Psychoanalyst Stephen Soldz on Torture at Abu Ghraib

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Welcome to Talk Nation Radio produced in New England at WHUS Storrs.
Talk for news and discussion on politics, human rights, and the environment.
I’m Dori Smith

Our guest today is
Stephen Soldz
of Roslindale Neighbors for Peace and Justice.
He describes himself as a psychoanalyst, clinical psychologist, and social activist,
and while teaching at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis he also finds time
to write and perform research duties on a web page he set up called:
Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice.

On May 1st, 2004 Stephen Soldz wrote about the CBS 60 Minutes II publication of pictures of abuse and torture by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq.

One year later, April 5th he published another take on the prison abusestory titled: “The Psychodynamics of Occupation and the Abuse at Abu Ghraib.”

His articles often take a look at the responsibility factor, how Americans must play a role in preventing such abuses in the future. Both articles are available at Zmag.

Smith: Let me ask you first about your initial reaction to learning of the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and seeing the pictures. What were some of your first thoughts at hearing this story?

Stephen Soldz: It was complex. On the one hand because I had followed war news very carefully. I was aware that something horrible was going on there. I mean there were plenty of accounts in the alternative media, in the British Press, etcetera, of horrors in U.S. detention facilities. And you know Amnesty International had reported it. So I had seen all of this. On the other hand we’ve never known quite exactly what it was that was going on.

I remember I wrote the first piece, it was the Saturday after the U.S. thing and then I guess on Friday the Seymour Hersh article came out –because I wanted to document that this was not the work, could not be the work, of a few bad apples because it was known to anyone who wanted to know it. That the information had been publicly available at least in the broad outlines, not the particular sexualized version of things, but that abuse had been occurring and occurring on a massive scale; was known to those who wanted to know it. So again we have a so called secret that’s only
a secret because people aren’t, either chose not to know or the mainstream press chooses not to tell people. And then we get this uh shocked outrage at things you know that are not in fact secret.

Smith: Just talk about your analysis of the dynamic between leaders, those following orders, and what happened to those prisoners.

Stephen Soldz: Well we have these leaders who, (it’s been well documented through memos and thousands of pages now, from all these documents that the A.C.L.U. and others have gotten through after 9/11 and after the Iraq war,) have authorized “taking the gloves off” and essentially, brutality. To as we know redefine torture so that no one on earth has ever been tortured because if you are tortured you are dead. I’m only slightly exaggerating, but you had to have significant organ failure for something to be torture. So why would you do that if it wasn’t that things that use to be considered torture that the U.S. regularly denounces as torture in its State Department reports on torture for example were now to be engaged in by the U.S.

However, the way in governments like ours things seem to work is that you don’t actually issue orders. You create expectations and then that famous “plausible deniability” of Iran-Contra, that the leaders don’t actually tell you exactly what to do they create expectations. So the soldiers in Iraq, in Abu Ghraib, were given the expectation that they were to be tough. General Miller of Guantanamo, “Gitmo,” visited and gave advice on how to “Gitmoize” the place. The MPs were to set the conditions for interrogation by basically terrorizing the inmates. No limits were there, no training on human rights, not that such training necessarily works if there isn’t a climate that communicates that human rights are actually important. But not even a pretense was made and MPs were praised for their effort. The message was given out that Condoleezza Rice was personally very interested in what was going on there. The MPs try to do their job well, trying to be good soldiers. As we know from social psychological experiments many people will cooperate
with expectations of brutality and that’s what went on there. They tried very hard to do their job and became more and more creative.

At the same time, however, I do suspect that there was an element of fun. They were in this horrible situation, terrified out of their minds, not only Iraq but Abu Ghraib there was radical under staffing, they had somewhere was it six to ten thousand inmates, almost no translators, couldn’t even understand for example that there had been a major riot. And as the Washington Post documented this riot was about maggots in the food and the poor and awful food and no one knew what it was about. They thought it was an escape attempt because no one could speak Arabic.

So you’ve got thousands and thousands of people you’re controlling. You can’t communicate with them. Now natural processes of dehumanization occur. We know from people, reporters, who have been with U.S. troops, and they carefully documented the troops routinely referred to Iraqis as “Hajji” a term of derogation, not unlike those we have in this country for black people and others, and that Iraqis are considered to be stupid and obstinate and all of those things that dominated people are usually considered to be.

Then you have got thousands of Iraqis in the prison who can’t be understood. The guards are terrified and they get into processes of further dehumanization, at the same time loosening some of the more unpleasant tendencies that people can have in such circumstances. So, what I was trying to think about. I mean, I’m firmly convinced that the broad outlines of what happened were desired by the policy makers. We know from documentation that military intelligence was involved though it’s never been studied systematically. And yet I’m sure that Grainger and some of the others were also having fun.

I mean many of us when we have a job to do, an unpleasant job to do, make it fun. And they did that. But that’s not the main part of the story. The main part of the story is that circumstances were created where that was the expected result because it was desired that that would happen. That’s the main analysis.

Smith: So many of the prisoners that were studied by Human Rights Watch and other organizations were determined to be innocent.

Soldz: Between 70% and 90% Amnesty has reported.

Smith: So really we’re talking about thousands of Iraqis and one would have to claim that as a failed policy right?

Soldz: Well? Depends on what the policy is. Was the policy as they claimed really intelligence gathering in which of course, people who have no intelligence aren’t going to give you anything. Or, is the policy to terrorize the Iraqi population. And I’m not so sure. I did believe that the attack on Fallujah this November was to send a message that if you oppose us we will destroy you. So it may very well be that the intention, at least at some level, is to terrorize the population which means it’s not necessarily a failed policy.

Smith: It’s more intimidation?

Soldz: Well I don’t know but I’m saying that we can’t rule that out. You know, we don’t have the evidence of the thinking and as a psychoanalyst we know that there is often unconscious wishes as well as conscious ones.

Smith: One year after the major reports about torture at Abu Ghraib we are really seeing the shine come off of the boots of the U.S. Military in many ways. Where we have commanders who were given $6 million to provide reconstruction in various parts of Iraq and some 80% of it is missing according to a June 29, 2005 story in Inter-Press News by William Fisher.

And then $7 billion is known to be missing from the new Oil For Food Project, and this is run by America, and it’s called the Development Fund for Iraq. The CPA was giving U.S. representatives money and they were handing it out and most of it, much of it, seems to be missing, and there are hearings going on right now about that.

We have the
investigation. It’s breaking open right now with implications about
Karl Rove
And so it seems more and more people are challenging the White House and the President and White House are coming under criticism. So is the war and occupation of Iraq.–Do you think that this is going to divide us further or possibly bring us together in a kind of common outrage?

Soldz: I mean such things always unite and divide. There is a segment of the population who have been outraged for quite a while at what’s going on there. The Zogby Poll at the end of last week,
I believe it came out on Friday, found that 42% of the population supported impeachment if Bush was found to lie.

On the other hand there’s a 30% to 40% of the population who will support, “my country right or wrong” to use an old cold war and Vietnam Era phrase. You know the country is never fully united except in moments of crisis when unfortunately it’s often united around unfortunate things as occurred after 9/11 where this ill named war on terrorism got launched and we were all in shock. I don’t think opposition to government policy ever united the whole country.

I mean Watergate left a bitter core of people, many of whom are now in power, who felt that Nixon was betrayed. You know no matter what happens we will still have that faction but it does seem that there is a shift in the populace.

Smith: I want to go back to talking about the prison, Abu Ghraib, and there are lots of
investigations going on right now, more documentation is being released, and so we expect to hear quite a bit about the conclusions on whether or not this was an intelligence policy. –A phenomenon that took place at all of the containment facilities run by America. But you say that the nature of prisons is such that the inmates are presumed guilty by the guards, and then if they don’t cooperate, you know provide information go along, then they are just discounted more or less as human beings. And it’s only those who cooperate, collaborate some might say in Iraq, that are treated more easily. So just talk about this idea of guilt versus innocence and the

Soldz: Well holding people in prisons is not a pleasant business. Most of us put in that position as guards can’t do it unless we assume that the people who are there are bad. People form rationalizations. And one of them is “they must have done something wrong.” There must be a reason why they’re here. So I’m presuming that that was part of what went on. It happens in U.S. prisons. It happens in most prisons in the world. Why wouldn’t it happen there? Especially where you have ill trained guards who are thrown into this position, who don’t know how to run a prison, that’s not what they have been trained to do, they were either trained to fight wars, or in the case of National Guard, largely trained to put out forest fires and help in emergencies and all of a sudden
they are guarding these thousands of people who mind you they could not talk with. They couldn’t even understand. So they had to believe that they were guilty of something. That’s how people work.

Smith: So, we have U.S. Military guarding thousands of Iraqis and arresting them in the middle of the night. Dragging them off with rubber hoods over their heads and shackles and it just all seems retaliatory. Talk about that a little bit.

Soldz: Well we know that since 9/11 there has been this climate of retaliation in the country. We have to get back at somebody and the Bush Administration very cleverly channeled that toward Iraq even though they knew full well and everyone knows full well Iraq had nothing whatsoever to do with it; but most people in the U.S. don’t make great distinctions, I mean after all who could locate Iraq on a map. Who knows where Afghanistan is. These all emerge together. They’re “them”.

“They attacked us.” I get nasty emails all the time about “they attacked us.” You know distinctions aren’t made, we formed this “in” group this “us” and the “out” group “them”. People don’t do a lot of distinguishing among who “they” are.

So we have had this general climate of retaliation. We know that when the Saddam Statue was toppled after the brief war in Baghdad, they got supposedly a flag that had flown I believe over the Pentagon if I recall correctly was put up briefly. An American flag, until the military propaganda people realized that that was not going to be a very good image since it was supposed to be Iraqis who were downing the statue and it was taken down.

And revenge. The soldiers report that they were told by their officers that “we’re going to get revenge.”

“We are going to kill Arabs for what they did to us.” So then you have troops there in this dual role. On the one hand they are told “we’re liberators” we “are freeing these people from tyranny”. On the other hand they are told “we’re getting revenge.”

That’s a very complex psychological thing to ask people to hold, especially at a time when they are under attack. They fear for their lives on a daily basis. The insurgency is growing. The conditions are just horrible. I mean, the American soldiers didn’t even have enough water to drink in the Iraqi heat. So to expect this subtly just is not plausible and there was obviously no effort made.

For example, the U.S. has made no effort to train troops to speak Arabic. In WWII they had thousands and thousands of cards with basic words in Japanese or in German. They had crash training courses.

They obviously don’t think that communicating with Iraqis is of an importance because they have made absolutely no attempt to help U.S. troops be able to do so, even to know what the word “stop” is at these checkpoints. So the basic message is that they don’t matter. We have the Lancet report that surveyed, an excellent survey estimating that 100,000 Iraqis had been killed, largely by U.S. bombing. That would have been as of last September so my guess is the estimates were a little high there but they are probably considerably higher at this point as it’s almost a year later than that work. So we have massive killing of Iraqis which communicates that they are not important. In fact, the official U.S. ideology is force protection.

It doesn’t matter how many Iraqis die if it’s necessary to protect U.S. forces. You can do whatever is necessary. One American life is worth any number of Iraqi lives. So that also communicates that they don’t matter, so you have “they” being blamed for this horrible attack on America. And then all of the circumstances communicate that “they” don’t matter. They are not really important. In other words they are not really people.

Smith: Now, it seems an eight year old could see through that kind of an argument and in most cases we do see that the Bush Administration’s policies as described by the President and others, Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, Vice President, Karl Rove; they put things in such very simplistic terms. You know the policy is attacked and so there is this knee jerk reaction to attack the person who is providing the criticism and tear their arguments apart rather than address the question. And you know this seems to have been gotten away with over the last few years so they are pursuing it still. But it’s in the face of so much more knowledge and information and one has to sort of ask at what point do the American people, members of the Armed Forces and others,
take into consideration sort of the ridiculous factor. I mean it begs the question of how much can the American people buy.

Soldz: Sometimes I think the problem at this point is less how much people will buy than how much people really care. The polls seem to show increasingly that people see through this, at least a large percentage of people see through it. You know 59 or something percent in some of the polls think the war was a mistake. People in large numbers say that it’s making America less safe etcetera.

But it’s a bigger problem if the Administration is very good at changing the story. So the attack when Newsweek reports about throwing of Korans in the toilet they turn it to; they attack Newsweek and news gathering, just changing the whole story to some issue about what kind of checking did they do and ignoring the basic truth of the story which is that the Koran was abused and in fact we now have credible reports from many people that it was indeed thrown in the toilet, but that comes out later and the story becomes Newsweek. And they have used this over and over again and it works. So I don’t see why they wouldn’t use it. But it’s not so much that its tricking people but that it conveys I think a sense of things are complicated, and is it really worth it, you know I’d rather read the sports page or see what’s the latest in the Michael Jackson trial or I don’t know what trial is on now that Jackson was acquitted a week ago.

And the issue is more what people really care about. In the absence of a draft, many people, you know they feel the war is not great. It’s not going well. They may even think it’s wrong. But it doesn’t motivate them on a daily basis because it doesn’t effect them on a daily basis unless they happen to be one of the unfortunate families who has a family member over there and then you have got this dual loyalty. Are you being disloyal to your family member by questioning, which has always been difficult.

So I think the question is more how much, what would get people to burn with passion about the war and I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, that’s clearly one of the major reasons that they are avoiding the draft is that they are afraid that the draft would change that equation tremendously because the war then could affect each of us, or at least many of us.

Smith: Now in your article, The Psychodynamics of Occupation and the Abuse at Abu Ghraib, you talk about the pressure that was building to generate actionable intelligence from the prisoners, and General Miller visiting. (Major General Geoffrey Miller) And you talk about the prisons then eventual sort of dedication to the gathering of intelligence and use of brutal torture techniques that have been developed at Guantanamo. You go on to say, and I want to quote you here. The effort to generate intelligence out of the prisoners was especially difficult as according to military intelligence sources perhaps 70% to 90% of them were innocent of any involvement with the insurgents, and just happened to be present at a checkpoint or in their home when one of the brutal cordon and capture
raids occurred. Nonetheless, the response of top military leaders to their innocence was callus at best. Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski is quoted as telling Brig. Gen. Janice Karpinski, the officer in charge of Iraqi prisons, “I don’t care if we are holding 15,000 innocent civilians, we are winning the war.”

While the officer in charge of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez retorted, “why are we detaining these people. We should be killing them.” (same link as above)

Just talk about that kind of comment by a leading representative of the U.S. Military.

Soldz: Well, military’s are created to fight. They are basically killing machines. In this case, where they are fighting an enemy that they don’t know how to fight, they hadn’t planned on fighting an aroused nationalist populace who didn’t want an occupation. In those circumstances admitting defeat is not an option as they say. So you do whatever it takes to win. And if destroying the enemy is necessary, and the enemy is the populace of the country that’s what you do.

Smith: Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez actually was promoted even after revelations about Abu Ghraib and the fact that he ran this operation. Why don’t you talk a little bit about this whole idea of impunity.

Soldz: I mean we’ve had it over and over again. Most of the people responsible for Abu Ghraib and for Guantanamo have been promoted. You know some of them sit on the Federal Bench. We have the Attorney General of the United States who may be appointed to the Supreme Court is a man who wrote memos justifying torture and then he headed a work group to develop the U.S. policy towardtorture and then claimed he doesn’t remember any of the discussion there. The Administration has this to a fine art.

It’s such a classic counter of the right wing ideology of personal responsibility that President Bush and conservatives like to talk about. But personal responsibility of course is always for the others. The lazy louts, the poor people, the working people, because this administration has no responsibility.

I mean, they have all been promoted. General Sanchez has been promoted and I think part of it, like my personal guess is that Sanchez doesn’t really matter but its more what would he tell if he were unhappy and what might other people tell. Also it’s just arrogance that President Bush I suspect enjoys kind of sticking it to people. It’s sort of saying, “I can get away with this.”

That’s my explanation for the Bolton nomination. Why appoint this guy who
had personally had this visceral hatred of the United Nations to UN Ambassador? I think it was just to say; “Look I can do this. I can put this guy who everyone knows is inappropriate. I can get him in there.” Now they may have failed on that one. It still remains to be seen. But I think there is an arrogant quality and some of these promotions may also have that kind of arrogance of sticking it to those “human rights wimps” or whatever they think of.

So I think that that’s been a large part of this business. I thinkGuantanamo is not about fighting terrorism. It’s not about fighting Al Queda. I mean all the accounts are that they’ve gotten no intelligence out of it. That at least a number of the people there are innocent we don’t really know. And there’s no reason that having, you know giving legal process couldn’t have been used, but in any case it’s about showing that they can do it. It’s about showing that there are no limits on them. And I think that that’s a large part of it. So giving a promotion to Sanchez is also showing that it doesn’t matter. You know what the people think doesn’t matter. We are going to do this. And I think that’s a large part of the psychology, which on the other hand may set them up for a fall. You know history is full of arrogant leaders. If one reads Shakespeare who don’t in the end do so well and that may be the real weakness of the administration because they are geniuses at manipulation but they seem to be addicted to continuing to do it.

Smith: And so do you see this wall that they have built around themselves to insulate themselves as getting higher? Or, perhaps starting to crack?

Soldz: Well, I think its clearly starting to crack in the popular perception but it remains to
be seen how its gonna play out. I mean certainly with these Supreme Court nominations they are given the opportunity potentially to solidify their control of the federal judiciary
which will last for many decades.

And I think part of what they have been up to is being concerned that they may not have power forever and trying for a ‘maximalist’ agenda. Sort of all or nothing while they have it. They certainly have changed the nature of political discourse in this country to such a degree that the democrats have been afraid to take them on. There has been very little opposition, for example, on the Iraq war virtually none of the mainstream politicians has anything to say other than, “Oh you don’t have a plan, you haven’t carried out well”. But there’s almost no one in major discourse who will say the war was wrong to begin with. Not that it was ill planned. Or, badly conducted, but that invading another country that didn’t pose a threat is wrong. That’s not part of political discourse in this country just as during Vietnam there were very few people saying the Vietnam War was wrong, very few people in a leadership position.

So, with no alternative position being espoused you know it’s not clear what’s going to happen. You’ve got a falling of the wall but you’ve got no alternative being proposed in any systematic way. And so I don’t know how it is going to play out.

Smith: Stephen Soldz teaches at Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. You will find Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice online atclick

Stephen Soldz (

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