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A Dark Place: Abu Ghraib and Its Ethics

Summary of Events

          Abu Ghraib was a symbol of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny in Iraq, a pillar that stood for misrepresented imprisonments, unwarranted cruelty, and deadly torture. Accounts have been posited that over fifty thousand men and women occupied this prison at one time, forced into “twelve-by-twelve foot cells that were little more than human holding pits.”[i] Descriptions of bodies being eaten by dogs, electrodes displaced from walls, and an overarching sense of evil permeated the building under Hussein’s leadership. As evidenced by CIA Bureau Chief Bob Baer in a 60 Minutes interview, “If there’s ever a reason to get rid of Saddam Hussein, it’s because of Abu Ghraib.”[ii]

            In April of 2003, American forces successfully overtook the huge prison following the destruction of Saddam’s command. Converting the massive complex into a prison operated by coalition forces in August,[iii] military personnel took charge of incoming prisoners. The prison operated under Army reserve brigadier general, Janis Karpinski, who also looked after two other large jails and had never experienced any training in handling prisoners. Under Karpinski’s watch, Abu Ghraib became a place where terrorist suspects—discovered at security checkpoints or aggressively captured during military fights—came to be imprisoned. There were three categories differentiating the prisoners: 1) generic criminals, 2) individuals who undermined the coalition, and 3) insurgents who may be leading against the coalition.[iv] The prison occupancy increased quickly as did the knowledge that many Iraqis who opposed the American forces lived within Abu Ghraib’s walls.

            As one may expect, Abu Ghraib sits in a particularly hostile area within Iraq. A Newsweek article discusses the adrenaline producing events the prison guards had to work in, citing snipers firing on U.S. patrols, landmines placed around the road to the prison, gun battles throughout the night, and constant mortar attacks.[v] Such dire circumstances set an ominous stage when one is dealing with enemies of the United States hoping to kill American soldiers. This high stress and intense pressure on American soldiers, accompanied with the inability to receive sufficient information to help America’s cause, led to the implementation of many personnel changes. For example, Major General Geoffrey Miller (the former commander at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) was put in charge of increasing interrogation means to procure more information from the prisoners.[vi] In doing so, Miller dictated his plans to Karpinski in which he wanted to “have control, and [let the prisoners] know it.”[vii] Miller initiated his desire for control at Abu Ghraib, and proceeded to use Karpinski’s military police to positively impact the intelligence effort.[viii]

            While this change in command occurred within Abu Ghraib, there was a military investigation conducted by Provost Marshal Donald Ryder, a major general in the Army and a chief law-enforcement officer. Within this report, Ryder documented accounts in which “military police actively set favorable conditions for subsequent interviews.”[ix] He discussed that such actions in a prison setting tend to have negative repercussions, and commented on the military polices’ requirements to solely utilize passive means of collecting information. Ryder concluded that “city jails [are] generally less stringent [with] adherence to international standards of confinement, but in many cases are being operated satisfactorily,”[x] which overshadowed the potential problems he outlined in his investigation.

            While Ryder may have covered up the indecent acts that were occurring at Abu Ghraib, military police Specialist Joseph M. Darby made sure to expose the situation by sliding a CD full of torturous pictures under the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division’s door.[xi] This CD included images of prisoners being stripped naked, faking homosexual acts with one another, being intimidated by military canines, being handcuffed in uncomfortable conditions, being put upon blocks with electrodes attached to their body, being put on leashes, posing in a variety of positions with their vision being impaled, being piled naked on top of one another, and being forcibly beaten (See Exhibit 1, and Exhibit 2). There were even some pictures of dead prisoners, possibly murdered by individuals attempting to obtain information. Most of these pictures are taken with U.S. soldiers posing, smiling, and pointing towards the tortured prisoner. The inmates at Abu Ghraib experienced the most horrific dehumanization that anyone can relate to, particularly because the Islamic laws strictly forbid homosexual acts and even nudity in front of other men. As “Bernard Haykel, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University, explained, ‘being put on top of each other and forced to masturbate, being naked in front of each other—it’s all a form of torture’.”[xii]

            The investigation following these pictures and associated material was quick to produce many low-level soldiers who were responsible for such actions. These individuals included Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick, Specialist Charles Graner, Sergeant Javal Davis, Specialist Megan Ambuhl, Specialist Sabrina Harman, Private Jeremy Sivits, and Private Lynndie England.[xiii] Furthermore, brigadier general Janis Karpinski was relieved of her duties upon the distribution of the photos. Despite these swift and encompassing allegations, all of the accused members pointed their fingers right back at their higher ranking officers, accusing them of ordering such actions to take place. To back their claim, the Army’s own investigator, Major General Antonio Taguba, released a report admonishing senior officers in the Army because military police “were directed to change facility procedures to ‘set the conditions’ for military intelligence interrogations.”[xiv]  (See Exhibit 3) He continued, stating that military intelligence and other governmental agencies “actively requested that MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses.”[xv]

            As officials in the Army refer to the incidents at Abu Ghraib as the handiwork of “a few bad apples,”[xvi] there is sufficient evidence that point to many more breakdowns then simply the morals of a few soldiers. For starters, there was a severe deficiency in guards for the over 7,000 detainees that were housed in Abu Ghraib.[xvii] Also, the brigade commanded by Karpinski was not trained properly to deal with inmates, as the Taguba report shows, “there is a lack of general knowledge, implementation, and emphasis of basic legal, regulatory, doctrinal, and command requirements.”[xviii] The accusations of higher officials appear even more valid when analyzing Frederick’s letters and email messages home in which he accounts for the military intelligence’s encouragement and appreciation for Frederick’s manner of treating the prisoners (see Exhibit 4).[xix]


            Within this analysis of the Case Study on Abu Ghraib, I will take two perspectives from which I hope to define the ethical nature of the tortures. From these two standpoints, an inevitable question arises: Does a governmental entity operate under the same ethics as a business? The “business” we are assessing is the internationally present governmental agency known as the United States Army. For the ethical analysis that I put this case study under, I presume that a government entity should operate under the same ethics as a business. To respond to the unethical nature of the Army’s practices, I will utilize a Kantian approach to ethics. To dispute the ethical nature of the Army’s practices, I will assess Milton Friedman’s approach and the Utilitarianism approach to ethics. To conclude, I validate the unethical nature of the tortures at Abu Ghraib.

            To determine the actions of the Abu Ghraib prison guards as unethical, we look towards Kant’s categorical imperative. This ethical theory outlines three formulations upon which an ethical behavior is grounded. First, Kant believed that one must attribute a maxim to every behavior he ensues, then evaluate what would happen if everyone enacted upon that maxim. If the world would be able to continue “coherently,” then the “principle upon which the action is based passes the test of the categorical imperative.”[xx] Secondly, Kant upheld the belief that every human being has a “value beyond price,” so no human could use another to accomplish a self-interested task. Lastly, Kant believed that each and every person within an organization must follow the golden rule: treat others how you would want to be treated.[xxi]  It is apparent from the case study aforementioned that the tortuous behaviors of the Abu Ghraib prison guards did not follow the Kantian categorical imperative. For starters, a maxim such as “violate others until they break,” would not be a logical universal principle. Such a principle would bring the world to ruin while everybody pursues exactly what they want by torturing others at their discretion, therefore a world with such a principle would be “incoherent.” The prison guards violated the second part of the categorical imperative in that they simply used every prisoner as a means to obtain information. If they were to follow the belief that every human being has a “value beyond price,” then torturing prisoner for information would not be acceptable. Finally the military police did not act with dignity and respect to the individuals in their captivity because they caused physical and emotional harm to the prisoners without discretion. Therefore, all three components of the categorical imperative have been violated by the prison guards.

            Though we can see that the behaviors of the Abu Ghraib prison guards are unethical from a Kantian perspective, there are theories that dispute this claim. For example, Milton Friedman’s theory on the social responsibility of businesses claims that a corporate executive is inherently responsible to her employers. This argument describes how acting in a socially responsible way simply means that an executive is not acting in the best interest of her employer, thus she is disregarding her responsibility as an executive. Friedman goes on to analyze that “the whole justification for permitting the corporate executive to be selected by stockholders is that the executive is an agent serving the interests of his principal.”[xxii] Under such a theory, the soldiers who committed the tortuous acts were behaving ethically because they were serving the best interest of those directly above them. This perspective relates well to the Abu Ghraib case because the higher Army officials encouraged the harsh treatment of Iraqi prisoners. The military police saw this encouragement and associated their behaviors with their employers’ wishes, but that does not necessarily mean that these are ethical actions. With this reasoning, we must conclude that Friedman’s theory is flawed. Following the belief that one must live up to the will of her employers simply objectifies our humanity and disregards personal internal motives, morals, and beliefs. In no way does this constitute an “ethical” behavior.

          Another theory that could be utilized in disputing the unethical nature of the Abu Ghraib tortures is the utilitarianism theory. This concept defines an act’s moral rightness or wrongness based on whether the act causes a beneficial outcome or a detrimental outcome to the greater good. Thus an act is morally right if “the balance of benefit to harm calculated by taking everyone affected by the act into consideration is greater than the balance of benefit to harm resulting from any alternative act.”[xxiii] Following such requirements, the tortures of prisoners in Abu Ghraib could be seen as ethical from the standpoint that such behaviors made interrogation easier, resulting in more intel gained. Utilizing the utilitarianism perspective is flawed, as positive or negative outcomes are always theoretical and circumstantial at best so we cannot truly know what action generates the best outcome in such complex situations as torture. Furthermore, there is evidence that under torture, the victim simply tells the oppressor what they want to hear whether it is true information or not.[xxiv] Therefore, we can see how this perspective does not provide us with an accurate basis for judging one’s actions. Asserting that intel gained to save a hundred people’s lives at the expense of one prisoner’s life may present an ethical perspective, but it is a lofty presumption that the individual being tortured knows anything of worth to begin with. In regards to such ambiguousness, we must conclude that the Utilitarianism perspective on matters pertaining to national security must be flawed.

          While evaluating the ethical nature of those involved in the tortures at Abu Ghraib, I followed the presumption that the United States Army must be upheld to the same ethical code that international businesses are held to. Following this initial standpoint, it is apparent that the behaviors of the prison guards at Abu Ghraib are entirely unethical. Though there are ethical theories that may dispute these findings, the case of Abu Ghraib shows us that these theories are fundamentally flawed. Such reasoning validates the initial reaction most of us have when confronted with the Abu Ghraib torture pictures: one of sheer disgust.

**Viewer Discretion Advised for all Exhibits!!

Exhibit 1: Pictures of the Abu Ghraib Prisoners


Source: Antiwar.com (2006, February 7th), “Abu Ghraib Abuse Photos,” retrieved at http://www.antiwar.com/news/?articleid=8560.  PS: these are the G-rated photos that I found, if you want to see the full extent of the horrors, click on the link.

Exhibit 2: Prisoner’s Description of Tortures

Source: The Washington Post (2004), “Sworn Statements by Abu Ghraib Detainees,” retrieved at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/world/iraq/abughraib/swornstatements042104.html.

Exhibit 3: Soldiers’ Accounts According to Taguba


Source: Major General Antonio Taguba, U.S. Department of the Army (2004), “Article 15-6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade 15,” retrieved at http://www.npr.org/iraq/2004/prison_abuse_report.pdf.

Exhibit 4: Quotes From Frederick’s Emails Back Home


Source: Rebecca Leung (2009, February 11), CBS News, “Abuse of Iraqi POWs by GIs Probed,” retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/2102-3475_162-614063.html?tag=contentMain;contentBody.

[i] Seymour M. Hersh (2004, May 1), Annals of National Security: Torture at Abu Ghraib, The New Yorker, May 10, 2004, retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/05/10/040510fa_fact?printable=true.

[ii] Rebecca Leung (2009, February 11), CBS News, “Abuse of Iraqi POWs by GIs Probed,” retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/2102-3475_162-614063.html?tag=contentMain;contentBody.

[iii] The Washington Post (2004), “Chronology of Abu Ghraib,” retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/world/daily/graphics/abughraib_050904.htm.

[iv] Seymour M. Hersh.

[v] Mark Hosenball, John Barry, & Babak Dehghanpisheh (2004, May 16), Abu Ghraib and Beyond, Newsweek, retrieved at http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2004/05/16/abu-ghraib-and-beyond.print.html.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Major General Donald Ryder, U.S. Department of the Army Office of the Provost Marshal General (2003), “Report on Detention and Corrections Operations in Iraq,” retrieved at http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/OathBetrayed/Ryder%20Report.pdf, p. 30. Hereinafter known as Ryder Report.

[x] Ibid, p. 67.

[xi] Seymour M. Hersh, p. 4.

[xii] Ibid, p. 3.

[xiii] Ibid, p. 2.

[xiv] Major General Antonio Taguba, U.S. Department of the Army (2004), “Article 15-6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade 15,” retrieved at http://www.npr.org/iraq/2004/prison_abuse_report.pdf, p. 18. Hereinafter known as Taguba Report.

[xv] Ibid, p. 18.

[xvi] Phillip Carter (2004, November), The Road to Abu Ghraib: The biggest scandal of the Bush administration began at the top, Washington Monthly, retrieved at http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2004/0411.carter.html

[xvii] Mark Rosenball, John Barry, & Babak Dehghanpisheh.

[xviii] Taguba Report, p. 22.

[xix] Rebecca Leung, p 3.

[xx] Norman E. Bowie, “A Kantian Approach to Business Ethics,” p. 5.

[xxi] Ibid, p. 10.

[xxii] Milton Friedman, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits,”
Corporate Ethics and Corporate Governance, 2007, p. 175.

[xxiii] Milton Snoeyenbos and James Humber, “Utilitarianism and business ethics,” p. 17.

[xxiv]  Seymour M. Hersh, p. 8.

About Derek

I am a senior at Bucknell University where I am double majoring in Management and Psychology.


4 thoughts on “A Dark Place: Abu Ghraib and Its Ethics

  1. Reading your Paper 2 was very eye opening, as I didn’t know many of the things that went on in Abu Ghraib, I just knew some vague things that had occurred. It was also very interesting to see how you went about characterizing and analyzing the ethical responsbilities of a government, something we might not have touched on as much in class. Bringing up ethical perspectives, such as those of Friedman and Kant, really show what ethical standard a government must live up to, even in war times. There is always the question of what ethically is expected of a government during war times, as these events neccesitate violence and other processes than those of peace time. You did a great job of applying the ethical perspectives to the Abu Ghraib case and how these events were terrible in so many ways.

    Posted by Ben K. | April 11, 2012, 2:01 pm
  2. THose exhibits are powerful.

    Posted by Jordi | April 12, 2012, 7:52 am
  3. Like Ben, I was unaware of the situation in Abu Ghraib and the extent of the actions of US soldiers. The descriptions are pretty disturbing and it definitely brings up an ethical dilemma. I’m curious about how the US has dealt with this situation. Other than being relieved of their duties, were the soldiers punished or held liable in US court? How has the US dealt with the higher ranking officials, are they still holding their positions? I realize this information may not be available.

    Posted by Lauren Daley | April 12, 2012, 12:55 pm
  4. Great questions, Lauren and Ben. In general, Karpinski, the Big Gen, was the highest serving officer relieved of duty. Anthony Taguba testified powerfully in Congress. But, my recollection is that no one in military intelligence or civilian intelligence ever answered for their actions. Plausible deniability (“They couldn’t have understood me to do THAT to them”) seems one excuse. Plus, between Congress, the military, and the Bush administration, no one wanted to probe too far. The Obama administration I think also declined to do much about this.

    Now, we still run prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, I assume. I do not know if conditions have changed.

    Posted by Jordi | April 24, 2012, 3:43 pm

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