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American Torture

Updated on August 30, 2020
Emma Brisbane profile image

Easton is a psychology and criminology double major at the University of Denver

American Torture

Most countries, including the United States, claim that the use of torture is wrong and should never be utilized. However, simply turn on your television and what do you see? Scenes of graphic violence and torture dominate most of the major broadcasting networks. Our culture’s obsession with torture implies that perhaps such abusive acts aren’t as frowned upon as we would like to believe, as can be seen by the scandal of Abu Ghraib. The Bush administration has tried to convince the public that the scandal was an isolated incident created by a “few bad apples.” However, the critics of the administration argue that bad policy makers are to blame for the torture and that the MP’s were just following the procedures implemented by their superiors. While both theories have merit, neither fully examines all the factors that led to torture. Abu Ghraib was the result of not only a vague operating procedure but also harsh conditions and blind obedience to authority.

The Geneva Convention was established with the intention of protecting prisoners of war from being subjected to inhumane treatment and keeping the nations of the world accountable for the respectable treatment of those taken under its name. However, extracting information from prisoners became severely difficult due to the Convention’s requirement that all prisoners “be entitled in all circumstances to respect for their persons and their honor.” To get information that could potentially save lives, the military applied evasive language and euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogation” to circumvent the expectations outlined by the Convention. They accomplished this by referring to the prisoners taken in the war against Al Qaeda as “unlawful combatants” rather than “prisoners of war” so that MPs would be able to interrogate the detainees at their own discretion without having to worry about violating the Convention. The argument that Abu Ghraib was the result of corrupt policy makers is false since the Geneva Convention had been sidestepped and there simply was no set policy being implemented at the prison itself. Megan Ambuhl, an MP accused of torture, said it best when she stated, “They couldn’t say that we broke the rules because there were no rules.” The revolving door of memorandums and articles that circulated throughout Abu Ghraib only severed to blur the lines between what was acceptable behavior and what was outright banned. Due to this lack of consensus, the prison adopted what the military police called a “verbal operating procedure” where guards would decide for themselves what constituted appropriate treatment of prisoners. Since there was no universal procedure in place at Abu Ghraib, the argument that a few bad policy makers are to blame is void.

When examining a tragedy such as Abu Ghraib, one must reflect on the environment of the incident. The conditions at Abu Ghraib were less than ideal due to the constant bombings, the corrupt Iraqi guards smuggling contraband to the prisoners, and the constant threat of being shot. Dr. Crelinsten argued in his paper “Accounting for Atrocities” that the reason for such widespread torture is due to the perpetrator’s ability to “construct a separate reality” in which torture is not only accepted, but encouraged. Crelinsten goes on to state that three concepts are essential to maintain this alternative reality; dehumanization, authorization, and routinization which are all present at Abu Ghraib. It’s important to note that those putting the MP’s in the sights of their guns were the very people that the army was sent over to help. The Iraqi’s violent resistance only fueled the “us vs them” mentality that the soldiers used to justify the dehumanization of the prisoners. The soldiers began to equate the detainees under their watch with the Iraqis that were constantly raiding the prison, thus making it easier to torture the prisoners. As if the stakes weren’t high enough with the excessive bombings, the MP’s superiors were breathing down their necks about getting more information from the prisoners to save lives. The fact that such abuse was occurring on a daily basis led to the MP’s belief that such criminal acts were routine and made the soldiers numb to the atrocities they were inflicting. As Ken Davis, another accused torturer, said “You become numb to it, and it’s nothing. It just becomes the norm. You see it- that sucks. It sucks to be him. And that’s it. You move on.” Other MP’s throughout The Ballad of Abu Ghraib consistently used the excuse that they were “just following orders,” which Crelinsten describes as the authorization piece required to maintain an alternate reality. The belief that they were just obeying orders eliminated the MP’s need to make personal judgments and thus defused the feeling of responsibility onto the superiors who were giving the orders.

In the military, the chain of command is a strictly enforced concept that is instilled into the mind of every new soldier. Since obedience to authority is a large part of how the military conducts itself, it can help to understand what happened at Abu Ghraib. In order to truly understand the individual’s need to obey authority, one can analyze the famous Milgram experiment. The most profound discovery of this experiment showed that under the “right” set of circumstances, anyone can become a torturer. From this study, Milgram concluded that the reasons people obey or disobey authority falls into three categories; personal history, binding, and strain. While binding is associated with positive feelings towards obedience, strain deals with the unpleasant emotions. Milgram argued that “when binding factors are more powerful that the strain of cooperating, people will do as they were told.” His experiment, while controversial, showed that if an authority figure was responsible for the outcome, almost no participants refused to administer shocks to the subjects since the binding factors outweighed the strain of hurting others. If this belief that under the right circumstances anyone can be a torturer is true, then the “few bad apples” theory preached by the Bush administration would be erroneous because the binding of following orders was greater than the strain of disobeying a command that involved torture. First Lieutenant Lewis Raeder offered great insight into this conflict when he said, “For not reporting something, you can get nailed for dereliction of duty. And if it comes out that it was ok, some people might be angry that you reported it.”

All the factors that went into creating an ideal environment for torture at Abu Ghraib wove together perfectly to create the perfect storm in which thousands of detainees were subjected to inhumane acts of abuse and mistreatment. Simply having a few bad apples and ambiguous policies alone could never fully explain away or justify the horrific acts that occurred at the hard site of Abu Ghraib. Instead it was the combination of evasive military language, harsh conditions, and the strain of following orders that blended together to create one of America’s most tragic scandals.


Crelinsten, Ronald D. “A World of Torture: A Constructed Reality.” Theoretical Criminology,


Gibson, Janice T, and Mika Harts-Fatouros. “The Education of a Torturer.” Psychology Today.

Morris, Errol, and Philip Gourevitch. The Ballad of Abu Ghraib. Penguin Books, 2008.


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