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Military Intelligence?

A psychiatrist analyzes the Abu Ghraib mindset


Published May 26, 2004 at 2:07 p.m.

How does the kid next door become a grinning, posing, poster child for international law-breaking, military-prison human rights violations, humiliation and torture? Given the right circumstances, would your enlisted loved one behave like Jeremy Sivits or Lynndie England? Would you?

As the fallout from the Abu Ghraib scandal continues to be felt around the world, we consulted a local psychiatrist with military experence to find out what might have motivated the enlisted men and women at the center of the storm.

Dr. Paul Newhouse has been teaching psychiatry at the University of Vermont for 16 years. Since 1994, he's directed the medical school's Clinical Neuroscience Research Unit. His own current research examines the cognitive and behavioral effects of nicotine and of estrogen. But for more than a decade, Newhouse served in the U.S. Army. He was stationed in Germany as a unit psychiatrist at the end of the Cold War, then was called back to active duty during the first Gulf War to serve as a consultant on post-traumatic stress among returning soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Now 51, Newhouse is a slight man with delicate features, multiple ear piercings and a newspaper clipping on his office door touting his son's high school achievements. He exudes more academia than Army. But over his desk hangs a framed flag from the 3rd Infantry Division -- his unit in Germany, which would later lead the push into Baghdad. And when asked about military matters, he eagerly unleashes volleys of information.

Newhouse sees the scandalous behavior at Abu Ghraib as a symptom of combat stress -- a condition that can lead to a soldier failing to care for him or herself or treating another person inhumanely.

SEVEN DAYS: Does confusion about the mission make a difference in how people react to combat?

PAUL NEWHOUSE: I'm sure that it does, but I'm not sure anyone's ever made a study of that. We tend to think of World War II as the "good war," but there was just as much ambivalence about what we were doing. It's not like the movies... I've talked to guys who fought on these Pacific atolls and thought they were in hell -- knew they were in hell -- and thought that the rest of the country didn't give a damn about them. I think that's a characteristic of all wars.

SD: How do you overcome that perception?

PN: One of the ways to avoid stress is to be on the offensive, and secondly, to be confident about what you're doing... Yes, some Muslims blow themselves up for causes, but really, at least in standard military units that we see in the Western world, men fight for themselves, they fight for their buddies. They don't fight for causes. At least not in democracies.

SD: What happens when you go in as liberators and you encounter counter-insurgency?

PN: The model of being greeted as liberators is sort of the fantasy, but it doesn't usually work out that way in practice.

When we went into Japan... [McAr-thur] did not humiliate the emperor... Because he knew, having spent a lot of time in the Orient, that the role of the emperor was critical to how the Japanese behaved after the armistice. And whether there was going to be an insurgency or not would depend on how the emperor was being seen to be treated, whether he was going to be debased.

SD: But in Iraq...

PN: The soldiers [there] are in a very challenging situation... You're trying to build friendship, but they don't wear uniforms. So you don't know if that car coming down there is going to blow you up. That leads to a great deal of uncertainty.

SD: What went wrong at Abu Ghraib?

PN: My guess on what happened in the Abu Ghraib prison is a total failure of leadership. I do not think there are particular personalities that are prone to abuse. Yes, there may be individually sadistic people -- we all know that. But the reality is, certainly as World War II taught us, that anybody can become potentially abusive if given the right set of circumstances. People have an amazing capacity to be cruel, given power over other people, given the right motivation to do things... What happened in that prison -- and I've read the report of Major General Taguba, I downloaded it and read most of it -- you had commanders who didn't command, you had people who didn't establish doctrine, you had people doing things independently without supervision, you had no set of expectations being given from the top, the morale was terrible, there was a breakdown in the chain of command.

SD: And what happens to those soldiers now facing courts martial?

PN: I think it's horrible that they're going to be labeled as the bad seed or the bad apples when these are normal people, many of them kids, who are being put in situations where they simply were not given proper supervision and leadership.

SD: They're basically victims of mismanagement?

PN: My sense was that the planning for prisoners in this campaign was minimal. And particularly over the long haul... You can imagine the kind of chaos that would go on if you and I were suddenly put in charge of 15,000 prisoners. We've got 100 people and we're supposed to take care of 15,000, and by the way, a month from now someone arrives in there in bright, shiny, contractor trucks and says, "We need to interrogate these guys." And you're going, "Huh? What?" And you're basically just trying to keep them from killing each other. Look at the kinds of riots and problems we have in civilian prisons here. Guard-to-prisoner ratio is 10 times what it is in Iraq.

SD: Do you think gender makes a difference? I think a lot of people are shocked that there are women doing these things.

PN: Go look at pictures of Nazi female guards in Holocaust concentration camps. I don't think gender has anything to do with it. Cruelty does not stop with a penis.

SD: What does cause this kind of cruelty?

PN: Power, lack of leadership. Inappropriate behavior can be mimicked, and once there's a tacit approval of it by the fact that people get away with it, I think it continues. I think this kind of thing has to start from the top... These kinds of abuses have occurred in previous wars; in every war I can think of abuses occur. It happens. It's not a high priority for most military units.

SD: Are people more likely to mimic the other behavior and be susceptible to this if they've been trained in the military?

PN: Nah. What's your evidence for that?

SD: Because they're part of a unit and they're not supposed to be acting as individuals -- they're acting as part of a team.

PN: No, I think it's actually less likely in the American military.

SD: What's your evidence for that?

PN: Well, first of all, we know that in any kind of group setting behavior gets out of hand... What's a riot? A riot is one person throws a bottle, the next person throws a bottle, and all of a sudden we have a riot... Police do it, rioters do it, gangs do it, kids on a playground do it. The military actually is protected to some extent from this kind of behavior, because drilled into every soldier is that certain behaviors are illegal, and you will be court-martialed for them.

SD: What's about the people who say, "I was just following orders?"

PN: That's bullshit. I'm sorry. That's bullshit. Yeah, the Germans said that too, as we all know, and that's no excuse. The military doesn't buy that excuse. You're not allowed to follow an illegal order. People who were with Lieutenant Calley [at My Lai] said the same thing... I feel very badly for these kids who are accused, because I feel that in many ways they're the victims of bad leadership and a bad situation and I don't believe for a moment that these are bad people.

SD: So how do you fix it?

PN: I think you cashier everyone involved in that situation and you fire some of them, and heads will have to roll. I think people have to figure out a way to take care of prisoners decently and treating them humanely, maybe not luxuriously, and maybe not even pleasantly, but humanely. And interrogations -- I'm not an expert in how to get information out of people, but my guess is that torturing and abusing people is not an effective way. It can be done for one of two purposes: it's either sadistic or it's stupid. Presuming that we're not interested in being sadistic, it's just stupid.