Rumsfeld, Abu Ghraib, and the Stanford Prison Experiment

The story-behind-the-story this week is only tangentially campaign-related.

That story is the willingness of the suddenly-emboldened major news magazines to take sweeping shots at the administration for its handling of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. One can almost hear the screeching of the wheels as the wagon train veers off the beaten path and into unexplored territory.

Newsweek focuses on Donald Rumsfeld, with assistant managing editor Evan Thomas drawing the secretary of defense as a Classical figure whose pride ran rampant before a devastating fall. Thomas writes, “If it were possible to be a true war god, to aim every arrow that flies, to smite every foe and avenge every wrong, maybe Donald Rumsfeld would be that man. But it is not, and in Greek tragedies the gods themselves are brought low by pride.” Thomas, who may have seen one too many previews for the upcoming Brad Pitt/Orlando Bloom version of the siege of Troy, writes, “The current scandal exposes the Achilles’ heel of a warrior who leads from the front, but does not always inspire the loyalty of the men and women who are supposed to cover his back.”

US News & World Report leads with its own scandal story headlined “Shocking and Awful.” Kevin Whitelaw compares the current situation in Iraq to the one faced 80 years ago by a British government then occupying, you guessed it, Iraq: “Eight decades ago, British commanders called in punishing airstrikes to put down a fierce insurrection in one of its most unruly colonies. After pumping money into Iraq to support a deeply unpopular occupation, Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill was fed up. ‘We are paying 8 millions a year,’ he fumed, ‘for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano, out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything worth having.’”

A second story highlights the structural breakdowns that led to the abuse. “Another broad problem, Pentagon officials point out, is that the pool of soldiers used for detention operations is both ill-trained and far too small to handle the growing demands at U.S. military facilities,” writes Mark Mazzetti. “Few soldiers view detention work as a desirable career path.” Mazzetti then drops one of those telling statistics that draws readers up short: “out of 38,000 military police soldiers, fewer than 1,000 have undergone specialized training for work at correctional facilities.”

Time also leads with a package of stories on the prison scandal. In an article on the psychology of what may have made US military personnel willing to torture Iraqi prisoners, Claudia Wallis refers to the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, cited earlier by the New York Times. A professor of psychology took two groups of college students, designated one set as prisoners and the other guards (complete with reflective sunglasses a la “Cool Hand Luke”) and let the experiment run in the basement of the Stanford psych building. He had to end it less than a week in because, as he tells Time, the guards “began to use the prisoners as playthings for their amusement.” Take-home lesson: Under the right circumstances, and with sufficient peer pressure, any human being can go bad fast.

And in The New Yorker, Sy Hersh, who last week first reported on an internal military report on abuse at Abu Ghraib, this week reviews earlier allegations of abuse. Hersh writes of potential connections between the abuses in Iraq and interrogation techniques first applied in Afghanistan. One such example he finds comes from an affidavit filed in the John Walker Lindh case, which alleges that American soldiers “blindfolded Mr. Lindh, and took several pictures of Mr. Lindh and themselves with Mr Lindh.” The affidavit also notes, as Hersh summarizes it, that “Lindh was later stripped naked, bound to a stretcher with duct tape, and placed in a windowless shipping container.”

It’s unrelentingly grim stuff — partly, one senses, because the major magazines are reassessing not just events in Iraq, but also their own past performance in failing to adequately chronicle a swiftly-deteriorating situation.

Bryan Keefer

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.