One sunny afternoon several decades ago, I remember sitting in our college library reading the fascinating account of the famous experiment done by Stanley Milgram at Yale in the early 1970’s. He was interested in how humans function when obedience to authority conflicts with the demands of morality, so he devised a psychological experiment. The now classic study involved fooling random subjects into believing that they were administering electric shocks to another participant across the room. The subject’s job was to zap the learner when he gave an incorrect answer to a question, and he was told the shock would increase to as much as 450 volts as the experiment proceeded. The subjects were told the purpose of the experiment was to investigate the role of punishment on learning.
Milgram was interested in how many subjects would keep administering the shock up to a degree that appeared to be causing the learner an excruciating amount of pain. He had the other participant (an actor) cry out in ever louder screams of pain as he was being “shocked.” He found that many people were willing to go a long time before refusing to continue, even while hearing the frantic cries of their “victim.”
One of Milgram’s subjects was a combat veteran named William Menold. He became more and more upset over the pain he appeared to be causing the learner and he complained to the experimenter. The experimenter told him to continue, that he would accept all the responsibility for the consequences. Menold said later he “completely lost it, my reasoning power,” and did what he was told without question.
After the experiment was over, Menold became extremely upset over the fact “that somebody could get me to do that stuff.” He described himself as an “emotional wreck” and a “basket case” during the experiment and after leaving the premises.
Milgram’s experiment and Menold’s reaction gave us a glimpse of what some soldiers would experience thirty years later after torture became widespread during the Iraq war, as a result of policies disseminated from the highest levels of the US government. Only this was not a twenty-minute experiment in a college laboratory, but actual abuse and torture of prisoners being practiced widely in diverse locations by a variety of perpetrators throughout the theater of war and in prisons far from the battlefield.
We are beginning to see severe PTSD and even suicide among some of the soldiers who tortured and abused detainees and who have returned from Iraq. Author Joshua Phillips has written a book about the men of Battalion 1-68. One of them, Adam Gray, ultimately commits suicide due to his anguish over torturing detainees in Iraq. His was not the only suicide. The book, None of Us Were Like This Before, has been described as a heartbreaking account of what becomes of some of the young men who have obeyed illegal and immoral orders to abuse and torture men and women being held by US forces during the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
He describes two of the main characters in the book:
Gray and Millantz were very different people. Gray was planning to be career military; Millantz was a combat medic who left shortly after his tour in Iraq ended, and joined the anti-war movement. While both soldiers had other traumatic experiences during their combat tour in Iraq, they also admitted that their involvement with prisoner abuse deeply troubled them. Millantz told me he felt Gray was distraught over the abuse he had been involved in, and believed that it partly led to his tragic demise. Millantz was also haunted by his own history with prisoner abuse—not just because of what he saw and participated in, but because of his inability to stop it….Both Gray and Millantz had strikingly similar experiences when they returned home. Both had violent outbursts, were involved in serious substance abuse, and spiraled into depression.
Prisoner abuse and torture was far more widespread than most people understand. It happened well beyond the walls of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and CIA “black sites.” Prisoners were seriously abused in other U.S. military bases and facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some soldiers with Battalion 1-68 told me about an episode that involved choking a detainee with water. No one referred to it as “waterboarding” at the time, nor did anyone reference official memos that sanctioned such techniques. One soldier from Battalion 1-68 said the idea was borne out of casual discussions on the base about torture techniques that had been used elsewhere…Those who study torture say this is often how torture techniques are picked up and travel from conflict to conflict.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, having witnessed the horrors of the Soviet Gulag, wrote, “our torturers have been punished most horribly of all: they are turning into swine; they are departing downward from humanity.”
Referring to Martin Luther King’s belief that it was whites who suffered most from segregation, Kenneth Smith wrote, “King took seriously the indivisibility of human existence. ‘In a real sense,’ he wrote, ‘all life is interrelated. ..Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly’"
Both Solzhenitsyn and King realized that those who abuse and torture others, whether they are individuals or nations, are psychologically damaged by this act. In a sense, the men of Battalion 1-68 were our proxies in torture so the rest of us share a portion of their guilt. And being culpable, we have the obligation to help the soldiers who tortured in our name find help and healing.
Rushworth Kidder, author of "Moral Courage," and president of the Institute for Global Ethics, writing about the Milgram experiment, says:
Personal integrity isn’t achieved through inoculation. It’s a process. Rooted in core ethical values, it shapes itself, decision by decision, across a lifetime. It depends on consistency, continuity, and repetition. Each lapse makes the next one easier.
If that’s true for individuals, it’s also true for organizations and nations. When an individual merges unthinkingly "into an organizational structure," warned Milgram, "a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority."
If we fast forward thirty years, we see what happened because this warning went unheeded. Matthew Alexander wrote of those who created and authorized the US torture program, "They took honorable, patriotic young soldiers and convinced them to sacrifice the very principles that they had signed up to defend." And the political leaders that did this deserve the lion’s share of guilt for the crimes that then occurred.