Conditions of Atrocity

Article excerpt

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 "enemy."

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. …