Saturday, May 08, 2004

My Lengthy Thoughts About the Iraq Prisoner Pictures

I have avoided writing anything about the whole Iraqi prisoner thing till I gave it a bit of thought, and I think I gave it as much as I could, which is not much. Here is what I have to say for myself, I wish I could be more insightful. This weekend I was on drill, so I met with my reserve unit and we had some time to talk about the matter. I'll give the details at the end.

First, it is clear that the pictures are shocking. Prima facie, it is not something I would want to be associated with. The thought actually crossed my mind while on the train today on my way home in uniform, and I wondered if people near me were thinking that I was the same kind of person who would do what the people in the pictures did. It was slightly uncomfortable.

Second, after all the discussion of the pictures, I have no idea what the prisoners were charged with, why they were prisoners, and what happened to them since. I would like to hope that despite the fact that they were very much mistreated, we did not let very dangerous people back on to the street.

Third, people need a psychology lesson. Anyone who ever took even one psychology class in college, will have heard of two experiments, both about 30-something years old. First, is the Milgram obedience to Authority Experiment, and the second is the Zimbardo Stanford Prison Experiment. These are the two most famous experiments in psychology after Pavlov's dog. (I will state the lessons of the experiments. For the actual experiment, proof, and interpretation, follow the links to the actual experiment.)

The Milgram experiment suggests, on the standard interpretation, that in a case where there are people in authority taking responsibility for some action, even though the action is obviously quite immoral, people will usually do it. If the burden of moral responsibility is removed, people in authority can easily coerce regular unprepared people to do horrible things. (There are other interpretations that deny that the subjects seriously believed this.)

The Stanford experiment is a bit more complicated, but the results are more shocking, and less open to interpretation. The Stanford experiment (which everyone is talking about after this Iraq thing) basically shows that in a situation where you have random prisoners and random guards, without any training or discussion, will devolve into the guards acting barbarically to the prisoners. Human nature is such that in situations like this, you will get humans acting very inhumane. Humans will cease to treat their prisoners as human, and will treat them as anything else you would treat in a cage, as something for their own amusement. They will not treat the prisoners as people. There are no special personality traits associated with this. This happens to regular normal people.

What can these two experiments tell us about human psychology? They tell us that humans often act differently than we would expect when there is authority, and when they are in authority. When under pressure of authority and abdication of responsibility, humans seem to become conflicted. They want to obey authority, and they want to do what is right. When they can't, they will usually obey authority. They will assume that the right thing to do is what they are told. When they are relieved of responsibility, it is even easier to do what they are told. Second, when people are in a role of power with respect to someone who they believe is a) not deserving of rights, and b) is not being treated like they have too many of them, people will begin to take on the same role. Guards will see themselves as part of this role. They will take their power, and unsurprisingly, abuse it.

Fourth, The military tries really hard to make sure that the part of the job that involves obeying authority takes priority. Following orders is a big part of military life. There is obviously a strict hierarchy. Some units are stricter than others, and others are fairly lax, but one is always cognizant of the fact that they are speaking to a superior or a subordinate. There is A LOT of re-enforcement of this behavior.

The Milgram experiment should show that in situations of obedience to authority, and a fortiori in situations where obedience to authority is taken very seriously, you can expect people to allow the obeying of orders to override most everything else, especially some moral qualms.

So who is responsible? Well, it seems like if these experiments are indicative of human behavior, then humans are simply programmed to act certain ways under certain conditions. So how can we punish them for it?

I like to think that despite this, humans have free will. If they did not, then our whole legal system is built on a fiction. So despite the fact that it would be difficult, the soldiers should be held accountable for their actions. In particular they ought to be held responsible for the degree for which they did what they did. The fact that they seemed to enjoy it and take pictures, is also fairly disturbing and worthy of some scorn.

The fact that they were probably following orders helps to exonerate them to some degree as well. Their sergeants ought to be held somewhat responsible too.

But the real responsibility must be taken by whoever is in charge of making sure that prisons have guards. Whoever that is, and I suspect that it is some Colonel toward the higher side of the military hierarchy who should really know better. It is his (or, less likely, her) responsibility to understand prison psychology. There is someone who should know how things work, and the potential dangers of using poorly trained or inexperienced soldiers for a job that requires a lot of supervision, self-restraint, and accountability. There seems to have been a failure. The blame is of course not Rumsfeld's, or Bush's. That is preposterous. Most likely people as high as Generals cannot be connected closely enough in the day-to-day affairs to be responsible either.

More frighteningly, this was likely a collective action, and part of a mindset that pervaded the prison for at least a little while. It must have been out of hand. It should have been stopped, and there should have been numerous opportunities for various people to stop them.

What is the Army's official response? What are soldiers supposed to do? I cannot say for certain how the Army will react, but here is most likely what they stand behind, and I have heard versions of this expressed by various generals who have been paraded on CNN over the past few days.

Officially, especially lately, when in training, there are two relevant things to mention.

1) In training, to say that soldiers are trained to obey orders is somewhat imprecise. Sergeants and Drill sergeants do explain that they give orders that they expect to have followed. More precisely, they say very clearly that they are issuing lawful orders. This is not implicit, this is quite explicit. Every soldier has heard the phrase "I issued a lawful order, and I expect it to be followed" countless times. The Army expects its soldiers not to listen to unlawful orders. Soldiers get told this explicitly a few times during their basic training, and probably hear it other times as well. There is an official class on things like racial discrimination and sexual harassment where soldiers are clearly instructed that orders that are racist or sexist, or anything like that are not to be followed. There is also a class on the rudiments of the Geneva Convention. We are told that if there are orders given that go against the Geneva Convention they are not lawful and not to be followed. Alternatives must be found. Many examples are given of actions that are specifically condemned by the Geneva Conventions. There is even a dumb, but hard to forget, film accompanying this class.

2) The Army has seven core values. These values are drummed in to each soldier from day one of basic training. They become very much a part of the lingo and even culture of the Army. Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage are the values that ANY SOLDIER can recite from memory in their sleep. These virtues *very roughly* correspond to what ethicists would call virtues. Aristotle discussed the concept of virtue, and with philosophers like G. E. M. Anscomb and W. D. Ross, and also modern feminists, the idea of a virtue ethic has become standard fare in contemporary philosophy. Virtue ethics attempts to decide right and wrong based on what sort of individual you are, as opposed to what sort of action you do. Soldiers in the US Army are taught to be a certain kind of soldier. They are taught to be a soldier who has honor and integrity, as well as the personal courage to stand up for what is right, as well as face physical danger in various situations that soldiers face. And while the Army offers a very rudimentary conceptual analysis of what these virtues are, they certainly intend for the soldiers to grasp by causistry what the values are on an intuitive level.

How did the Army respond? I cannot know if there was some directive involved from above, or it was just the good common sense of one of the sergeants in charge of my unit, but my unit had an interesting bit of what we call CTT (Common Task Training) this afternoon. I suspect it was the sergeant, and if so he is to be commended and should be a model for other reserve units. A sergeant took us through various scenarios where he would issue an order that was unlawful, and got a number of the younger soldiers to actually agree that they might really assault a female soldier on his order. In these various scenarios he really was coming on strong, and it would have been easy to see how even a rather average soldier would be roped in to going along with even something rather bad, like a "code red" which is out of fashion in the Army, but lives in the memory of everyone who knows that they can't handle the truth. The sergeant then went on to show how things like this could happen, and how to begin to deal with the fact that he or anyone else could give us an order that can violate the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice). If that happened there was a way to deal with the chain of command. I would like to see some better system, perhaps in the way of a civilian review board, but it is unlikely that something like that would be possible. The Military has a pretty good system. Again, the sergeant who ran us through this, gave us all a bit of courage, and definitely gave us a lesson in disobedience to authority that most of us will not likely forget in the near future.

That's my take on the matter.

UPDATE 5/22/04 Anyone in the Army who has logged in to their Army email account lately will notice a letter on top of the site from Rumsfeld, and another one from Brownlee (the acting Secretary of the Army). Each letter basically instructs the soldiers to be good and follow the Army values.