The fundamental verity of the Abu Ghraib scandal is this: occupying powers fighting an insurgency that has the tacit or active support of the local population will inevitably resort to torture.
The causal factors are sadly straightforward. In guerilla war, the insurgents fight a battle and then melt into the population. The occupying power therefore cannot identify them by their positions behind barricades, by their uniforms, or because they are carrying guns. Only their friends and neighbors know who the insurgents are; very often even other units of the guerilla army do not know the identity of their comrades who live in other neighborhoods. If a substantial portion of the local population dislikes the guerillas, then they will quietly inform on them, allowing their arrest or permitting the occupiers to attack their strongholds in a targeted way. But often the local population is willing to protect the guerillas, because the communities in which they live contain a critical mass of friends and supporters (and those who might be willing to inform are therefore afraid of being discovered).
In this circumstance, which is the reality in most parts of Iraq, the occupying army has the choice of attacking whole neighborhoods more or less indiscriminately (as they started to do in Falluja), or to find a way to force people to inform on the insurgents. Right now, the option of indiscriminately attacking neighborhoods is not viable.
It is this situation that leads to torture. The Coalition knows that is has to force people to tell them who the insurgents are and where they are hiding. Once an insurgent or suspected insurgent (or a friend or relative of a suspected insurgent) is caught, time is of the essence. If the captive can quickly be made to reveal the whereabouts and identity of other guerillas, then an attack can be mounted before the insurgents find new hiding places. But this requires quickly applied coercion — and this mean torture. There is no other way.
However morally opposed the invading army is to the use of torture, some individuals will be willing to do horrible things based on the logic of war: if the captive can be forced to talk, then more of the enemy is captured or killed while fewer of “our” side are killed or wounded. Even if this involves incredible brutality or heinous torture, this logic says that it is better for the enemy to suffer than for “our” side to suffer. So if torture works — even once in a while — it will be worth it because it “saves [the] lives [of our side].” Even if some or many innocent people are tortured, that is a small price [for the invaders] to pay if they hit the occasional jackpot.
So if those in charge of getting information out of prisoners are placed under pressure to get valuable information before it is useless, they will “discover” torture, even if they are not told to use it. The question becomes whether their superior officers will tell them that it is not “worth it”. And this is unlikely, because the superior officers are there to win the war, and this is a crucial — often essential — tool when fighting a guerilla army that is protected by the local population.
We should therefore not be surprised that the higher officers looked the other way and permitted the torture to go on indefinitely: the torture was serving their purpose. In fact, according to Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, military intelligence officers, who were in charge of the interrogations, complemented the work of the torturers, saying “Good job, they’re breaking down real fast. They answer every question. They’re giving out good information.”
But we should also heed what else
Those of us who find these acts reprehensible should focus our attention on their truly reprehensible origins: the decision by the Bush Administration to militarily occupy a country despite the general antagonism of the local population.
Michael Schwartz is in the Dept. of Sociology at Stonybrook.