Nothing Out of the Ordinary

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

A month ago, I saw Errol Morris' film about Abu Ghraib, Standard Operating Procedure. It's really a stunner — the interviews with the notorious Lynndie England alone are worth the price of the ticket (see above clip). The companion book of the same name — by Philip Gourevitch (excerpted here) — has the same kind of gut wrenching morality check. Gourevitch was nice enough to come chat with us about it today at the Newseum. I admit — and I hope we'll ask him about this — a real feeling of sympathy for the situation these young men were put into. Humans are an odd breed — isn't it ironic the ways in which we can put ourselves in the shoes of others — and the ways in which we can't.

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I am reminded of the Stanford Prison Experiment, during which previously normal and presumably moral college students deteriorated into sadists. The experiment demonstrated that we all have the capacity for evil within us - it only takes a certain set of circumstances to bring it out. Armed with that knowledge, we should be able to recognize those circumstances and alter them before such atrocities occur.

Sent by Heidi Alward | 3:17 PM | 5-14-2008

This is a Viet Nam war issue -- it apples. My, Sgt. Robert C. Johnson dad was the Illuminator Operator on a C-119 boxcar that was Unit fitted for combat. They shot up an area before bombers came in.

The mission of his Air Force Reserve that was called up -- he was in his 40s -- I was and my brothers were in grade school.

At one point the mission of his unit was to shot up an area, but there were many Viet Nam people who could not get out of the way -- down a tributary. They had been wared to get out bu=y a certain time.

His Commander wanted to shoot these people. my dad said, they can't get through the narrow tributary., His commander. relented. No charges were filed.

I believe that lives were saved because my dad was in his 40s and his commander knew him. -- Very much unlike what your guest is writing about.

Sent by georgean johnson-coffey | 3:23 PM | 5-14-2008

Yes. I put myself in the shoes of the young MPs. All i felt was revulsion! We go around preaching to the world about decency! Nothing justifies what these MPs did whether they did with someone's approval or they did it on their own. I am not sure where you empathy for them comes from?

Sent by Nari Kannan | 3:25 PM | 5-14-2008

A minor point but in the Army it is a Standing Operating Procedure. There is no such thing as a standard operating procedure How could this not have been caught before. This is from an old civil servant who spent 25 years in Training Development, teaching writing to NCOs, officers etc.

Sent by Mary-Ellen Coty | 3:28 PM | 5-14-2008

People in this country are taught to NOT make waves in schools. When I was young and the 60s protests were going on, I stood up to so-called friends and enemies and refused to participate in theft and fights. I was estranged by these people but did not mind. I think young people in this country should know that it is possible to stand up to such evil, and most of the time the consequences are worth the moral victory. The only time I actually got beat up was when I went along with the fighting; I always came out ahead when I stood up to the bullies.

Sent by Julia Schult | 3:30 PM | 5-14-2008

Abuse of prisoners is inevitable. This statement is proven by the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. Even when the BBC preformed the experiment for a TV show the abuse once again started. This abuse has little to do with war but the guards themselves. If the MPs where not ordered to abuse the prisoners it would eventually happen if their supervisors looked the other way.

Sent by Lynda H. | 3:32 PM | 5-14-2008

I was an Marine infantry officer who served in Ramadi. We were in combat daily, we never treated Iraq prisoners like that. Where were the officers at Abu Ghraib who were supposed to do the right thing?

Sent by Daniel Crawford | 3:34 PM | 5-14-2008

I served during the Vietnam War at the age of 20-21. I know how easily influenced I was. I would have done almost anything I was told to do. I was a robot. The amazing thing I find is that people actually think these young people serving in Iraq see accurately what is really happening around them. They are young, extremely easily influenced, compromised by their military position, and in the line of fire. They could be punished, or even die for speaking out. We can't expect them to act in any way other than to support what actions they are asked to commit. It is on our shoulders to see what is right and make the changes to move us in that direction.

Sent by Nick Vasilieff | 3:37 PM | 5-14-2008

I just finished The Nuremburg Interviews. The continuing excuse with all of the interviewees was, "I was only following orders."
This is why I never joined the military...no place for independent thought or a humanitarian conscience.

Sent by J Nelson Powers | 3:40 PM | 5-14-2008

We forget that these young soldiers who were at Abu Ghraib are our children acting on orders. We as a nation are responsible and can not blame this on a few "bad apples".

Sent by David | 3:43 PM | 5-14-2008

In all the commentary and analysis of the Abu Ghraib scandal what is missed is that it was the people who were sent there that did the torture and abuse. There wasn't a search and selection in advance of people who would torture. If any random selection of soldiers were sent there, it is reasonable to conclude that there would be the same result. Indeed, if any "Americans" at all were randomly sent to Abu Ghraib, there is no reason to believe they would behave differently. Ergo, it is we, the "American" people, who committed these acts. Or, as Pogo once put it, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

We might want to ask what is in our national character that makes it so easy to dehumanize other human beings. If it is so easy in "Iraq," is it any more difficult here. The real difference in Abu Ghraib is that it provided the opportunity, and the seeming impunity, granted by the Bush criminal regime.

It's hard to fathom, but the Bush regime has an insight into the "American" character that few would give them credit for. As we are about to attack "Iran," will that insight be proven correct again? I suspect the answer is yes.

Sent by John Hamilton | 3:48 PM | 5-14-2008

Is it because of the cruel way we treated Vietnam Vets when they returned home that we are trying to understand what the soldiers did at Abu Ghraib (and Guantanmo) to the point of seeming to condone this behavior by not condeming it. It was WRONG!! When a Nazi soldier is quoted as saying "I was following orders" everyone is quick to sneer at that and say that the German soldier should have refused or done something - anything to end that escalation of madness. Why do we excuse or own soldiers of similar behavior? Obviously we should work to understand them and support our soldiers but we cannot shy away from saying what is wrong is wrong. It doesn't seem like anyone is saying that clearly enough and it is very sickening to me. Do you know what I saw? I was watching a documentary on Simon Wiesenthal and there was a photograph in that documentary of a German soldier holding a leash that was tied around a Jewish prisoners neck. The prisoner was on the ground and there was a prisoner tied up behind them in that same stress position with his arms up high behind him. The German soldier was smiling. You can look it up. When will this end?

Sent by Holly | 3:53 PM | 5-14-2008

I have been listening to Neil and Mr. Gurevitch talk about the horrible and dispictable behavior by our soldiers at Abuh Grieb. My G-d, this behavior and attitude sound like the Nazis. "I was following Orders" response to the attrocities against the Six Million Jews killed during the Holocaust (and 8 million others who were murdered). I suppose we can say that we treat prisoners who are ladies and gentlemen fighting a war ethically, but people who fight dirty, we can call barbarians or savages. They are certainly not "civilized" like we are. This doesn't fly with me. We, of "civilized" society treat people who we don't know or understand as garbage ( look at the Inquisition, The British and Americans fighting for OUR Freedom, The way we treat the Native Americans, and how we treated the Vietnamese.) We are not perfect, but we should keep ourselves to the higher standard and not be hypocits. The soldiers at Ahbu Greib make us look bad.

Sent by Joel Waldbott | 3:55 PM | 5-14-2008

Does Standard Operating Procedure answer why no officers were charged with offenses ?

Sent by Mary Beth | 4:38 PM | 5-14-2008

My father joined the Marines the day after Pearl
Harbor. After the "bomb", he further volunteered to go to China and is a few of the last living China Marines. During a resent visit,he showed me photos of his friends holding up enemy leg bones they had collected during there battles. He did not show me this with pride, nor regret, but just as a testimony that that is what can happen during time of war. I'm basically a pacifist and was lucky to have missed Vietnam, but if I was in that position, I would fight as hard and brutal, as I could bear. That is war. If our society does not have the stomach for this, then they should have stopped Bush a long time ago. The bottom line is that if you go to war, you go to win. Win at all cost, both yours as well as the enemy. I can imagine the frustration of our solders trying to win this conflict, but do not feel sorry for anyone, American or other wise, who wants to engage in such a farce.

Sent by Michael Blaylock | 9:43 PM | 5-14-2008

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