May 08, 2004

Father of the raven

Obligatory language connection: this page on Abu Ghurayb ("the preferred NIMA transliteration" of Abu Ghraib) explains the meaning of the name as "father of the raven", and also cites a dozen alternative transliterations and four places in Iraq with this name. [Update 4/11/2004: A discussion of how to pronounce this name, with a recording, is here.]

With respect to the content of the Abu Ghraib scandal, some of the most well-informed and insightful commentary has been posted over the past week by Rivka at Respectful of Otters. In chronological order from earliest to most recent: An Army of Liberation, Defending The Unspeakable, Crime And Punishment, A Man Stands Up, Lost: One Moral Compass, Bringing In An Expert, The Taguba Report, Part 1, The Taguba Report, Part 2, More Abu Ghraib Analysis, Who's To Blame? Alternative Theories.

Here are two small examples. Point #6 of Rivka's analysis of the Taguba report is:

The command structure of the 800th MP Brigade was totally and horrifically buggered. Just one example: one of the Battalion Commanders was so incredibly incompetent that General Karpinski sent him to Kuwait for two weeks to give him (and presumably everyone else) a break from the strain of command. She put another Battalion Commander in his place temporarily. Except: she didn't write any orders relieving the first guy of command or putting the second guy in place. She didn't notify any of her superiors about the change. She didn't notify any of the soldiers in the battalion that they had a new commander. Taguba, who must have been bleeding from the eardrums at that point: "Temporarily removing one commander and replacing him with another serving Battalion Commander without an order and without notifying superior or subordinate commands is without precedent in my military career."

And with respect to the implications of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, Rivka writes:

In the 1970s, a social psychologist named Phil Zimbardo converted the basement of a Stanford building into a makeshift prison and randomly assigned psychologically healthy young men to play "prisoners" and "guards." Within days, a sick and abusive "guard" culture had developed, and "prisoners" had become cowed and submissive. Zimbardo actually had to stop the study after six days because the abusive behavior of the "guards" had gotten so far out of control. (I'm not going to discuss his repellent lack of experimental ethics, except to say that no one would be allowed to do this study today.)

What does the Stanford experiment tell us about Abu Ghraib? I don't think it absolves the low-level MPs from moral responsibility, but it should steer us away from explanations which depend on their moral exceptionality. The Stanford experiment tells us that there needn't have been anything psychologically or morally deficient about these MPs at the outset of the war, just as the "guards" in Zimbardo's experiment were psychologically indistinguishable from "prisoners" when the study began.

If anything, the Stanford study damns the leadership of the 800th MP Brigade even further than they've already been damned. We know that, in the absence of continuous training, supervision, and strict controls, people given absolute power over others will tend to become vicious. No one in that chain of command has any business acting surprised that their failures of leadership led to exactly what anyone who's taken Psych 101 at any time since the mid-1970s could have predicted.

I would only add that the same corollories of the Stanford experiment are being acted out in prisons all over the world every day, though in most cases the authorities encourage the abuses rather than being indifferent or unaware. And by all accounts, the world leaders who are most "shocked" by the current revelations are among the most guilty of condoning or encouraging similar things.

I suspect that in this respect, American prisons and the attitudes of American authorities are among the best in the world, not the worst. However, you might recall that last year Bill Lockyer, California's Attorney General, remarked that he "would love to personally escort" Enron CEO Ken Lay "to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, 'Hi, my name is Spike, honey.' "

And if you don't remember, you can read about it here.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 8, 2004 09:46 AM