Academic journal article Parameters

Looking Back: Understanding Abu Ghraib

Academic journal article Parameters

Looking Back: Understanding Abu Ghraib

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: A decade ago, in the autumn of 2003, a small group of soldiers criminally abused detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Two divergent narratives explaining these events emerged: a "bad apple" narrative and a "bad barrel" narrative. Neither does justice to the complex interplay of policy, organizational, and individual factors that contributed to these tragic events. A perfect storm of poor leadership, chaotic and confusing policy changes, and a small group of corrupt and immoral soldiers produced this fiasco with global consequences.


It has been a decade since the world learned about Abu Ghraib. The abuses depicted in the photographs with which we are all now so familiar occurred in the fall of 2003. It was not until April 2004, when photographs of the abuses appeared on Sixty Minutes II, that the public became aware of what had happened. (1) Seymour Hersh, in a 10 May 2004 article in the New Yorker, set the tone for much of the subsequent discussion. The subtitle of his article was, "American soldiers brutalized Iraqis. How far up does the responsibility go?" Hersh concluded his article with a quotation from Gary Myers, civilian defense attorney for one of the soldiers who committed the abuses: "I'm going to drag every involved intelligence officer and civilian contractor I can find into court. Do you really believe the Army relieved a general officer because of six soldiers? Not a chance." (2) From the outset, then, "Abu Ghraib" was construed as much more than a case of soldier misconduct. It was to be a story of the inevitable consequences of the administration's misguided approach to interrogation, detainee treatment, and torture, and the plight of a few low-level soldiers fingered as fall guys for those responsible higher up the chain. It would eventually become clear, though, that there was responsibility at every level: policy, organization, and individual.

Why a Sensational Story?

There were other instances of detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of which were even more brutal than those that occurred at Abu Ghraib. On 26 November 2003, for example, a few weeks after the most infamous Abu Ghraib photographs had been taken, Iraqi Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush was killed by American soldiers of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment trying to extract information from him. He had been beaten and tortured for days, had refused to provide information, and was subjected to an unusual technique: he was stuffed into an Army sleeping bag, tied up with electrical cord, and laid on the floor where American soldiers sat on him. He died of suffocation and chest compression. (3)

This and many other examples of abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the deaths of other detainees in US custody, should have and did raise legitimate questions about potential unintended consequences of US torture and interrogation policy. But it was Abu Ghraib that soon became the focus of this discussion. The photographs received worldwide publicity, and the revulsion they engendered had immediate and profound consequences--they fanned the flames of resentment of America in Iraq and throughout the Muslim world. Unfortunately, the Abu Ghraib cases were ill-suited to play the symbolic role they soon acquired.

The involvement of Seymour Hersh and Gary Myers (both were associated with the story of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War) probably contributed to the perception of the story as one of national and historical significance. In addition, the superficial similarity of some of the Abu Ghraib abuse photos to photographs from Dr. Phillip Zimbardo's well-known Stanford Prison Study mobilized an immediate response from social scientists. (4) At the outset, then, the stage was set for the development of at least two different and competing narratives according to which these events could be interpreted.

Competing Narratives

The initial response from the Army and the administration was to investigate these incidents and then allow the military personnel and justice systems to do their work. …

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