10 years after Abu Ghraib – What were the reasons for torture?

US soldier, Lynndie England posing with a detainee on a leash.

After a decade since the torture memoirs of Abu Ghraib were leaked, Dr Ilyas Mohammed goes over some of the psychological damage caused to the victims and the justifications of the perpetrators.  

In 2003 the US and its allies launched “Operation Iraqi Freedom” under the pretext that Saddam Hussein had a WMD program, and according to British newspaper headlines the “UK was 45 minutes from doom”. This pretext was found to be a smoke screen, with the actual reasons being regime change and oil.

One year into the operation, it was revealed that American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison had tortured Iraqi detainees. 2014 marks the 10th anniversary of the torture.

The leaking of the “torture memos” in 2004 to the press revealed that the Office of Legal Counsel had sanctioned the torture. The techniques employed by the soldiers were referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques”. They included hypothermia, stress positions and waterboarding.

The images of the torture shocked the world. They showed American soldiers, who also included a female soldier called Lynndie England, posing next to detainees that were placed in degrading positions.

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US soldier posing with thumbs up next to a dead Iraqi corpse.
US soldier posing with thumbs up next to a dead Iraqi corpse.

The images not only revealed the hate and contempt for the Iraqi people but also the mental conditioning that the soldiers received through their training, which enabled them to act in such a primitive way.

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek, in discussing Abu Ghraib in a 2004 article published on Lacan.com, argued that:

“The torture at Abu Ghraib was thus not simply a case of American arrogance toward a Third World people. In being submitted to the humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture: They got a taste of the culture’s obscene underside that forms the necessary supplement to the public values of personal dignity, democracy and freedom. No wonder, then, the ritualistic humiliation of Iraqi prisoners was not an isolated case but part of a widespread practice.”

These images operate at three levels: dehumanisation, torture, and dark humor. All soldiers are conditioned to “killing” without remorse or guilt. Part of their conditioning is being able to find ways to dehumanise the “other”, meaning overcoming ethical and moral obstacles to violence and killing.

Dark humor in the context of the images comes from the use of the “dog leash and thumps up”. The aim is to hide the torture and violence through the use of obscene humor.


However, not everyone was shocked by the torture. Rush Limbaugh, a popular American radio broadcaster defended the Abu Ghraib torture by drawing comparison to initiation ceremonies that take place among US college societies. He is quoted on the 17th May, 2004 edition of the New Yorker stating:

“This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation. And we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it and we’re going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having a good time. These people, you ever heard of emotional release? You heard of the need to blow some steam off?” 

According Limbaugh the actions of the soldiers is “normal behavior”, something that happens on a regular basis in American college campuses, and a way to blow of some steam.

Dignity, acceptance of torture and outside sympathy

Looking at the Abu Ghraib images from a non-religious perspective, they demonstrate the violence and humiliation of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the unlimited power invested in the soldiers by the US government, giving them the freedom and right to engage in torture.

The torture stripped away the masculinity, the identity and the human rights of the Iraqi detainees. From a religious point of view, the images show two things: one how the dignity of the detainees was stripped away from them by using Islamic prohibitions of nudity, sodomy and homosexuality, and the hatred and hostility towards Islam and Muslims.

Through fetishist disavowal some people find the Abu Ghraib images tolerable and digestible, meaning they are able to foreclose the torture. The torture is made tolerable because individuals being tortured are dehumanised and constructed as not sharing any ethical or moral system with humanized subjects.

It is difficult to see a neighbour being tortured because they are seen every day with his or her children. A neighbour in most cases cannot be an enemy because he or she is humanised by the same values, ethics and laws as oneself.

Those that do feel the pain and suffering of those that have been tortured or killed, they do so because of emotional-ethical responses. Humans are conditioned by instinctual reactions of sympathy to suffering and pain that is witnessed directly to which they can identify with through registers of family, nationality, ethnicity and religion.

It is the emotional-ethical responses that are triggered by the pain from seeing, from hearing and from reading about fellow community members being tortured, abused, and massacred.

They have the power to foster conditions that can compel one to engage in charitable/humanitarian work, political activism or in many cases, retaliatory violence.

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