[R-G] "Conditions of Atrocity"
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Thu May 13 18:33:08 MDT 2004
There is presently a campaign to turn Lynne Englund, a person who seems
to have "found herself" as a torturer/sexual abuser at Abu Ghraib, into
the focus of popular anger about what happened there. I gather that
from tabloid articles that seem to me to attempt to reduce what happened
to a matter of her personal perversity.
The ground is being laid for attempting to suggest that she at least was
a renegade who went beyond the framework of her orders and orientation.
We have to insist that the higher you go up the command structure, the
more criminal and murderous they are.
I have no doubt that all these people should be punished, including so
that Gis will feel added support, incentive, and pressure to refuse such
assignments and other criminal acts in Iraq; avoid combat in civilian
areas; and so on.
But we should remember that the Nuremberg trials and the Nuremberg
principle were not an excuse for aiming the fire down below. This was
one of the GOOD things about the trials which I generally object to for
many principled reasons. It was primarily the organizers, political
leaders, commanders, and so on who suffered hanging and other most
severe punishment. That is the way it should be here.
EVERYTHING Englund did is the responsibility of the entire command
structure in Iraq and in Washington.
And remember that with the same incentives and pressures and orders,
there are even more rank-and-file torturers "finding themselves" right
now at the Guantanamo Naval Base.
We have to keep pressing the exposures and aiming the fire up, up, up!
I think this article by Robert Jay Lifton from the current Nation is
useful for this purpose.
Time to have more showings of movies like "A Few Good Men" that give
some flavor of how this system works -- a movie about Guantanamo by the
way, though at an earlier period. (I have always also liked "Night of
the Generals" from this standpoint.)
And of course and always, "The Battle of Algiers."
May 31, 2004 Nation
Conditions of Atrocity
by Robert Jay Lifton
Even before the Congressional hearings on the criminal abuse of Iraqi
detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, Colin Powell brought up My Lai, the
Vietnamese village where, in 1968, American troops slaughtered more than
400 civilians, mostly old people, women and children. He cited it as the
kind of thing that can happen in wars. I also thought of My Lai, but for
somewhat different reasons.
Both Abu Ghraib and My Lai are examples of what I call an
"atrocity-producing situation"--one so structured, psychologically and
militarily, that ordinary people, men or women no better or worse than
you or I, can regularly commit atrocities. In Vietnam that structure
included "free-fire zones" (areas in which soldiers were encouraged to
fire at virtually anyone); "body counts" (with a breakdown in the
distinction between combatants and civilians, and competition among
commanders for the best statistics); and the emotional state of US
soldiers as they struggled with angry grief over buddies killed by
invisible adversaries and with a desperate need to identify some
The Iraq military environment is quite different from that of Vietnam,
but there are some striking parallels. Iraq is also a counterinsurgency
war in which US soldiers, despite their extraordinary firepower, feel
extremely vulnerable in a hostile environment, and in which
higher-ranking officers and war planners feel frustrated by the great
difficulty of tracking down or even recognizing the enemy. The
exaggerated focus on interrogation, including the humiliation of
detainees as a "softening-up" process, reflects that frustration.
We can thus speak of a three-tier dynamic. Foot soldiers--in this case
MPs and civilian contractors--do the dirty work, as either orchestrated
or at least sanctioned by military intelligence officers in charge of
interrogation procedures. The latter in turn act on pressure from
higher-ups to extract information that will identify "insurgents" and
possibly lead to hidden weapons.
What ultimately drives the dynamic is an ideological vision that equates
Iraqi fighters with "terrorists" and seeks to further justify the
invasion. All this is part of the amorphous, even apocalyptic, "war on
terrorism," as is the practice of denying the human rights of detainees
labeled as terrorists, a further stimulus for abuse. Grotesque
improvisations can occur at different levels--whether in the form of
interrogators' ideas about inflicting sexual humiliation or in foot
soldiers' methods of carrying out those instructions or responding to
more indirect messages from above.
Recognizing that atrocity is a group activity, one must ask how
individual soldiers can so readily join in. I believe they undergo a
type of dissociation I call "doubling"--the formation of a second self.
Nazi doctors could continue to be ordinary husbands and fathers when on
leave from their murderous work in Auschwitz. Similarly, Tony Soprano is
a likable fellow who cares about his children but is in the business of
maiming and killing. The individual psyche can adapt to an
atrocity-producing environment by means of a subself that behaves as if
autonomous and thereby joins in activities that would otherwise seem
repugnant. Ironically and sadly, this is an expression of the same
genius for adaptation that has so well served Homo sapiens in the
In environments where sanctioned brutality becomes the norm, sadistic
impulses, dormant in all of us, are likely to be expressed. The group's
violent energy becomes such that an individual soldier who questions it
could be turned upon. (A Vietnam veteran who had been at My Lai told me
he had felt himself in some danger when he not only refused to fire but
pointedly lowered the barrel of his gun to the ground.) To resist such
intense group pressure, an unusual combination of conscience and courage
This kind of atrocity-producing situation can exist, with most of the
characteristics I have described, in ordinary civilian prisons. And it
surely occurs in some degree in all wars, including World War II, our
last "good war." But a counterinsurgency war in a hostile setting,
especially when driven by profound ideological distortions, is
particularly prone to sustained atrocity--all the more so when it
becomes an occupation.
To attribute the scandal at Abu Ghraib to "a few bad apples" or to
"individual failures" is poor psychology and self-serving
pseudomorality. To be sure, individual soldiers and civilians who
participated in it are accountable for their behavior, even under such
pressured conditions. But the greater responsibility lies with those who
planned and executed the war on Iraq and the "war on terrorism" of which
it is a part, and who created, in policy and attitude, the accompanying
denial of rights of captives and suspects.
Psychologically and ethically, responsibility for the crimes at Abu
Ghraib extends to the Defense Secretary, the Attorney General and the
White House. Those crimes are a direct expression of the kind of war we
are waging in Iraq.
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