The Abu Ghraib Torture Scandal: The Effects of Obedience to Authority and Situational Powers

By Kathleen Cuyugan

Essay CuyuganWritten for a rhetoric and composition class, the essay by sophomore explores the torture scandal in the context of psychological experiments conducted by social psychologists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo. Both demonstrated that everyday people could commit torturous acts when blinded by an obedience to authority.

Because Cuyugan was learning about the experiments during a psychology class she was taking at the time, exploring their connection to Abu Ghraib seemed a natural topic.

“Before delving into such a dark and complex topic, I never had to ask myself questions like would I have stopped the other soldiers from torturing the detainees? Obviously I would have said to myself, ‘Of course,’” Cuyugan said. “Yet you can’t say what you would do unless you were in that situation. Being in that mental state of war, fatigue, constantly being under attack, you could never know how you would react to anything. I think truthfully accepting that it could have happened to me was the most mortifying challenge.”

“THE ULTIMATE MEASURE OF A MAN,” Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) observed, “is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” King (1929-1968) wisely observed how the power of a situation can jeopardize a person’s principles and character. During the War on Terror many soldiers have had to put their values to the test—one of the cruelest examples is Abu Ghraib. The scandal at Abu Ghraib sent shock waves all over the world. People were mortified by the fact that these American soldiers were taking pride and pleasure in their acts of torture, going as far as gleefully taking photographs with detainees. Once news broke out, General Richard B. Myers and several others quickly blamed the scandal on a “few bad apples”—but can those involved in Abu Ghraib be subjected to such a mundane stereotype, or does the problem run much deeper (Zimbardo, 2007)? Is there another way to explain how seemingly “normal” citizens can commit such heinous crimes? In the 1960s and 1970s, Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo—revolutionary social psychologists—tried to explain the reasons for blind human obedience and the power of the situation on behavior. Perhaps in looking at the results in their studies, people can learn and be aware of the situation and prevent another Abu Ghraib.

“When you think of the long and gloomy history of man,” C.P Snow (1969), a British novelist and scientist, reported, “you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion” (as cited in Milgram, 1973, p. 93). Unfortunately, this forceful observation by C.P. Snow is a reality—a reality that Stanley Milgram, an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at Yale University, tried to research with his studies on blind obedience to authority. Milgram was appalled by the events during World War II and how the German people could allow the genocide of millions of Jews so he began his Obedience to Authority experiments in the early 1960s (Milgram, 1963). Milgram (1963) and his colleagues put out advertisements in the local papers looking for research participants and chose 40 men from the ages of 20-40. The participants were deceived and told that the experiment was to see how well people learned with punishment. The 40 males were assigned as teachers, while a paid actor was the learner. Milgram told the teachers to use the shock generator (a box with 30 voltage levels that went from 15-450 volts) and administer shocks progressively for every wrong answer to word pair questions (Milgram, 1963).

The learner (a paid actor by Milgram) was placed in another room and strapped to the other side of the shock generator; while the teacher and authoritative figure went to the next room with the shock generator control box. The teacher would then ask a series of word pair questions to the learner until he got to the last voltage level (450 volts). However, the teacher was blind to the fact that the learner wasn’t getting hurt—just playing a pre-recorded tape.

If at any point the teacher was struggling or didn’t want to continue, the authoritative figure would blankly state some pre-written prompts like “please continue” or “you have no other choice, youmust go on” (Milgram, 1963, p. 103). The part of the study that continues to shock the world is that of the 40 men, only 14 stopped the experiment; the rest struggled through the experiment and could be visually observed undergoing intense stress—yet they continued. As each of them progressed to a higher voltage level on the shock generator the learner increasingly expressed his pain, up to a point where he stopped responding. The men continued to give the shocks even though they were aware that it was wrong, and interestingly enough it gave them some relief when they put the responsibility of the learner’s health on the authoritative figure. Many other participants also reacted to the shocks with nervous laughter. Why is that if people feel the need to please what we deem as “authoritative figures”?

Despite the fact that a majority of the teachers went on to the last level of shocks, they were in a state of conflict and unsure of what they were doing. Milgram asked why is it that it is so easy to continue committing immoral and unethical actions if blame is placed on someone else? This study revolutionized social psychology and the outlook on obedience because it reveals human nature’s tendency to follow orders given to them by what they deemed as an authoritative figure, even when they know it is wrong; and how average, good people can easily fall to the power of a situation.

The Milgram behavioral study of obedience greatly impacted the way social psychologists examined human behavior and gave new pathways for another psychologist—specifically, Philip Zimbardo. The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment by Philip Zimbardo is also one of the most controversial studies ever conducted; it completely changed the way we view human behavior and how the untrained administrators of torture were treated. Zimbardo and his colleagues Craig Haney, W. Curtis Banks, and David Jaffe originally conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment to see how “the process by which people adapt to the novel and alien environment in which those called ‘prisoners’ lose their liberty, civil rights, independence and privacy, while those called ‘guards’ gain social power by accepting the responsibility for controlling and managing the lives of their dependent charges” (1975, p. 62). The Stanford Prison Experiment began on August 14, 1971, where 24 "normal and healthy" students were chosen to participate in the three week study for $15 a day. Prior to being selected, all of them were subjected to various analysis tests to determine that they were all psychologically stable enough to undergo the experiment. Half were randomly selected to be guards and the other half were selected to be prisoners.

Zimbardo (1975) was easily able to set up an arrangement with the Palo Alto Police Department to allow them to simulate a mock arrest of the prisoners (actually going to their homes and arresting them) because of recent war protests at Stanford. The shocked prisoners were arrested and brought to the basement of Stanford University’s Psychology Building where they were put through a booking process; each “prisoner” was stripped naked, given a smock (dress-like uniform) with no underwear that contained their new identity (their number), made to wear a nylon covering on their head to simulate a shaven head. They also had to put a chain around their ankle to symbolize their loss of freedom. On the other hand, the guards were given khaki uniforms, sunglasses (which later evolved to be a mask), billy clubs, handcuffs, whistles, and keys. Before the prisoners were brought to the “jail” Zimbardo and his colleagues gave the guards instructions to “maintain law and order, to use their billy clubs as only symbolic weapons and not actual ones, and to realize that if the prisoners escaped the study would be terminated” (2000, p. 201). Each of the three cells had hidden microphones and video cameras; and the hall where the guards stayed had also been bugged. In addition, a storage closet was made into a solitary confinement room called “the Hole” (Zimbardo, 2000).

To further the effect of loss of freedom on the prisoners, the guards were to be referred to as “Mr. Correctional Officer” while the prisoners were merely called by their numbers (Zimbardo, 1975). Zimbardo and his colleagues were directly involved with the experiment ; Zimbardo himself was named the Superintendent of the “jail” (which he later expresses was a mistake because it allowed him to also get caught up in the situation) and Jaffe was the Warden (1975). On the first day, Zimbardo (Gibney, 2006) was skeptical if the study was going to work because the prisoners were treating the guards as if they were a joke, and the guards acted awkwardly when they were trying to control the prisoners. However, the situation quickly began to change when one of the guards that the prisoners referred to as “John Wayne,” began to get more violent. The guard later confessed that he wanted to see how far he could go before someone tried to stop him—however, no one did stop him; many followed his behavior or looked away. On the second day, the prisoners began to stage a rebellion—led by prisoner 8612—and the guards had to quickly find a way to bring the prison back to “law and order” with no instruction from the Warden (Jaffe) or the Superintendent (Zimbardo). The guards used many tactics such as harsh physical punishment (such as numerous push-ups) and sleep deprivation. Then prisoner 8612 tried to act crazy so he could get out of the experiment, and had a talk with Zimbardo, Jaffe, and Haney. They gave him the choice to become a “scout” and tell them the thoughts of the prisoners and in return, they would give him special treatment. Prisoner 8612 left the office confused and told the rest of the prisoners that there was no way out of the experiment—a major turning point because now the prisoners no longer felt as if they were in an experiment, but an actual prison. Later that night prisoner 8612 had an extreme stress break down and had to be released. After that a prisoner had to be released every day due to similar breaks: one prisoner (816) actually broke out in full body hives.

There was also a drastic change in the behavior of the guards because “as the guards became more aggressive, prisoners became more passive; assertion by the guards led to dependency in the prisoners; self-aggrandizement was met with self-depreciation, authority with helplessness, and the counterpart of the guards’ sense of mastery and control was the depression and hopelessness witnessed in the prisoners” (Zimbardo, Haney, Banks, & Jaffe, 1975, p. 66). After a few days, the guards tried a psychological way of getting the prisoners to do what they wanted by setting up a “privilege cell” for the prisoners who behaved. On the other hand, those who rebelled were sleep deprived, forced to eat, stripped of their bedding, and put in “the Hole” for hours on end (Zimbardo, 2007). This experiment continued until the sixth day where Zimbardo had to suddenly and prematurely end it.

On the fifth day, Zimbardo invited his girlfriend (now wife) Christina Maslach, a recent graduate student from Stanford University in psychology, to see what Zimbardo pictured as an amazing social psychology experiment (Gibney, 2006). She came excited, but when she got there she saw something that mortified her because she couldn’t believe what Zimbardo and his colleagues were doing to the students. Maslach saw the students in their smocks and bags over their heads as they went in a single file line to the bathroom across the hall. Appalled, she got into a huge argument with Zimbardo and his colleagues, telling them how their experiment had gone awry: while they argued what kind of psychologist she was that she couldn’t see the beauty of the experiment. After a long discussion, Maslach, in tears, told Zimbardo that she didn’t even know who he was anymore and didn’t like what he was doing (Gibney, Maslach, 2006). This stunned Zimbardo and after deep thought he realized that he, too, had gotten caught up in the power of the situation and immediately decided to terminate the experiment.

When the experiment was over, all of the prisoners and guards had to undergo therapy to reestablish psychological stability. The world was shocked by the experiment not only for its ethics, but for how rapidly human behavior changed in only six days. One of the guards wrote in his journal, “I was surprised at myself…I made them call each other names and clean the toilets out with their bare hands. I practically considered the prisoners cattle, and kept thinking I have to watch out for them in case they try something” (Zimbardo, 1975, p. 67). The results of the Stanford Prison Experiment brought a new and disturbing light on human behavior and how the power of the situation can either bring one to complete hopelessness or complete corruption. The change happened so quickly that even Zimbardo was blinded and needed an outsider’s eyes to see the evolution of behavior and its damaging effects. More than thirty years later, the Milgram and Zimbardo studies are still being taught in classrooms all over the world because of their messages about obedience and situational effects on behavior. One of the more recent and mortifying examples of the Obedience and Prison experiments is the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib.

Abu Ghraib, one of the world’s most notorious prisons, is located in Iraq, a few miles away from Baghdad. It was the prison where thousands of Iraqis (men, women, and children) were violently killed and tortured during the infamous regime of Saddam Hussein. Ironically, the United States Armed Forces were vehemently disgraced when extremely graphic photos of soldiers committing torture crimes were released on CBS’s 60 Minutes II on April 28, 2004 (Frontline, 2006). The news broke out when a confidential 53-page report written by the second-highest ranked Filipino-American General Antonio Taguba was leaked to the press (Taguba was recently forced into retirement). The entire world was shocked by the photos because not only were American soldiers committing the crimes, but it also resembled My Lai (a horrendous massacre that occurred in Vietnam on March 16, 1968 by U.S. solders who had killed hundreds of civilians—men, women, and children) because in both situations soldiers blindly obeyed authority when they knew better. To Zimbardo the photos of naked detainees with sandbags covering their faces stoke a remarkable resemblance to the Stanford Prison Experiment; directly relating the experiment, unfortunately, to a very real-life situation. Abu Ghraib was handled similarly to the Stanford Prison—from Donald Rumsfeld’s involvement to the military soldiers conducting the dreadful acts.

Clearly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the American public and Congress wanted action in order to prevent the situation from reoccurring and to track down who had done such vile crimes. John Yoo, one of Bush’s attorneys, quickly wrote a resolution that gave President Bush, essentially, absolute power by proclaiming,

…to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons. (Frontline, 2006)

A statement that is so broad, giving the President power to do whatever he feels necessary to fight against who he deemed as terrorists. Then on September 16, 2001 Vice President Dick Cheney went on camera and said that the government will have to “work through, sort of, the dark side…spend some time in the shadows in the intelligence world”; however, when is it ever justified to knowingly use wrong deeds to get the information (Frontline, 2006)?

Soon soldiers arrived in the Middle East and began accumulating prisoners, but they didn’t have a place to put them for interrogations so officials decided to station them at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (also known as “Gitmo”). However, the White House had to make some important decisions first—for example, if the prisoners were considered protected under the Geneva Convention.  According to the William Haynes (2002), the White House concluded that there are two categories of Enemy Combatants, “lawful combatants [who] receive prisoner of war (POW) status and the protections of the Third Geneva Convention [and] unlawful combatants [who] do not receive POW status and do not receive the full protections of the Third Geneva Convention.” All detainees from the War on Terror are considered unlawful combatants, which allows the United States to perform various acts on the detainees without punishment (Haynes, 2002). After months of interrogations by Military Interrogators (MIs) not much useful information was attained and Rumsfeld began to get very impatient and recruited General Geoffrey Miller to enhance the progress. Gen. Miller enforced brutal tactics and sent a memo to Rumsfeld asking for approval of new torture techniques such as the use of dogs and stress positions. Rumsfeld approved the memo and even hand-wrote on the bottom, “However, I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?” (Rumsfeld, 2002 as cited by Greenberg & Dratel, 2005, p. 237).

At the same time the Bush Administration began to realize that a prison must be set up in Iraq because there was a growing accumulation of captives that couldn’t be sent all the way to Gitmo; and Abu Ghraib seemed to be the perfect place: not only for its reputation, but for its location. Officials sent in General Janis Kapinski to lead numerous prisons in the area, the main one being Abu Ghraib (she had no prior experience controlling a prison) (Hersh, 2004). Thousands of prisoners started flowing into Abu Ghraib. Some were important terrorists, while many were bystanders picked up during random military checks. Most of the soldiers chosen to interrogate the prisoners had no previous training on how to “break” or “loosen up” the detainees—in fact all of them were trained to strictly follow the Geneva Convention, which had been dismissed by Bush.

This led to the soldiers using various tactics to try to get information out of the “terrorists” such as using dogs (which soldiers knew that the Iraqis were afraid of and threatening to release the dogs on them), beating the prisoners, stripping them naked and making them perform sexual acts, and forcing them to stand in stressful situations for hours on end. The area with the most notorious record was Tier 1 A and B, where the “Abu Ghraib Seven” was located (Zimbardo, 2007). Ken Davis, an Army Reservist that was at Abu Ghraib, recalls Specialist Charles Graner telling him the reason he committed the crimes is that the higher up would “tell him that every time a bomb goes off, that’s another American losing their life and unless you help, their blood is on you hands as well” (Gibney, 2006).  These types of psychological tactics used on the soldiers generated anger toward the prisoners—some had done nothing wrong—and presented an environment where complete control over a person can cause a total transformation in human behavior and corrupt someone. At one point a prisoner was beaten so badly that he actually died (in order to cover-up the death the body was wrapped in ice and then the medics came in the morning). The medics placed a “fake IV” on the prisoner and whisked him away (Hersh, 2004). However, the photos of the man lying in ice with a woman standing over him brightly smiling are forever enduring.

General Miller was relocated from Gitmo to Abu Ghraib a few months before the scandal broke out and repeatedly told the soldiers that “[Iraqis] are nothing but dogs,” which can explain why one of the pictures with Private England had her pulling a detainee by the neck with a rope as if he were a dog (Gibney, 2006). This situation, treating the prisoners less than human, sounds strikingly familiar to the Stanford Prison Experiment where the guards began to treat the prisoners like “cattle” (Zimbardo, 1975). There is no excuse for the horrendous crimes that were committed at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay; however, there are ways of explaining what happened and why.

Just like the Milgram study of Obedience to Authority, the military runs on commanding obedience, and in this case no one defied the orders—even when they knew it was wrong. In the Stanford Prison Experiment all of the chosen guards had no training—a situation that is exactly the same as Abu Ghraib, where not only did the commanding General have no training (Kapinski), but often the Military Police had to conduct interrogations that they never knew how to do. Furthermore, the entire battalion was under intense pressure from the White House to produce results and information as quickly as possible creating an atmosphere of extreme tension (on top of the fact that the prison was under constant attack and in the middle of a combat zone). Control had to be quickly obtained from detainees and as clearly seen in the Stanford Prison Experiment complete control over a person can cause immediate changes in behavior from a “good and normal person” to someone committing “sadistic” crimes (Taguba, 2004).

When the scandal of Abu Ghraib broke out the White House and Military blamed the occurrences on a “few bad apples” and none of the officials got charged with the crimes (Zimbardo, 2007). According to Zimbardo (2006), the apples weren’t bad, the barrel was bad. The crimes at Abu Ghraib must never be forgotten; they must be embraced and used to learn from because it is the dark side of human behavior that many people like to deny. In the words of Zimbardo (2006):

It is the rare person who’s able to be in that situation and resist. It’s the majority who conform, who comply…who obey authority…who do these things. And that’s what nobody wants to hear. We want to all think we’re heroes; if we were in that situation, we’d be different. Maybe that’s true. But heroes are rare, in any society. They… are the exception. The rule is the majority…the base rate is what the average person would do. And so, so the big message … is that if you imagine yourself in those [situations]…you have to say, it’s likely I would do what the majority did. And I’m not that special. I’m an ordinary person, and they were ordinary people.

There is no justification for the crimes that Graner or any of the other soldiers committed, but the Milgram and Zimbardo studies show how to understand how and why it happens. Almost everyone who reads about the horrendous acts would say to themselves, “I would never do that,” but one can never say how they would react in a particular situation until they have experienced it. All of the participants in the Milgram and Zimbardo studies were seemingly “normal” yet they turned their backs on their morals when an authoritative figure was pressing them to do something or when they believed that they weren’t being watched. Just like the Stanford Prison Experiment, most of the Abu Ghraib abuses were occurring during the night shift—when the soldiers thought no one was looking. Soldiers were so caught up in the situation that they felt free enough to smile and take photographs with the beaten or dead detainees. According to Taguba, they even put the pictures as their screensavers (2007). 

The key to the prevention of another Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay is awareness—awareness of the power of a situation: and being able to step back and understand what is happening. The Milgram and Zimbardo studies give examples of how human behavior changes in a situation presented in a particular environment. It is up to those who have the knowledge to have perspective and recognize when they are in those situations. Also, we must spread the information about Milgram’s (1974) “perils of obedience” to more people in the hope that we can generate change—change so that the majority will be aware, and therefore, question authority. Milgram (1974 as cited in Blass, 2000, p. 35) astutely observed, “It may be that we are puppets—puppets controlled by the strings of society. But at least we are puppets with perception, with awareness. And perhaps our awareness is the first step to our liberation.”



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