Raj Persaud: One court martial won't stop all this brutality

These photographs echo the same psychological processes enacted by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib

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When the photographs of British soldiers allegedly abusing Iraqi prisoners were released earlier this week, initial reactions from the public were of shock and disgust. How could British soldiers, long held up to be more "disciplined" than the US Army, be doing this to anyone, even Iraqi prisoners of war?

When the photographs of British soldiers allegedly abusing Iraqi prisoners were released earlier this week, initial reactions from the public were of shock and disgust. How could British soldiers, long held up to be more "disciplined" than the US Army, be doing this to anyone, even Iraqi prisoners of war?

Some commentators immediately blamed a "few bad apples" presumably responsible for the abuse, others claimed that this kind of incident is a rare but inevitable example of no more than lax discipline, and can occur in any war. However, social psychologists are going to argue that the forces at work here are much more ominous and probably more widespread than the authorities are going to want to admit, despite any "investigation".

A key aspect of the photographs is the delight apparently being taken at the humiliation of the Iraqis - an awful echo of the same psychological processes being enacted by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib.

An extremely dark part of the human psyche in action is sadism, the taking of pleasure in causing pain or humiliation to another. Sadism is a deeply troubling phenomenon because it is not perpetrated by "animals", as we prefer to comfortingly believe. Actually it is a good knowledge of human attributes that fuels sadism. For example, the killing of children in front of their parents requires a knowledge of what would be most painful for a human to witness.

Sadism requires an awareness of human family attachment and parental protectiveness. It then turns these universal norms upside down and acts against them to maximise psychological as well as physical pain. The pictures from the British Army's Camp Beadbasket in southern Iraq and the earlier US ones from Abu Ghraib reveal that there is a deep understanding in the military mind of the kind of predicaments likely to be found most humiliating by Arab males and their deployment for that precise purpose.

Sadism occurs when perpetrators are stressed, desensitised, and view their victims as threats or as subhuman. Whenever a powerful group, deprived of checks and balances, identifies an enemy by whom it feels threatened and that it finds deeply frustrating to deal with, extreme sadism is the inevitable outcome. The kind of sadistic humiliation wreaked on Iraqi prisoners is the entirely predictable product of the psychological forces the US and UK governments have unleashed in Iraq, without a thought about how to resolve the deteriorating situation there. This is because subordinates not only do what they are ordered to do, but what they think their superiors would order them to do, given their understanding of the authority's overall goals.

So to understand what the coalition forces have been doing to Iraqi prisoners, you have to start with the psychological forces our leaders unleash when they sell a war to us. They start by identifying a threatening enemy, which in turn mobilises deep intrapsychic forces in populations and armies. The key advantage for leaders, as exemplified in George Bush's re-election, is that the identification of an enemy produces a "rallying around the flag" effect that war-sceptics find difficult to compete with.

Once you have succumbed to the call to defend yourself from an external threat (real or imagined), what psychologists call "groupthink" comes into play. This explains why it is likely to be a group of culprits responsible for the degradation of the enemy, not just an individual soldier. People engage in "groupthink" when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group; it overrides their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action. This phenomenon occurs when a group facing a perceived threat, such as an army posted thousands of miles from home, is insulated from independent judgements.

Such groups develop an illusion of invulnerability that, in turn, leads to excessive optimism and risk-taking, a collective disregard of warning, an unquestioned belief in their group's moral superiority and the emergence of "mind guards" (think Alastair Campbell) to protect the group from adverse information.

How then do we stop the terrible things that coalition forces are doing to Iraqi prisoners? Isolated criminal trials and courts martial are not going to stop a problem that runs much deeper and starts with the identification of an "out-group" - the Iraqis - as being our mortal enemy, justifying the use of a devastating pre-emptive strike as a solution, rather than first trying a negotiated one. The only answer is that we need to make friends not enemies; but our leaders seem to be good only at the latter; they have yet to demonstrate any ability at all in pursuing the former.

The writer is Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry

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