Aggressive Behavior of Abu Ghraib

Aggressive BehaviorSocial psychologists have studied the social forces that influence aggressive behavior. Research on aggression highlights personal, situational, and environmental factors that may uniquely influence the likelihood of aggressive behavior (Bushman & Huesmann, 2010). The media in this week?s Learning Resources demonstrates how aggressive behavior happens, even when it was unintended.For this Discussion, review this week?s Learning Resources. Students with last names beginning with the letters N?Z review the media on Abu Ghraib.…With these thoughts in mind:Post by Day 3 the identity of the event to which you were assigned. Then explain two potential situational factors that may have influenced the aggressive behavior demonstrated in the event. Explain two possible personal factors that may have influenced this aggressive behavior. Finally, employing a social psychology perspective, explain two ways the aggressive behavior might have been prevented. Use the current literature to support your response.


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ETHICS & BEHAVIOR, 20(2), 161?173
Copyright © 2010 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1050-8422 print / 1532-7019 online
DOI: 10.1080/10508421003595984
Preventing Prisoner Abuse:
Leadership Lessons of Abu Ghraib
Paul T. Bartone
Center for Technology and National Security Policy, National Defense University
The abuse of prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib had far-reaching consequences, leading many
people around the world to question the legitimacy of U.S. goals and activities in Iraq. Drawing on extensive unclassified reports from multiple investigations that followed Abu Ghraib, this article considers both psychological and social-situational factors that contributed to ethical failures there. This
analysis suggests that leaders need to be more attuned to the developmental stage of subordinates and
take appropriate steps to reinforce ethical behaviors. From a psychological standpoint, young adults
especially are strongly inclined to behave in accord with social conventions and pressures around
them. Particularly in ambiguous circumstances, it is important that standards of behavior be clear and
explicit throughout all phases of an operation and that leaders at all levels represent and reinforce
those standards.
Keywords: Abu Ghraib, leadership, prisoner abuse, stress, hardiness
In April of 2004, a series of photographs appeared in the news media showing U.S. military personnel abusing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison facility in Iraq. Pictures showed prisoners
hooded and connected to electrical wires, tied to leashes, stacked naked on the floor, and engaging
in simulated sex acts. Some analysts believe this event marked a turning point in the war, after
which Iraqi and world opinion shifted substantially against the United States (Carter, 2004).
The revelations of prisoner abuse were followed by multiple investigations and reports, news
stories, and criminal prosecutions. Some of these stories alleged that military medical personnel,
possibly including psychologists, were complicit in prisoner abuse (Miles, 2004), although later
accounts indicate that no psychologists were present or involved in the Abu Ghraib abuses (James
& Freeman, 2008). One official report by Major General George Fay called for further investigation into the role of medical personnel, finding that medical records for detainees were not properly maintained, and that some medics failed to report abuses at Abu Ghraib (Fay, 2004). Partly in
response to reports of abuses at Abu Ghraib, the American Psychological Association (APA) reaffirmed its stance against torture with a resolution that states psychologists will not participate in or
condone ?cruel, inhuman, or degrading? treatment of prisoners (APA, 2006). Subsequent resolutions have further reinforced APA?s ethical position on treatment and interrogation of prisoners
(APA, 2007).
Correspondence should be addressed to Paul T. Bartone, Center for Technology and National Security Policy, National Defense University, Washington, DC 20319. E-mail:
Ordinarily, military health care personnel in operational settings are focused on safeguarding
the health and welfare of friendly forces while also advising leaders on health and morale issues
that can affect troops. Behavioral scientists pay attention to such issues as preventing or reducing
stress-related problems during and after deployments, maintaining unit morale and effectiveness,
and assessing the impact of leader actions and policies on troop adjustment and performance. In
wartime or conflict situations, military health care personnel also have a responsibility to provide
care for enemy wounded, prisoners, retained personnel, detainees, and civilians. This is a professional, legal, and moral obligation that all U.S. military medical personnel accept when they enter
the service. The U.S. Armed Forces adhere to all relevant international laws, including all four of
the 1949 Geneva Conventions (Headquarters, Departments of the Army, Navy, Air Force and
Marine Corps, 1997).
Despite these established values and standards, a pattern of prisoner abuse occurred at the Abu
Ghraib detention facility for an extended period in 2003. The importance of understanding and
preventing prisoner abuse and related moral breakdowns is underscored by additional documented cases of prisoner abuse at U.S. facilities in Afghanistan and Guantanamo (Schlesinger,
Brown, Fowler, & Horner, 2004) and by other nations? forces such as British soldiers in Iraq
(Morris, 2006). The desecration of human remains by German soldiers in Afghanistan in 2006 is
another disturbing example of the human potential for cruel acts (Smee, 2006). By carefully examining the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse case from a current social-psychological perspective, we
may gain a deeper understanding of how and why such behaviors occur and more clearly specify
what leaders and organizations can do to prevent such incidents in the future.
The following assessment draws upon public, unclassified, or declassified reports of official
investigations into what occurred at Abu Ghraib. In particular, two investigations are noteworthy
for their comprehensiveness, detail, and objectivity, and so serve as primary sources for the present analysis. The first of these was the investigation conducted by Major General Anthony
Taguba, which lasted from January through June 2004, resulting in a 53-page report with 106 Annexes (Taguba, 2004). The second investigation, led by Major General Fay, was conducted from
March through August of 2004 and included interviews from more than 170 people and analyses
of more than 9,000 documents, generating a 143-page report (Fay, 2004). Additional information
and cross-validation of findings come primarily from reports of the investigations headed by
James Schlesinger and Lieutenant General Anthony R. Jones (Jones, 2004).
In January 2004, a U.S. Army Military Police (MP) sergeant working at the Abu Ghraib facility
reported abuse of prisoners to a Criminal Investigation Division investigator on the scene. The
sergeant provided a note detailing his allegations and a compact disc containing digital photographs of prisoner abuse by U.S. guards. This triggered the Taguba investigation, which produced
a report that was originally classified ?secret? and was later released to the media. The prisoner
abuse story was first reported by the CBS show 60 Minutes in April 2004. Since then, hundreds of
media accounts and several books have been published on the subject (Danner, 2004; Hersh,
2004; James & Freeman, 2008; Karpinski & Strasser, 2005; Sands, 2008). In addition to the
Taguba investigation, there have been 11 other major official U.S. government investigations into
prisoner abuse and alleged use of torture and coercive interrogation techniques at Abu Ghraib and
other locations, including the U.S. prison facility at Guantanamo, Cuba. To date, 11 enlisted soldiers have been formally tried and convicted, and several officers and leaders have been relieved
and/or demoted or been given career-ending reprimands.
Following the early media reports and release of hundreds of photos and videos documenting prisoner abuse, a public debate ensued as to whether this was a case of a few individuals behaving
badly or an expression of a more widespread problem. Senior Bush administration officials
mainly described it as an isolated case of ?a few bad apples.? For example, Secretary of Defense
Rumsfeld characterized the Abu Ghraib abuses as the actions of ?a few American service members? (Garamone, 2004). Other accounts inferred the incidents were symptomatic of a broader
corruption in the culture of the American military and Department of Defense (?A Corrupted Culture,? 2004). In fact, the Independent Panel to Review DoD Detention Operations (also known as
the Schlesinger panel) confirmed that incidents of abuse at Abu Ghraib were not isolated cases,
but that there were more documented cases of detainee abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo (Morris, 2006).
Despite some widespread, negative systemic influences, the vast majority of American service
members did not, and would not, participate in or condone abusive behaviors. In his investigation,
Taguba (2004) pointed out that the majority of soldiers assigned to Abu Ghraib had no part in the
abuse of prisoners, a point also made in James?s account (James & Freeman, 2008). Like most of
the world, American soldiers were shocked and dismayed when the abuse of prisoners came to
light. For most soldiers, the prison scandal was a significant additional stressor, in that it was a
shameful violation of the democratic and humanitarian ideals they believed they were fighting for
(Bartone, 2005).
Some commentaries on the Abu Ghraib abuses have put nearly exclusive importance on situational factors, such as those found in Zimbardo?s 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which 24
male undergraduates were recruited to play the roles of guards and prisoners (Haney, Banks, &
Zimbardo, 1973). Some guards in the Zimbardo experiment quickly engaged in sadistic behavior,
and most prisoners accepted the humiliation passively. The intensity with which students adopted
their assigned roles surprised the investigators and led them to stop the experiment before it was
completed. Zimbardo (2004) attributed the extreme behaviors of the students to the force of the
situation in which they were placed rather than to any individual factors. But others have questioned this interpretation, arguing that Zimbardo underestimated the ability of individuals to alter
situations and that persons are ultimately responsible for their own actions (Saletan, 2004). Although situational factors assuredly played a role, it is important to also take into account the influence of individual/personality factors in order to fully understand what happened at Abu
Ghraib. Regarding social influences, it is also essential to not be satisfied with superficial generic
explanations (e.g., ?a bad environment turns people bad?) but to look more deeply into the specific contextual factors bearing upon Abu Ghraib. Based on the evidence contained in the Taguba
and Fay reports, which remain the most objective and detailed accounts to date, several conclusions can be drawn regarding what were the key situational and individual factors.
Situational Factors
The first factor is ambiguity in the chain of command. There was substantial uncertainty and confusion regarding who was in charge and who had responsibility for what. The most notable example of leadership ambiguity described in the Taguba report was the ongoing conflict between the
Commander of the 800th MP Brigade (Brigadier General Janis Karpinski) and the Commander of
the 205th Military Intelligence (MI) Brigade (Colonel Thomas Pappas). Soldiers at the Abu
Ghraib facility were unclear about who was in charge. Taguba references a FRAGO (fragmentation order) dated November 19, 2003, placing the Commander of the 205 MI Brigade in TACON
(tactical control) of all units at Abu Ghraib, including the MPs (Taguba, 2004, p. 38). The Commander of the MPs took a different view, believing that she had command authority over the 800th
MP Brigade and she outranked the MI Brigade Commander. Nevertheless, the MI Brigade Commander clearly had command authority and responsibility for his own brigade, and this is the organization that had primary responsibility for conducting interrogations. But as the Taguba investigation revealed, both MP and MI personnel in the Abu Ghraib facility were unclear about
who was really in charge. Similar ambiguities existed throughout the chain of command. The
Schlesinger report points to the same problem, describing the leadership structure as ?a series of
tangled command relationships? (Schlesinger et al., 2004, p. 17). This problem was exacerbated
by the presence of CIA teams that were, according to Schlesinger, ?allowed to operate under different rules? (Schlesinger et al., 2004, p. 70). The activities of CIA teams contributed not only to
reduced accountability and difficulty in tracking prisoners but also increased confusion about who
was in charge of prison and interrogation operations.
The second factor is laissez-faire leadership. Leaders were mostly not visible or actively involved in mission activities and were not communicating standards, policies, and plans to soldiers. For example, several soldiers at Abu Ghraib, including the sergeant who first reported the
abuses, have testified that the general officer in charge of the prison was rarely seen there (Hylton,
2006). The Taguba report indicates that key leaders, including the MP Battalion Commander and
the MP Brigade Commander, ?had very little contact? with soldiers under their command at the
Abu Ghraib facilty (Taguba, 2004). This lack of leader involvement and visibility could have conveyed tacit approval of prisoner abuse. Numerous studies in the social and organizational psychology literature have documented the destructive effects of laissez-faire leadership on individuals and organizations (Bass & Avolio, 1994).
The third factor is lack of training. The Taguba report indicates there was a lack of training and
preparation throughout the 800th MP Brigade, particularly with respect to prisoner-handling procedures and techniques, including provisions of the Geneva Conventions. The poor training was
at least in part related to the hasty manner in which this reserve unit was mobilized and deployed
to Iraq: ?Soldiers were poorly prepared and untrained to conduct I/R (internment/resettlement)
operations prior to deployment, at the mobilization site, upon arrival in theater, and throughout
their mission? (Taguba, 2004, p. 24). The report also faults multiple leaders for failing to conduct
needed training after deployment (Taguba, 2004, p. 24).
The fourth factor is poor discipline. Clear policies regarding wearing of the uniform and standards of behavior (including saluting) were not established or enforced (Taguba, 2004, p. 41). The
weak discipline was evident in multiple areas, including logs and journals. ?Operational journals
at the various compounds and the 320th Battalion TOC (Tactical Operations Center) contained
numerous unprofessional entries and flippant comments, which highlighted the lack of discipline
within the unit. There was no indication that the journals were ever reviewed by anyone in their
chain of command.? This lack of discipline and attention to standards was also apparent in the frequent disregard of prisoner accountability checks and reporting (Taguba, 2004, p. 24).
The fifth factor is psychological stressors. Key leaders did not recognize or appreciate psychological stressors associated with the Operation Iraqi Freedom mission. The Taguba report found
that ?difference in culture, soldiers? quality of life, and the real presence of mortal danger over an
extended time period, and the failure of commanders to recognize these pressures contributed to
the perversive [sic] atmosphere that existed at Abu Ghraib ? and throughout the 800th MP Brigade? (Taguba, 2004, p. 43). So, Taguba pointed to both the direct impact of psychological stressors on soldiers and the secondary effects due to failure of leaders to recognize and address these
psychological stressors in any way. Previous research into psychological stressors during military
operations identified five key factors: ambiguity, isolation, powerlessnesss, danger, and boredom
(Bartone, Adler, & Vaitkus, 1998). It appears all of these factors were salient for the soldiers
based at Abu Ghraib.
Ambiguity in this case includes uncertainty about who is the enemy and who is a friend. The
presence of civilian contractors throughout the prison in various forms of dress added to this uncertainty (Taguba, 2004).
The sense of isolation was apparently extreme for those working at Abu Ghraib. According to
the Fay (2004) report, there was ?a general feeling by both MI and MP personnel that Abu Ghraib
was the forgotten outpost, receiving little support from the Army? (p. 45).
The feeling of powerlessness is somewhat paradoxical here. U.S. soldiers working at Abu
Ghraib had considerable control over prisoner treatment and conditions. But in the larger environment, they in fact had very little influence. For example, as identified in multiple investigations,
the Abu Ghraib facility was severely underresourced in personnel and equipment, and requests for
additional support were routinely denied or ignored. Combat and operational units had priority for
logistical support (Jones, 2004, p. 23). Also, several investigations have pointed to the presence of
interrogators from Other Government Agencies (OGAs), notably the CIA, as also contributing to
prisoner abuse (Jones, 2004, p. 22). These OGA individuals operated ?under different practices
and procedures which were absent any DoD visibility, control or oversight? (Fay, 2004, p. 118).
This added to the confusion about what were acceptable interrogation practices, but also very
likely contributed to a generalized sense of powerlessness for soldiers working at Abu Ghraib.
This feeling of powerlessness was further exacerbated by a sense of danger, with insurgent
sniper and mortar fire regularly claiming victims. Soldiers at Abu Ghraib were largely unprotected from such fire and unable to fire back at a mostly unseen enemy. In addition, dangerous
criminal prisoners were grouped together with detainees at Abu Ghraib. These prisoners regularly
attacked their guards, sometimes with stolen weapons, and sought to escape (Taguba, 2004, pp.
28?32). Frustration and the general sense of powerlessness may have increased the potential for
abuse in the one area where power could be exerted, over the prisoners.
Boredom includes the conventional meaning of a dull and repetitive daily existence, which was
certainly a factor, but extends also to deeper questions about the importance or significance of the
mission and one?s role in it. Over time, if soldiers lose the conviction that their daily work is making an important contribution to a larger, positive mission, they can become alienated and de-
tached from their surroundings, with a diminished sense of commitment to the unit and mission.
This feeling of alienation or existential boredom also sets the stage for abuse, as the alienated person no longer cares much about basic values or consequences. Indeed, to the deeply alienated person, very little seems to matter (Kobasa & Maddi, 1977). Existential boredom seems to have been
a salient issue at Abu Ghraib. Contributing to this were factors already noted, including lack of
discipline and standards, absent and ineffective leaders, lengthy deployment, unclear mission, and
ambiguous chain of command.
In addition to these, another stress factor is workload. The Taguba report indicates that U.S.
forces at the Abu Ghraib facility were ?undermanned and under resourced? and that as a Reserve
Component unit, the 800th MP Brigade had no system for replacing individuals who were lost for
reasons such as medical problems or having completed the required term of active duty service
(Taguba, 2004, p. 38). The Schlesinger report also identifies the destructive effects of repeated deployments:
The Joint Staff failed to recognize the implications of the deteriorating manning levels in the 800th
MP Brigade; the absence of combat equipment among detention elements of MP units operating in a
combat zone, and the indications of deteriorating mission performance among military intelligence
interrogators owing to the stress of repeated combat deployments. (Fay, 2 …
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