Prisoner abuse

Was the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib inevitable? Discuss with reference to at least two theories of aggression.

When evidence of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib first surfaced via graphic and disturbing photos of detainees and military police personnel, the response from around the world was shock, outrage and disgust. These images provided definite proof that serious crimes were being committed by US personnel against detainees at Abu Ghraib. Society wanted to know why ordinary people would treat fellow human beings in this manner and would then gloat over it. Contemplative individuals have endeavoured to understand why humans aggress against each other for centuries (Baron and Byrne, 2003) and psychologists have proffered a variety of theories to explain aggression (Hogg and Vaughan, 2008). It will be argued in this essay that the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib was indeed inevitable. Reports on the abuse at Abu Ghraib will be considered, alongside aggression theories and identified determinants of aggression.

Aggression theories generally fall into two main groups biological or social (Hogg and Vaughan, 2008). Early explanations of aggression tended to focus on biological factors and considered aggression to be an inherent instinct. Freud believed this originated from a compelling death wish which was present in every human being, whilst Lorenz proposed it derived from a fighting instinct which is possessed by humans and animals alike (Baron and Byrne, 2003). Although biological theories offer some insight into aggression, they can also be misleading - it would be inappropriate to apply the belief that US personnel abused others simply because of their genetic make-up. In this case, the majority of the soldiers who committed the abuse were considered to be normal individuals (Mestrovic, 2007 as cited by Lankford, 2009). American authorities blamed the individuals involved and labelled them as rogue soldiers (Smeulers and Niekerk, 2008), so mirroring the views of Freud and Lorenz. Zimbardo (May, 2004) questioned this "bad apple theory however and suggested it was instead a "bad barrel that was to blame (p.2). Society may place the blame with individuals, as do biological theories of aggression but, like Zimbardo, social psychologists have acknowledged that human aggression can be strongly influenced by situational factors. For this reason, this essay will seek to better understand the causes of the abuse by taking social and biosocial theories of aggression and applying them to the events at Abu Ghraib.

One of the drive theories which propose that aggression can be incited by external conditions is the frustration-aggression hypothesis proffered by a group of Yale researchers in 1939, led by John Dollard. This theory proposes that aggression is always caused by some kind of frustrating event or situation and that frustration always leads to aggression (Baron and Byrne, 2003). And in the case of Abu Ghraib, it is possible to identify numerous frustrations that were present for the soldiers within the detention centre. The prison was filled to over capacity whilst being under-manned and under-resourced. Many of the soldiers believed they would be able to return home but were instead required to stay on for several months longer than anticipated. They were poorly trained, suffered low morale, experienced inadequate leadership and looked to friends rather than leaders for support and advice. They were in a frightening and dangerous situation surrounded by the enemy in the form of detainees, amid a war on terror where comrades were being killed and whole countries being terrorised. There was also failure by commanders to recognise these frustrations and pressures (Taguba, 2004). If the frustration-aggression hypothesis is applied to events at Abu Ghraib, it is of no surprise that aggression occurred in the form of abuse of detainees at the hands of a frustrated 800th Military Police Brigade. Indeed it serves to give weight to the argument that the abuse was inevitable. By making the sweeping statement that frustration always leads to aggression and aggression is always the result of frustration however, this theory could be considered over-simplistic and flawed (Hogg and Vaughan, 2008). For this reason, further theories will be considered in order to give a multi-faceted portrait of the abuse at Abu Ghraib.

Social Learning Theory is the perspective defended by Bandura that aggressive behaviour is learned rather than being innate (Hogg and Vaughan, 2008). In order to apply this theory fully, it is necessary to understand the background of the detention facility including rules, routines and policies in effect. Members of the 800th Military Police Brigade were not given documentation detailing prisoners' rights; neither were they issued with clear rules of conduct for interrogating prisoners; most orders came indirectly and these were often vague and suggestive in content; information on roles and responsibilities was lacking and leadership failed to ensure behaviour among US personnel was appropriate and respectable (Taguba, 2004,). Certain individuals therefore stretched the boundaries of what constituted interrogation they made up their own rules, they were not punished for their actions and they modelled this behaviour to other guards, encouraging them to emulate their actions. (Fay, 2004)

Bandura's Bobo doll experiment and further research demonstrated that children will copy the aggressive behaviour of others. The modelling effect was recognised as most profound when witnessed live (Hogg and Vaughan, 2008) and this is exactly what happened at Abu Ghraib. Guards witnessed others abusing detainees these guards were not punished and actually appeared to enjoy taking part, as was evident in the photographs amassed. A pattern of behaviour would then have been established that became the norm once the aggressive behaviour was internalised. Guards who joined in with the abuse would be rewarded by receiving the acceptance of the group and would become increasingly disinhibited. It could be considered that in dehumanising their victims, the guards could also justify the manner in which detainees were treated.

Social Learning Theory therefore adds further credibility to the assertion that the abuse was inevitable. Guards were not supervised adequately or punished for unacceptable behaviour - this provided ideal conditions for individuals to model aggressive behaviour and to reinforce this amongst comrades. Indeed, the abuse at Abu Ghraib was recognised as being truly systematic. (Lankford, 2009; Sontag, 2004; Rahimi, 2004) Not all individuals present in the brigade however responded in the same manner. The third and the last theory of aggression to be considered in this essay serves to prove that it was indeed inevitable that abuse would occur at Abu Ghraib, at least at the hands of a proportion of the guards.

Anderson and Bushman's General Aggression Model (GAM) pieces together previous theories and research on aggression and identifies that several factors or variables can have an influence on the probability of aggressive behaviour occurring. The GAM proposes that these include both individual differences and situational factors which may incite aggressive behaviour via cognition, affect and/or arousal. This model goes further by proposing that each individual then appraises and reappraises the situation presented to them, eventually making a choice as to how they will respond. It therefore considers the biological aspect of individuals along with the situational factors which work together to impact on the readiness of individuals to aggress or not. (Anderson and Carnagey, 2004).This gives us an explanation of why some guards abused detainees and others did not.

This theory is the most useful of the three when applied to the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Dr. Henry Nelson, a psychiatrist asked to support with investigations into the abuse, found that "there was a complex interplay of many psychological factors which led to the behaviour of certain soldiers (Taguba, 2004, p.49). Consideration is given to individual differences; such as personality type, beliefs and attitudes; in conjunction with situational/environmental factors such as the frustrations and the background of Abu Ghraib's rules, routines and policies as mentioned previously. Other risk factors which may have influenced aggressive behaviour and therefore must be considered include temperature, the presence of weapons and dogs, cultural differences, lack of responsibility, provocation by detainees, exposure to violent acts, in-group/out-group stereotyping and prejudice (Anderson and Carnagey, 2004; Fiske, Harris and Cuddy, 2004). Added to this is the fact that the situation provided a backdrop where obedience to commanders and conformity to colleagues was deep-rooted (Fiske at al, 2004). Zimbardo (2004, 2008a) himself identified events at Abu Ghraib as comparable to those in his Stanford Prison experiment and Milgram's obedience experiment (1963) demonstrates the power of orders from authority which are applicable in this case. Not all guards were predisposed to aggress against detainees but, taking all the overwhelming risk factors present at Abu Ghraib into account, it is not surprising that a significant group of US personnel played a part in the abuse.

To conclude, social and biosocial theories were chosen to best illustrate that abuse at Abu Ghraib was inevitable, although no available theory can provide a complete explanation for aggression. The frustration- aggression hypothesis supports this statement by proposing that the frustrations present would have induced guards' aggressive behaviour. Social Learning Theory adds weight to the argument by suggesting that aggressive behaviour can be learned by modelling and rewarding which would lead to imitation and internalisation. The GAM further supports the belief that abuse was inevitable by demonstrating that even though it was unlikely all personnel would aggress, it was indeed highly likely that a number of guards would, given the overwhelming presence of numerous risk factors which are known to induce aggressive behaviour. Zimbardo (2008b) explained that, given the right conditions, " good people can be seduced to cross the line to bad and Fiske et al (2004) acknowledged that this particular situation "fit all the social conditions known to cause aggression (p.1482). The detention centre was set against the backdrop of a global war on terror and in the midst of the relaxation of rules regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. For all these reasons, it is concluded that the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib was indeed inevitable.


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