The abuse of prisoners by U.S. Soldiers at Abu Ghraib had broad strategic consequences, leading many people around the world to question the legitimacy of U.S. goals and activities in Iraq. This paper draws on extensive unclassified reports from multiple investigations that followed Abu Ghraib, and applies key psychological as well as social-situational perspectives to develop a better grasp of the causative factors. From a psychological standpoint, most young adults are powerfully inclined to behave in accord with the social conventions and pressures around them. Especially in ambiguous circumstances, then, 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.
In April 2004, the world was shocked to see a series of photographs of 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 that this event marked a turning point in the war, after which Iraqi and world opinion shifted substantially against the United States. (1) The revelations of prisoner abuse were followed by multiple investigations and reports, news stories, and criminal prosecutions. We need to understand how such moral and ethical failures can occur in order to prevent them from recurring. Such an understanding requires careful consideration of multiple factors, including individual psychological, social, and organizational ones. Once recognized and understood, these various factors can be addressed through training, leadership, and policies to prevent similar breakdowns in the future.
Ordinarily, military medical personnel in operational settings are focused on safeguarding the health and welfare of friendly forces, while also advising leaders on a range of 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, the responsibility of military health care personnel to protect human physical and mental health also extends to 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 service. (2)
Following the revelation of abuses at Abu Ghraib, there were allegations that some U.S. military medical personnel may have been complicit in prisoner abuse. (3) An official report by Major General George Fay called for further investigation on this issue, finding that medical records for detainees were not properly maintained and that some medical personnel failed to report abuses. (4) Partly in response to reports of abuses at Abu Ghraib, the American Psychological Association recently reaffirmed its stance against torture by passing a resolution that states psychologists will not participate in or condone "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment of prisoners. (5)
As experts in human behavior, military behavioral scientists have a responsibility to apply their knowledge and expertise toward understanding and preventing ethical breakdowns and misconduct of the type seen at Abu Ghraib, where in 2003-2004 Iraqi prisoners suffered a range of abuses at the hands of their U.S. guards in addition to those documented by the infamous photographs. 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 Bay, (6) as well as by British soldiers in Iraq. …