Comparing Abu Ghraib to My Lai in Vietnam, psychologist Robert Jay Lifton explains how ordinary Americans can behave so horribly
Renowned psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, who has spent his long career studying war and extremist political movements, is in a unique position to comment on the situation in Iraq. As a young Air Force psychiatrist during the early 1950s, he treated pilots traumatized during the Korean War. He went on to win a National Book Award in 1969 for Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, and he has also published psychological studies of everything from Nazi doctors to Vietnam War veterans to Aum Shinrikyo, the extremist Japanese cult that released poison gas in the Tokyo subway system in 1995. All told, he has written 18 books and edited a half-dozen more.
Now a visiting professor at Harvard Medical School, Lifton has been preoccupied in recent years with the September 11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath — what he describes as “the interaction between Islamist extremism and the American reaction” [Lifton uses the term "Islamist" to distinguish radical fundamentalist groups from the Islamic religion generally].
In his latest book, Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World, which came out in fall, 2003, he describes the war in Iraq as a confrontation between American and Islamist “apocalyptic visions” aimed at reforming and remaking the world order. He strongly opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which he thinks undermined the focus and support for the war on terrorism.
On May 16, his 78th birthday, I caught up with Lifton by phone and asked him for his perspective on the insurgency, prison scandals, and other events in Iraq. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:
Q: You speak in your book about “atrocity-producing situations.” Would that idea apply to the current situation in Iraq?
A: It applies very specifically. I originally observed [that concept at work] in relation to Vietnam, specifically the mass killing [in 1968] of civilians in the small Vietnamese village of My Lai. Elements of the atrocity-producing situation there included free-fire zones, where soldiers could fire at anyone, and body counts in which there was competition for the most kills. When they entered that environment, individual soldiers — ordinary people no better or worse than you or me — were capable of committing atrocities.
Even though Iraq is very different from Vietnam, it’s also a counterinsurgency war in which there’s a lot of fear and uncertainty about who the enemy is and how to pin him down. An average person entering into that Abu Graib prison environment would be capable of committing atrocities because he or she was entering an atrocity-producing situation. From that standpoint, atrocities are not so much an individual expression as a group expression. The environment, which creates enormous pressures on the individual, creates the atrocity.
It’s true that you get atrocities and atrocity-producing situations in all wars, including the last so-called good war [World War II]. But it’s in counterinsurgency wars, which take place in alien territory with confusion about who’s the enemy and with hostility from the people, that you’re most likely to get sustained atrocity-producing situations. We saw those in Vietnam — and we’re seeing them in Iraq.
Q: So are you saying that an average office worker like me could commit atrocities, too?
A: Yes, I’m saying you or I or any average person might be capable of committing atrocities.
Q: But some people did refuse to go along. What’s different about them?
A: You’re right to focus on that because it’s a very hopeful phenomenon. I once interviewed for many hours a man who had been at My Lai and who had refused to fire. He pointed his gun to the ground and made it very clear to everybody that he wasn’t firing [at the My Lai villagers]. That made him a little fearful that the other soldiers might turn on him because the pressure toward atrocity can become so great that the person who in some way counters it may become vulnerable to the disdain or even violence of the group.
Psychologically, there were three sources to his restraint. One was a certain religious conscience from his Catholic background. Second, a sense of being a loner and, therefore, not so easily influenced by the group. But the third was the most interesting and perhaps the most important factor — his sense of military honor prevented him from firing.
It turns out that he was a man who had had trouble finding himself in life, entered the military, loved it, excelled, and planned to make it his career — and then was appalled by what he found in Vietnam and at My Lai in particular. This was a violation of his military idealism. In Iraq, we don’t know exactly the motivations of those who resisted the atrocity-producing situation, but I think that this notion of military honor could turn out to be important.
Q: What are the psychological forces behind the Iraqi attacks on Americans?
A: My sense is that there’s a resistance and insurgency now that’s many-sided, confused, and often chaotic. Nobody knows all the components of it. Surely, there are Islamist extremists coming in from outside seeking to find a battleground, and there’s also a resistance [among many Iraqis] to our presence as an occupying power. It’s really when a counterinsurgency war [involves] an occupation that you’re likely to have not only resistance but perpetual atrocity-producing situations. It doesn’t seem likely that this psychological motivation for resistance will go away as long as we’re present in a powerful position in Iraq.
Q: What’s the likely effect of the publication of the photos of prisoners being tortured and humiliated?
A: It taints the war effort. There had been growing doubt about the war, and these pictures are already causing those doubts to intensify. There’s a sense that we have gotten into something very dirty that we can’t control, and that in certain aspects of that situation we’re behaving very badly. That [may make] the war seem less noble than we thought and not worth fighting.
But there can also be the opposite reaction: That we shouldn’t make such a fuss about it, that [the prisoners] are nasty people. The beheading of the American [businessman] Nicholas Berg clearly evokes the extremity of the other side, in this case al Qaeda. The country is divided between these two views. They both represent what I call “survivor meaning” or “survivor mission” in relation to American deaths in Iraq and to the atrocities we’re seeing on the part of Americans in Iraq.
Q: Is that one reason President Bush remains relatively popular in opinion polls?
A: There’s a psychological tendency of any people to rally round the flag when there’s war and one’s own [people] are dying. There’s a very strong impulse to believe and commit oneself to the principle that they didn’t die in vain. It’s a traditional survivor mission in relation to war that will continue to have enormous power for Americans. But there’s also an alternative mission in which one questions the war and warmaking. It’s as if there’s a struggle between the two.
Q: Are we at a tipping point?
A: It’s hard to know where the tipping point is. I think these prison scandals will have an enormous effect, which is only beginning now. Because of the information coming out and all the investigations under way, it’s impossible to limit the scandal to the level of the foot soldiers. There are too many forces pressing for it to be opened out, too much information suggesting [responsibility] at higher levels.
Q: You’ve mentioned Vietnam. Are there also parallels in Iraq to World War II? Rightly or wrongly, many Americans connect Iraq to 9/11, and the nation was attacked on 9/11, just as it was at Pearl Harbor.
A: I agree with you that 9/11 is a very important psychological factor in what we have done [in Iraq]. But our response to the attack, rather than being focused and with limited use of violence, became amorphous and generalized when Iraq was thrown into the war on terrorism even though there wasn’t any evidence that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11. But the psychology of Americans, partly manipulated by the government, was more open to intense or extreme measures in interrogation and in fighting terrorism because we were attacked.