As reported by ABCNEWS, May 7, 2004.

The Face of War

Psychological Experts Say Under Stress of Battle, Potential for Abuse Could Surface in Anyone

By Daniel K. Hoh

May 7— Were the abuses of Iraqi prisoners the action of a few "bad apples" in the U.S. military, or the behavior of ordinary soldiers under the extraordinary stresses of war?

The specifics of the incidents at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq remain to be sorted out. But the answer seems apparent for experts in the psychology of war and other mental health professionals contacted by ABCNEWS — such behavior is not uncommon in a time of military conflict and the potential to abuse others may lie in all of us.

"In war, things do happen, often from emotion of the moment, exhaustion, frustration — a buddy killed, a unit hurt," maintains Samuel Watson, a former infantry officer in the Vietnam War who is now associate professor of public health at University of Pittsburgh.

Agrees Garret Evans, associate professor of psychology at University of Florida in Gainesville, "It is not far-fetched to say there is abuse on some level in any war."

And Dr. Carlyle Chan, professor of psychiatry at Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, says prisoner abuse is probably more prevalent than we would like to believe, given the trauma soldiers can experience.

"War is a particularly stressful place where soldiers can be under a constant state of danger and have witnessed death and destruction," says Chan.

Factors That Contribute to Abuse

What drives soldiers to abuse others in time of war? The key, believe these experts, is "the military culture" the soldiers and guards were immersed in.

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," says Rona M. Fields, director for cognitive sciences at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

This depersonalization, explains Evans, is a psychological defense against the horrible events soldiers witness during war. But once the enemy is seen as less than human, it can be easy to treat them accordingly.

Another motivation for U.S. soldiers to mistreat Iraqi prisoners may have been simple retaliation, suggests Dr. Paul Ragan, a Navy psychiatrist during Desert Storm and now associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "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."

While many U.S. soldiers have said they were horrified by the pictures of Iraqi prisoner abuse, one soldier returning from Iraq to his home base at Fort Bragg, N.C., said the images didn't bother him. "Those are some bad people, criminals killing our guys, so do what you got to do," he told local ABC affiliate WTVD-TV.

Ragan adds some of the accused prison guards and soldiers may have lacked war experience, and not known how to properly deal with the strong emotions found in military conflict.

In that sense, Ragan says, a young reservist suddenly given military authority over Iraqi prisoners is more likely to abuse his power, whereas someone with combat experience is used to controlling aggressive urges towards the enemy.

"When you're given a lot of power, but you're inexperienced, it can lead to abuse," says Ragan. "No one race or nation is immune to basic human psychology."

An Abuser in All of Us?

Is it possible the abusers were simply malevolent to begin with, the "bad apples" U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed were at fault, rather than the larger military culture?

Ragan acknowledges some individuals may have entered military service to act out their aggressive urges on non-Americans. But he argues it is unlikely, because plain aggression is probably not enough to motivate a soldier through the rigors of the military.

"In general, active military duty embraces so much, that just the desire to act out against foreigners in my opinion would not be enough to sustain being in active duty," he added.

Dr. Robert L. Trestman, professor of psychiatry at University of Connecticut in Farmington, agrees certain personalities may be more likely to take abusive actions in war situations, such as those described as having antisocial, dependent, or borderline personality disorders — psychological disorders linked to increased aggression and a lack of conscience.

But, adds Trestman, "I believe we are all capable of this behavior."

‘Trajectory of Increasing Sadism’

Perhaps the best evidence normal individuals are capable of deviant behavior came from a unique experiment conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1971.

The simulated prison study took a group of volunteer college students and randomly assigned them roles as either a guard or a prisoner.

The experiment was intended to last two weeks, but was stopped short after only six days because participant behavior became dangerous. The guards, who were by all accounts well-adjusted college students prior to the study, began abusing and humiliating the prisoners.

Zimbardo told ABCNEWS' Nightline this week he saw striking similarities to the photos now emerging from Iraq.

"We were seeing a trajectory of increasing sadism, increasing hostility, increasing boredom of the guards," Zimbardo noted. "I could imagine a very similar situation in our prison as in the Iraqi prison. … 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."

Preventing Future Abuse

Experts agree future prevention is largely dependent on the command structure over soldiers, and that effective leadership is the best way to cut down on abuse.

"While specific training to reduce the risk of this behavior may be useful, a much more important factor is leadership," says Dr. Paul Newhouse, professor of psychiatry and director of the Clinical Neuroscience Research Unit at University of Vermont in Burlington. "Abuse of prisoners, civilians, etc., is evidence of a failure of command leadership."

Adds Watson: "The commander can't be everywhere all the time, so he or she has to rely on good subordinates, well-trained. The unit culture reflects the leader and what the leader works to inculcate to the soldiers."

Keeping soldiers mentally healthy is important, maintains Michael Allswede, director of strategic medical intelligence at the Center for Biosecurity at University of Pittsburgh.

"Rest and cycle them regularly off guard duty. I would also suggest avoidance of shifts of individuals working together over time as these friendships tend to allow this sort of thing."

But what if the leadership itself is commanding soldiers to behave in abusive ways? Would normal individuals be willing to follow morally abhorrent orders?

That's the defense being offered for Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick, one of the soldiers being criminally charged in the Abu Ghraib abuse case, whose attorney suggested he was encouraged to carry on the abusive behavior.

More than four decades ago the late Yale psychologist Stanley Millgram conducted a study on following orders, or — in his words — "how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to."

Not realizing they in fact were the guinea pigs, subjects were told to administer increasingly painful electric shocks to a patient in the next room. As the voltage increased the subject would scream, feigning pain to the point where the supposed subject, out of sight, was ominously no longer making any noise whatsoever.

Yet more than 60 percent of those tested obeyed the orders all the way to the end — 450 volts administered three times — to a subject in such pain he was no longer even responding.

Concluded Milgram: "Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. … Even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality."

Concluded Massachusetts therapist and author Lauren Slater: "We have to judge the individuals who committed the horrible deeds, but we can't judge them through the lens of saying, 'I would never have done that,' … because the Millgram experiments show that under orders, most of us will do that."

ABCNEWS' Jake Tapper contributed to this report.