US soldiers' bad behavior and Stanford Prison Experiment

Peter Orne says: "Accounts over the past few days about the behavior of US soldiers toward Iraqi prisoners are perhaps best interpreted by social psychologists who have studied these behaviors for some time now. A friend forwarded the note below from Phil Zimbardo at Stanford about the Stanford Prison Project of 1971, which apparently was discontinued because the "guards'" behavior was getting out of hand. Professor Zimbardo asks: "What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph?" At least one of the photos I've seen -- in particular, a US soldier pinning an Iraqi under a stretcher (New YorkTimes, 5/4/04) -- seems strange and incongruous. The soldier seems bemused. Were the soldier to see this image of himself stateside, say one year from now, almost surely he would be shocked".

Here is the message to which Peter referred from the well-known Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo: Dear Colleagues: Just a quick note before heading off to a meeting of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP) where Psych is the only social science among 62 societies represented, and I am its chair elect. Recent horrors being displayed of sexual degradation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military army reservists elicit direct and sad parallels between similar behavior of the "guards" in the Stanford Prison Experiment against their "prisoners." As the guards on the night shift became ever more bored with their long 8 hour shift, they began to use the prisoners as play things for their amusement, believing that their actions were not under surveillance during the night (they were secretly video taped for subsequent viewing). I then discovered they would get them to simulate sodomy and other homophobic behaviors. They also stripped prisoners naked for various offenses, took away their sheets and mattresses, put them in solitary for excessive periods -- all of which are mirrored in the behavior of military police in the Abu Ghraib prison outside of Bagdad. It is one reason we ended the study a week early because the guards were
abusing the power in their roles, and were becoming uncontrollable by our staff. (see

Randy Black dismissed the prison experiment of Philip Zimbardo as academic nonsense, but psychiatrist Daryl DeBell says: "I agree with everything Professor Zimbardo says, but would make a bit more distinction between his subjects and the abusers of the Iraqi prisoners. His subjects became sadistic, while the pictures of the Iraqis showed their captors acting like fraternity hazers. The woman captor, next to a couple of naked Iraqi prisoners, bent forward, grinning and with two thumbs up was certainly not "acting in the heat of the (wartime) moment" as one senatorial commentator would have it. Similarly in the other picture I saw, she appeared to be crouched in the middle of a pile of naked men, again smirking at the camera. These could have easily been pictures of an orgy taken as souvenirs. I do not think that was the case however. I think it was done to humiliate the prisoners. and under the circumstances it was and is a very serious insult to the Iraqis. It should be severely punished as it will undoubtedly cause the deaths of many occupation forces. I do not think a great deal of training is required to prevent such actions. Warning them of the tendency for guards to become the way Zimbardo's guards did, plus close supervision and repeated warnings should suffice, but obviously this was not done; an inexcusable command failure".

Philip Zimbardo answers Daryl De Bell's comments on his Stanford Prison Experiment and its relevance to the Iraqi prison scandal: "The Navy SEAR Program (survival, evasion and resistance program) uses my study as a caution against the too easy abuse of power by interrogators, the same should have been done in Iraq. but it was a torture-interrogation center run by the CIA and civilian contractor- interrogators who used the soldiers to help break the will of the prisoners. See my web site before you dismiss my study as academic nonsense, read my recent essay and watch Nightline tonight". RH: Of course, like Daryl DeBell, we took the study very seriously, simply quoting the critical opinion of a non academic in line with the WAIS policy of allowing all sides to express their opinion.


Derek Davis writes;"I suppose we all suspect some kind of backlash from the Iraqi prison scandal. It is likely to happen, if for no other reason, that Iraqi soldiers were so thoroughly humiliated--especially in the pictures that required the prisoners to simulate homosexual acts with each other. This kind of forced simulation would offend most men, but it is even more degrading to Muslims. There is a much greater belief against homosexuality in Islam than in Christianity. Iraqi homosexuals do not "come out." There is an strain of interpretation of the Christian scriptures that would allow homosexuality, but this is not true of Islam. The Qu'ran widely condemns homosexual acts among men (I think lesbian behavior is not mentioned), and homosexuality is generally considered by Muslims to be among the most deviant types of human behavior. In sum, Islamic culture causes Iraqi men to take their manhood very seriously, more so than in non-Muslim cultures, and they do not readily accept being shamed in ways that bring into question their masculinity. Thus I suspect that we will see some acts of retaliation on this basis alone". RH: Thomas Edward Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, speaks of this in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926). He was the companion of Faisal who became king of Iraq, so we go back to the scene of our present troubles.

Daryl DeBell says: "I think Philip Zimbardo's experiment implies more even than he says it does. I believe that it suggests that what we call the 'veneer' of civilization is really much more than that. It is a framework that supports and guides our behavior, but is dissolved when power is (in the experiment, arbitrarily) vastly disproportionate between sets of people. The same thing happens regularly but less starkly in every-day life. As Lord Acton said, "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely"."

Miles Seeley, a former CIA officer, writes: "I must disagree with Philip Zombardo's allegation that the prison was "a torture-interrogation center run by the CIA and civilian interrogators...." The fact is that it was a US military prison run by an MP Company. The woman Brigadier General in command outraged me by trying to wiggle out of responsibility by blaming Military Intelligence, Central Intelligence, and civilian contractors and claiming she had no knowledge of these heinous actions. She was the person in charge, and in the military the buck stops right there. I also note that two cases of CIA contract agents abusing and killing prisoners (one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq) were promptly reported both to the Secretary of Defense and the Attorney General in January. I also note that the Army Reservists who manned the Company allegedly had no training in what was supposed to be the specialty of the Company. Although I share the disgust of most of the world at seeing these photos and reading Hersh's article, we need to get the facts straight and let the investigations continue. I also agree with Professor Fouad Adjami of MIT, who said last night that the hatred of the US by the Arab world is what he called "mainstream," that is, an unthinking mass reflex attitude fostered by some Arab leaders and media. I saw the same thing in Jordan 40 years ago after the Six Day War.- They had to "hate" America, but their attitudes towards me personally were of friendship and respect. Like the Palestinian I saw in an anti-US rally who worked in our Consulate, and later came to me begging for help in getting him and his family to the US".



Ronald Hilton -