The incidents at Abu Ghraib in Iraq have been blamed on lack of supervision and training, but can they also be blamed on the stress of war? And were these soldiers really thinking up these abuses all by themselves? Psychologists don’t think so.

In, Daniel K. Hoh quotes Rona M. Fields as saying that in war, “the enemy is not represented as a similar human being to oneself, but rather as a brute who is savage and single-minded in destructive intentions.”

Psychiatrist Paul Ragan says it’s a physical response: “The emotional center of the brain, or the limbic system, wants to strike back. It’s the concept of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?No one race or nation is immune to basic human psychology.”

Were these soldiers attracted to prison work because they were sociopaths? Or did the work bring out their sadistic side? Psychiatrist Robert L. Trestman says that certain personality types may be more likely to be abusive, but “I believe we are all capable of this behavior.”

Evidence of this comes from an experiment conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University in 1971, in which a group of volunteer college students were randomly assigned to roles as either a guard or a prisoner. He had to stop the experiment after only 6 days because the “guards” began abusing the “prisoners.” Zimbardo says, “We were seeing a trajectory of increasing sadism, increasing hostility, increasing boredom of the guards?As in the Iraqi prison, what we saw over a very short period of time is guards began to strip prisoners naked and make fun of them, do things to humiliate and confuse them.”

Shaoni Bhattacharya writes in New Scientist that psychologists say that the type of mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners that went on is unlikely to have occurred without the knowledge of higher authorities.

Psychologist Ian Robbins says, “A lot of people had to be in the know for this to happen. The very fact people felt confident enough to take pictures suggests that this was not something which was a secret?It looks to me that it was a well thought through process.” He believes the abuses could have been stopped “extremely easily” by senior officers.

“In all organizations, all teams, troops and people will replicate in some way the personality of the number one person in charge?whether it’s the President, down to the general, down to the head of the jail,” says psychologist Simon Meyerson. “If you know there’s going to be trouble, you won’t do it.” So far, however, only soldiers and no officers are being tried for these offenses.

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