrior class is a male who has no stake in peace, a loser with little education, no legal earning power, no abiding attractiveness to women, and no future. With gun in hand and the spittle of nationalist ideology dripping from his mouth, today's warrior murders those who once slighted him, seizes the women who avoided him, and plunders that which he would never otherwise have possessed (Peters, 1994).
In other words, the "first-pool" of "erratic primitives" is composed of unattractive and patriotic males who suffer the misfortune of occupying a lower layer of socioeconomic stratum.
Peters proceeds to examine the "second pool warriors":
…as society's preparatory structures such as schools, formal worship systems, communities, and families are disrupted, young males who might otherwise have led productive lives are drawn into the warrior milieu. These form a second pool. For these boys and young men, deprived of education and orientation, the company of warriors provides a powerful behavioral framework (Peters, 1994).
As the elite co-opts traditional institutions, Peters foresees the emergence of youthful dissenters. These younger "erratic primitives" are potential recruits for the "warriors." They, too, must be expunged. Reiterating his globalist Weltanschauung, Peters proceeds to identify patriots as the next class of "warrior":
The third pool of warriordom consists of the patriots. These may be men who fight out of strong belief, either in ethnic, religious, or national superiority or endangerment, or those who have suffered a personal loss in the course of a conflict that motivates them to take up arms (Peters, 1994).
This particular variety of "warrior" would probably oppose the amalgamation of its respective nation-state into the elite's world dictatorship. Therefore, it must be eradicated as well. Finally, Peters reveals the fourth "pool" of "warriors":
Dispossessed, cashiered, or otherwise failed military men form the fourth and most dangerous pool of warriors. Officers, NCOs, or just charismatic privates who could not function in a traditional military environment, these men bring other warriors the rudiments of the military art - just enough to inspire faith and encourage folly in many cases, although the fittest of these men become the warrior chieftains or warlords with whom we must finally cope (Peters, 1994).
These soldiers of the "obsolete military paradigm" have no place in the elite's military establishment. The duty of the new soldier no longer involves the protection of nation, family, or the traditional way of life. These are outdated constructs embraced only by the "warriors" awaiting their coming extermination. Thus, the soldier of the past also constitutes a threat.
According to Peters, the "erratic primitives" that comprise this emergent "warrior" class represent a global epidemic:
Worldwide, the new warrior class already numbers in the millions. If the current trend toward national dissolution continues, by the end of the century there may be more of these warriors than soldiers in armies worthy of the name. While exact figures will never be available, and statistics-junkies can quibble endlessly as to how many warriors are really out there, the forest looks dark and ominous enough without counting each last tree. And perhaps the worst news comes right out of Macbeth: the trees are moving (Peters, 1994).
Peters predicts a period of protracted conflict with these "warriors":
The US Army will fight warriors far more often than it fights soldiers in the future. This does not mean the Army should not train to fight other organized militaries--they remain the most lethal, although not the most frequent, threat. But it would be foolish not to recognize and study the nasty little men who will haunt the brutal little wars we will be called upon to fight within the career spans of virtually every officer reading this text (Peters, 1994).
To counter this threat, Peters recommends the following prescriptive measures:
Although there are nearly infinite variations, this type of threat generally requires a two-track approach-an active campaign to win over the populace coupled with irresistible violence directed against the warlord(s) and the warriors. You cannot bargain or compromise with warriors. You cannot "teach them a lesson" (unless you believe that Saddam Hussein or General Aideed have learned anything worthwhile from our fecklessness in the clinch). You either win or you lose. This kind of warfare is a zero-sum game. And it takes guts to play (Peters, 1994).
In other words, campaigns of propaganda and brutal aggression are the solutions to the "warrior" problem. Doesn't Abu Ghraib conform to this "two-track approach"? As is painfully evidenced by his reference to Saddam Hussein, Peters contends that one of the regions infected by the global "warrior" epidemic is Iraq. Because the alleged "warrior" problem is widespread, Saddam is not alone. No, the Iraqi people are "warriors" as well.
According to Peters' criterion, which is vigorously promoted within the military establishment, the prisoners being held at Abu Ghraib were not soldiers. They were "warriors." Thus, the possibility of prisoner rehabilitation was automatically precluded. After all, Peters himself opines: "You cannot ‘teach them a lesson.'" Following Peters' prescribed approach, the American soldiers at Abu Ghraib acted with "irresistible violence directed against the warlord(s) and the warriors."
If Peters is right about anything at all, he is correct to call this war a "zero-sum game." However, the war is not between soldiers and "warriors." It is between the elite and the rest of humanity. Yes, it takes guts to play. However, something else is required to give the player the ultimate advantage. That pivotal element is the human spirit. Given the elite's history of parasitic usury and brutal suppression, it is safe to say that they have forsaken this crucial attribute.
Brzezinski, Zbigniew, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Geostrategic Objectives, Basic Books, 1997.
Harding, Luke, "Afghanistan's Deadly Crop Flourishes Again," http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v02/n354/a03.html, February 28, 2002.
Keith, Jim, Secret and Suppressed: Banned Ideas and Hidden History, Feral House, Portland, Oregon, 1993.
MacPherson, Myra, "MacNamara's ‘Moron Corps'," http://archive.salon.com/news/feature/2002/05/29/mcnamara/, May 29, 2002.
Margolis, Eric, "America's New War: A Progress Report", http://www.commondreams.org/views01/1209-02.htm, 2001.
Mills, C. Wright, The Power Elite, Oxford University Press, London/New York, 1956.
Peters, Ralph, "The New Warrior Class," Parameters, http://carlisle-www.army.mil/usawc/Parameters/1994/peters.htm, 1994.
Pouzzner, Daniel, The Architecture of Modern Political Power: The New Feudalism, 2001, http://www.mega.nu:8080.
Taguba, Maj. General Antonio, "U.S. Army report on Iraqi prisoner abuse," http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4894001/, May 4, 2004.
Paul D. Collins has studied suppressed history and the shadowy undercurrents of world political dynamics for roughly eleven years.