The ‘Let’s Kick Ass and Take Names’ Mentality in Iraq and Elsewhere


            Over 750 American soldiers have died so far since we invaded Iraq, and at least 3,000 have been injured (much more, depending upon your source).  Thousands of innocent Iraqis have been killed, many just children. The country is in a state of chaos, with many cities and small towns filled with the debris of war.  In the middle of all of this is the inevitable prison for those captured.  The latest news is that this prison, called Abu Ghraib, has been the scene of more atrocities, this time committed by soldiers in charge of guarding the prisoners. Additionally, it has been reported that at least 25 Iraqi and Afghan prisoners have died, including two Iraqis who may have been murdered.

            The CBS news program “60 Minutes II” on April 28 showed graphic film footage of prisoners being subjected to incredible abuse by their captives.  The photos were subsequently put on the Internet for all to see.  One photo shows a group of naked prisoners, stacked on top of one another.  Another photo shows a prisoner covered in some black garment, with some wires attached to his hands, standing on a box. 

            What was the most disturbing, however, were the photos of apparently American soldiers in charge of guarding these prisoners (there are around 8,000 prisoners), one man and one woman, posing with smiles and a “thumbs up” sign, as if they were proud of what they had accomplished.  There is also a photo of a British soldier peeing on a hooded prisoner who was bending down at the time.  (The hoods placed over their heads is an interesting story in itself.)  A Human Rights Watch report ( interpreted this to mean that the perpetrators had nothing to hide from their superiors.  The report further noted that the treatment of these prisoners is in clear violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions which prohibits “outrages upon the personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment” against a detainee.

             Predictably, the response in the Arab world is anger.  In Saudi Arabia, the Arab News stated that people may tend to believe that such mistreatment “is generally approved of and that unless he is caught on camera, a GI can get away with anything.”  A State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said that they were “not too concerned” that this latest episode would undermine the credibility of the United States.  That remains to be seen.  Also, predictably, both President Bush and Democratic candidate John Kerry expressed outrage at this incident, with Bush promising “there will be an investigation” and that those responsible will “be taken care of.”

            As usual, those who committed these awful deeds are being punished, while few will question the larger context and the system that makes such actions inevitable, especially in the time of war.  Also left unsaid is the more general “get tough” and “kick ass” mentality that creates such behavior to begin with.  It is apparently deeply embedded in our culture as it is found not just in the military, but also throughout our criminal justice system.  As criminologist Peter Kraska (Eastern Kentucky University) has documented, there has been a growing phenomenon he calls the “militarization of criminal justice.” This corresponds with an underlying ideology consisting of “a set of beliefs and values that stress the use of force and domination as appropriate means to solve problems and gain political power, while glorifying the means to accomplish this – military power, hardware, and technology.”

            Apparently the abuse was at least unofficially condoned by the some military officers, as suggested in a just released 53-page report by the U.S. Army (under the supervision of Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba), which was completed in February.  According to the New York Times, this report may reveal a much broader pattern of command failures. The report found a consistent pattern of mismanagement, which had become routine. This is further supported by comments in a personal journal kept by an army reservist on duty in the prison who has witnessed many of the abuses.  In his journal he commented that he dared to question some of the abuses, such as “leaving inmates in their cell with no clothes or in females’ underpants, handcuffing them to the door of their cell.”  He said that he was told “this is how the military intelligence wants it done.” It is interesting to note that Taguba's reported suggested that 60% of the prisoners being held were "not a threat to society."  The parallels to the American prison system seem obvious.

            Relevant here is an experiment that occurred about 30 years ago. It was “Stanford Prison Experiment,” conducted by Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues at Sanford University. They selected some healthy, young Stanford students from middle class backgrounds with no discernable psychological problems to volunteer for an experiment that involved setting up a “mock prison” in the basement of a building.  They were randomly assigned to be either guards or prisoners.  The guards were told to merely maintain order and gain respect from the prisoners.  The experiment was to last six weeks, but had to be stopped after just six days, because most began to act out their roles seriously.  Guards, for instance began to enjoy their position of authority with some behaving in rather abusive ways toward the prisoners.  Likewise, the prisoners began to behave in predictable ways.  Zimbardo and his colleagues concluded that “many of the subjects ceased distinguishing between their prison role and their prior self-identities…we witnessed a sample of normal, healthy American college students fractionate into a group of prison guards who seemed to derive pleasure from insulting, threatening, humiliating, and dehumanizing their peers.”  They also noted that the prisoners succumbed to the typical prisoner syndrome which was “one of passivity, dependency, depression, helplessness, and self-deprecation.”  The authors concluded with this sobering thought:  “In a world where men are either powerful or powerless, everyone learns to despise the lack of power in others and in oneself.  It seems to us that prisoners learn to admire power for its own sake - power becoming the ultimate reward.”

            The implications of this experiment remain with us today.  Philip Zimbardo has created a web site for this experiment (, devoted mainly to continue this overall message. 

            Behind this mentality is a culture that often approves the use of force to solve problems.  As I have written previously on this web site (“Why are we so Punitive?”), we live in a very punitive culture, one where punishment continues to be attractive along with the “kick ass” mentality.  Collectively, we pay billions of dollars to witness it on television programs and in feature films.  Most still support the death penalty, while during some executions large crowds of supporters gather outside the gates of the prison, some cheering after the condemned is executed. Added to this is the recurrent theme of racism, with the concurrent use of racial slurs to describe those on the receiving end of such brutality.  Indeed, whether it be "rag heads," "gooks," "niggers," "spics," "Japs," or countless other words that communicate the clear message that these individuals are less than human and, moreover, that we are superior.  Such dehumanization is not only normal in times of war, it is often used against victims of crime and police brutality on the streets and within the homes here in America.  It is far easier to abuse or even kill someone who is deemed less than human by the perpetrators.  Is it really any surprise that this is going on in Iraq?  Robert Fisk, one of the most experienced journalists who has spent more years in the Middle East than just about anyone else, recently commented that we are victims of our own "high-flown morality."  Those in the Middle East "are of a lesser breed, of lower moral standards."  Therefore, they must be "liberated" and become a "democracy."  He goes on to say that "we little band of brothers, we dress ourselves up in the uniforms of righteousness.  We are marines or military police or a Queen's regiment and we are on the side of good.  'They' are on the side of 'evil'.  So we can do no wrong."   

One source of this punitiveness is religion.  This was brought close to home recently when I received an e-mail, which was one of those someone sends to everyone on their list of recipients, with others following suit, until literally hundreds get the message.  Here’s the message in its entirety, apparently meant as a joke: 


A college professor, an avowed Atheist, was teaching his class.  He shocked several of his students when he flatly stated he was going to prove
there was no God. Addressing the ceiling he shouted: "God, if you are real, then I want you to knock me off this platform. I'll give you 15 minutes!"

The lecture room fell silent. You could have heard a pin fall.  Ten minutes went by. Again he taunted God, saying, "Here I am, God. I'm still

His count-down got down to the last couple of minutes when a Marine –just released from active duty and newly registered in the class - walked up to the professor, hit him full force in the face,  and sent him tumbling from his lofty platform. The professor was out cold! At first, the students were shocked and babbled in confusion. The young soldier took a seat in the front row and sat silent. The class fell silent...waiting.

Eventually, the professor came to, shaken. He looked at the young soldier in the front row. When the professor regained his senses and could speak he asked: "What's the matter with you? Why did you do that?" "God was busy. He sent me."

The “joke” ends with the phrase “One Nation Under God,” with the image of an American eagle just below it.


The tone of this “joke” implies that this marine did a noble thing by attacking this professor.  The statement that he was sent by God further reinforces the religious origins of punitiveness, reinforced by many who claim to be “Christians.” 

I wrote back to the person who sent this to me, complaining about the general tone, while raising some of the issues noted in this commentary.  The person wrote back saying “Clearly we differ.  I won’t contact you again.”  This is not an uncommon response to such criticisms, for without addressing a serious rebuttal to their arguments, they simply dismiss them with something like “we’ll have to agree to disagree.”  End of discussion.

The photos of the maltreatment of Iraqi prisoners have already resulted in the usual responses by our elected officials.  The individuals involved will be punished and perhaps dishonorably discharged from the service (as of May 10, seven soldiers are facing a court-martial).  The system and culture that produces such actions will not be challenged, for it is much easier to punish individuals than to question the ideology of punitiveness. Those soldiers who directly participated in this abuse are products of a sort of a military version of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Anyone who has ever served in the military ought to be suspicious, as I am, that those who participated in this are scapegoats for they had to be either following direct orders or were in some way encouraged. Like My Lai a generation and another occupation ago, the explanation will be something like "it's just a few bad apples" (some of these ideas can be seen in Stan Goff's "Another Open Letter to the Troops in Iraq," posted on on May 9). George Bush is quoted as follows:  “Their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people.  That’s not the way we do things in America. I didn’t like it one bit.”  Sorry Mr. Bush, but this is in fact the way we do things not only here, but all over the globe.  Just ask the residents of all the countries who have received the brunt of American foreign policies over the past 100 years, with all the corresponding violence and brutality, either at the hands of American soldiers, CIA agents or hired thugs and mercenaries, plus all the prisoners similarly abused within the “gulag” called the American penal system (prisons, jails, police lockups, juvenile detention centers, etc.).  All of this is apparently just fine, since “God” is on our side.


© 2004 by Randall G. Shelden. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.