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Abuse and Authority: The Abu Ghraib Comparison

TommyGuns enjoys analyzing and writing about various topics.

Read on for an analysis of the abuse that took place at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and the academic studies that suggest it was virtually inevitable.

Read on for an analysis of the abuse that took place at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and the academic studies that suggest it was virtually inevitable.

Detainee Abuse: A Predictable Outcome?

In April of 2004, graphic images surfaced of U.S. soldiers abusing prisoners being held at the Abu Ghraib prison just outside of Bagdad in Iraq during the U.S-led war on terrorism. The images showed soldiers abusing prisoners and staging them in humiliating sexual positions. These images caused a global reaction of outrage— especially in the Arab world—but also provided proof for the U.S investigation that began in January of that same year into the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The investigation found intentional abuse of prisoners by military police.

Is this type of behavior something new? Many people believe not, and there have been studies on similar types of subjects in the past. The abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison showed comparable actions similar to the experiments of Zimbardo and Milgram in ways that people are not willing to stand up to authority figures. Philip Zimbardo, who is best known for his controversial experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1973, stated in an article he wrote in The Record days after the news story of Abu Ghraib abuse broke:

“The terrible things my guards [at Stanford] did to their prisoners were comparable to the horrors inflicted on the Iraqi detainees. My guards repeatedly stripped their prisoners naked, hooded them, chained them, denied them food or bedding privileges, put them into solitary confinement, and made them clean toilet bowls with their bare hands.”

The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1973 was designed to be a study of the process of how prisoners and guards learn to act in their roles. Zimbardo placed an advertisement in a local newspaper in order to hire male college students for a psychological study of prison life. He offered $15 per day for participating in the study for one to two weeks. There were more than 75 responses to the advertisement. Based on clinical interviews and personality tests, 21 were chosen to populate the prison with a homogeneous group of people that were considered to be average people. They were randomly chosen to become the roll of prisoners or guards. The prisoners were stripped down and given smocks, and nylon stocking caps to wear and instructed to use their ID numbers to “deindividualize” them. The smocks were like dresses since they did not have any underwear. This made them appear more feminine and limit the way they move.

The guards also had a form of anonymity. They wore khaki uniforms along with reflecting sunglasses so the prisoners could not see their eyes. The guards did not have any training but appeared to move into their roles easily. They were instructed to maintain “law and order” in the prison and adjust to the position with on-the-job training (P392). At first, the guards made the prisoners perform petty, meaningless tasks and disturb sleep but then the abuse began to increase. Zimbardo added in his article:

“As the boredom of their job increased, they began using the prisoners as their playthings, devising ever more humiliating and degrading games for them to play. Over time, these amusements took a sexual turn, such as having the prisoners simulate sodomy on each other. Once aware of such deviant behavior, I closed down the Stanford prison.”

After the military conducted the investigation into Abu Ghraib, there was an internal report written by Antonio Taguba, mostly known now as “The Taguba Report” that leaked out to the public. The Taguba Report states that military personnel abused detainees by forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing: Forcing naked male detainees to wear woman’s underwear: Forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped: Arranging naked male detainees in a pile and then jumping on them: Positioning a naked detainee on an MRE Box, with a sandbag on his head, and attaching wires to his fingers, toes, and penis to simulate electric torture. These are just a few of the similarities of abuse listed in the Taguba Report. Besides the abuse similarities, there were other types of similarities also.

Another comparison between the Abu Ghraib prison and The Stanford Prison Experiment has to do with the training of the guards. In both of these situations, the guards working at the facilities were not trained in managing prisons or prisoners. Although the guards of the prison experiment had no reason to fear the prisoners, the guards at Abu Ghraib constantly feared attacks due to them being outnumbered by prisoners and being in the middle of a war zone. Having little training in this area opened the door for people to be easily influenced by others to complete tasks that are considered wrong or immoral.

In 1963, a Yale psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted a study on obedience. Milgram found that even though participants in the study are aware the order he gave them would inflict pain on another person, few participants could resist the order given by the authority figure (P359). For this study, Milgram used two other participants per session. The first person became the “teacher” and the other a “learner”. The process of the study was that the teacher would ask the learner a series of questions. For every wrong answer the learner gave, the teacher was instructed to push a button on a console delivering a shock to the learner who was seen being strapped into a device similar to an electric chair (P362). The console was labeled from 15 volts to 450 volts and the buttons were labeled "Slight Shock" to "Severe Shock" and the last two were just marked "XXX."

For each wrong answer given, the volts would be increased. At least that is what the teacher was told; the learner was actually an actor and not being harmed in any way. Although most people thought virtually all would refuse to go through with the experiment, 25 of the 40 people that participated went all the way through the process. The key to this experiment was when the teacher felt they were wrong and questioned the experimenter about stopping. The experimenter was usually able to just tell the teacher to continue and they would go on with the experiment. The experimenter was acting as an authority figure to see how obedient to authority people are. The experiment proved that although people know their actions are wrong, they will still follow the orders of an authority figure.

Milgram's experiment results can be seen within the walls of Abu Graib. During the investigations into the abuse, many of the guards of Abu Ghraib claimed that they were just following orders in order to gain information from the prisoners. The abuse actually appeared to be routine since the soldiers were so comfortable with taking photographs of the abuse. The reality of the situation was that military intelligence officers were able to influence a few soldiers into causing this abusive atmosphere due to the lack of leadership in the prison. The intelligence officers became the authority figures and the soldiers thought they were just following orders, even though they may have thought the abuse was wrong.

Staff Sergeant Ivan l. Frederick, one of the soldiers suspected of the abuse was quoted in an article in The New Yorker in May 2004 from an email he wrote:

I questioned some of the things that I saw . . . such things as leaving inmates in their cell with no clothes or in female underpants, handcuffing them to the door of their cell--and the answer I got was, "This is how military intelligence (MI) wants it done." . . . . MI has also instructed us to place a prisoner in an isolation cell with little or no clothes, no toilet or running water, no ventilation or window, for as much as three days.

The military intelligence officers have "encouraged and told us, 'Great job,' they were now getting positive results and information," Frederick wrote. "CID has been present when the military working dogs were used to intimidate prisoners at MI's request." At one point, Frederick told his family, he pulled aside his superior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Phillabaum, the commander of the 320th M.P. Battalion, and asked about the mistreatment of prisoners. "His reply was 'Don't worry about it.' "

Authority figures can appear can in different ways. Our initial thought of an authority figure can be a single person giving out an order, but it can also appear in other ways. In the Abu Ghraib prison and Zimbardo situations, the authority figure came in the lack of authority around the prison and peer pressure. Although there were complaints of abuse in Abu Ghraib, no one seemed to stop the abuse at the prison and Zimbardo did not recognize it during his experiment. Both situations were stopped due to outsiders becoming authority figures and causing the actions to stop. In either of those situations, the studies have proven and been seen in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse. Also, as demonstrated in Milgram's experiments, intelligence officers were able to inflict a form of peer pressure on the group. After all, they were just regular people who are trained to follow orders and not stand up to authority figures.


HERSH, SEYMOUR M. "TORTURE AT ABU GHRAIB; ANNALS OF NATIONAL SECURITY. " The New Yorker 10 May 2004: 042. ProQuest Central ProQuest. Northampton Community College Library, Tannersville, PA. 9 May. 2009

ZIMBARDO, PHILIP G. "Why good soldiers turn bad :[All Editions.=.Two Star B. Two Star P. One Star B]" The Record [Bergen County, N.J.] 11 May 2004,L15. ProQuest Central. ProQuest. Northampton Community College Library, Tannersville, PA. 9 May. 2009

“Iraqi Prisoner Abuse Generates Controversy (sidebar).” Issues & Controversies On File 30 July 2004. Issues & Controversies. Facts On File News Services. 3 May 2009

Mastroianni, George R., and George Reed.. "APPLES, BARRELS, AND ABU GHRAIB." Sociological Focus 39.4 (Nov. 2006): 239-250. SocINDEX with Full Text. EBSCO. Northampton Community College Library, Tannersville, PA. 9 May 2009 <>.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.