The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

I WAS A GUARD AT ABU GHRAIB

Delivered 5/16/04
Text: Revelation 21:10, 21:22-22:5
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These past couple of weeks have been painful. The hurt started with the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, and was aggravated as our national leaders testified to Congress as to how upset they were - not so much upset by the abuse and humiliation of prisoners, but upset that the pictures had become public, made us as a nation look bad, and that they were being called to account for it. Very sad. Very, very sad.

How could this happen? And we cannot excuse it by saying what Saddam did was worse - my atrocity is not as bad as your atrocity is not much of an argument. We were supposed to be "the good guys." This war was presented to us first, as the only way we could protect ourselves from the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam had aimed at us, then as the only way to rid the globe of a horrible and dangerous dictator who would not hesitate to use torture to get his way, and finally as the way to show the Arab and Muslim world an Iraq governed by a popular democracy that could serve as a wonderful example for the Middle East as we move into the 21st century. What a mess. What we have now is a problem with the Arab and Muslim world that will be with us for a long, long, long time. As one columnist wrote, "seldom has such harm been done to so many by so few."(1)

What bothers you most about those pictures? There may be as many answers to that as there are people here, but for me, I am not so much concerned by all the naked bodies, the hoods, the dangling wires and the dog leash. I am concerned about the all-American girl in the pictures, the smiling face of Lynndie England, a Private First Class in the Army Reserves from a small town in West Virginia. This is the girl next door, just like another young West Virginian, Jessica Lynch. Is this, as military commanders, members of the Administration and, indeed, the Commander-in-Chief have been quick to state, simply a matter of "bad apples?" Is President Bush correct in saying that they are an exceptional "few" whose actions "do not reflect the nature of the men and women who serve our country?"

Well, for what it is worth, the families and friends of the accused say the very opposite is true. There is nothing exceptional about Lynndie and her comrades. They are normal, patriotic Americans who put their lives on the line to serve their country but went astray because they followed orders. Is that true?

Those accused so far are all members of the 372nd Military Police Company, a unit of reservists from Appalachia who were trained to be traffic cops, not prison guards (which, in itself, says something about what is happening over there). In fact, their first assignment in Iraq last summer was in keeping with their training: directing traffic, leading convoys, keeping roads open. Many had signed on as teenagers, as Lynndie England did, to get some extra income and, down the road, college benefits - she dreamed of becoming a storm-chasing meteorologist, according to her family. They all anticipated serving one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer but knew they could be called up in case of a national emergency. They did not figure on being shipped halfway around the world, but they were willing. Patriotism runs deep in their part of the country.

Suddenly, last October, these patriotic traffic cops were assigned a new duty - Abu Ghraib, the prison made infamous as Saddam Hussein's national torture chamber. This is where things began to unravel. Army regulations limit the intelligence-gathering role of MP's to "passive collection" (simply passing on information that they might overhear), but members of the 372nd found themselves fielding requests from military intelligence officers, who were in charge of part of the prison, to "set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses." In other words, soften 'em up. This is according to Major General Antonio Taguba who investigated all this. So they did. And the result is what we have been treated to on television for these past couple of weeks.

Bad apples? Just following orders? I am less concerned by those questions than I am by what I know to be true. I would love to find some scapegoat in all this, but the truth is that this happened because they were normal human beings, just like you and me. Psychologists and historians who study torture know it and report it. Under certain circumstances, almost anyone has the capacity to commit the atrocities seen in the photos that have shocked the world. I was a guard at Abu Ghraib. And so probably were you.

According to an article in this week's TIME magazine,(2) psychologists who have studied torture and prisoner abuse say it is remarkably easy for people to lapse into sadistic behavior when they have complete power over other human beings, especially if they feel the behavior has been sanctioned by an authority figure. In a classic series of studies conducted at Yale in the 1960's, psychologist Stanley Milgram showed that psychologically healthy volunteers did not hesitate to administer what they thought were electric shocks to another human being when instructed to do so by a researcher. Two-thirds followed instructions and kept raising the voltage - right up to levels marked danger: severe shock and XXX. Milgram found that compliance was greatest when participants could not see the face of their subject (although they could hear an actor's fake screams) and when they took their instructions from an official-looking scientist in a white lab coat.

The study that probably has the most direct bearing on Abu Ghraib is one that was conducted at Stanford University in 1971.(3) It offered the world a videotaped demonstration of how ordinary people - middle-class college students - can do things they would have never believed they were capable of doing. Details of the experiment are well known and are included in most basic psychology texts. "60 Minutes" has done a segment on the experiment. I am told there is even a punk rock band called the Stanford Prison Experiment.

On Sunday morning, August 17, 1971, nine young men were "arrested" in their homes by Palo Alto police. They were among some 70 young men, mostly college students eager to earn $15 a day for two weeks, who volunteered as subjects for an experiment on prison life. After interviews and a battery of psychological tests, the two dozen judged to be the most normal, average and healthy were selected to participate, and assigned randomly either to be guards or prisoners. Those who would be prisoners were booked at a real jail, then blindfolded and driven to campus where they were led into a makeshift prison. Those assigned to be guards were given uniforms and instructed that they were not to use violence but that their job was to maintain control of the prison.

From the perspective of the researchers, the experiment became exciting on day two when the prisoners staged a revolt. Once the guards had crushed the rebellion, "they steadily increased their coercive aggression tactics, humiliation and dehumanization of the prisoners." That is the recollection of Dr. Phillip Zimbardo who oversaw the experiment. "The staff had to frequently remind the guards to refrain from such tactics," he said, and the worst instances of abuse occurred in the middle of the night when the guards thought the staff was not watching. It got so bad, so sick and sadistic, so quickly, that the entire experiment had to be cancelled after only six days. Good people have the capacity within them to do horrible things.

And by the way, being a person of faith does not offer immunity from awful behavior. We got a reminder of that this week when the government announced it is reopening the investigation into the murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till in Mississippi in 1955 that galvanized the civil rights movement. What was the norm back then in that most publically-pious part of the country? Verbal abuse, psychological abuse, physical torture, shootings and lynchings. Where were the Christians when this was going on? Right there, unfortunately. Some directly involved. Some passively involved by doing nothing. A comparative few saying this ought not to be. Christians.

We ask again what we asked at the beginning of this, "How could this happen?" The quick answer is that there is evil in the world that is beyond imagining, and whether we like it or not, regardless of all our self-righteous national protestations, we are caught up in it.

Fortunately, that is not the final word. Our lesson from Revelation provides what Paul Harvey calls "the rest of the story." The text is part of the Bible's vision of the consummation of history. After all the persecutions and battles and disasters presented in the first part of Revelation, finally the powers of evil are defeated and the holy city comes down out of heaven to a renewed earth. That in itself is something of a surprise because we are so used to the idea that salvation means finally "going to heaven."

But then there is another surprise. Throughout Revelation the nations of the earth and their kings seem to have been uniformly fighting against God and God's people. But now here come "the kings of the earth" riding through the gates of the New Jerusalem to "bring their splendor into it." And just so we do not miss the point, it is repeated: "The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it." That means all the good that has been accomplished in history, no matter by whom it may have been done. But there are things that are excluded -- "Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful." There is an ultimate divine judgment of value. That raises another question for us: when all is said and done, which of the accomplishments of our nation will be within the walls of the holy city and which will have to be left outside?

As you know, I have made no secret of my opposition to this war since the beginning. So saying, I know there are many others who were convinced that we had no choice but to proceed in this direction. Whether, as Secretary of State Powell has said, the events at Abu Ghraib become this war's version of Viet Nam's My Lai massacre that causes a national reassessment, only time will tell. One way or the other, my prayer is that it ends soon and our troops can come home.

I wish the atrocities at Abu Ghraib had never happened. But, I understand how they did. Given the right circumstances, that could have been me or you over there. But if we had been, my hope is that we would have been the ones who blew the whistle.

In 1629, in a sermon preached on board the ship the Arabella, John Winthrop, the soon-to-be governor of the Plymouth colony, offered a vision of what this new world might become. The sermon was titled "A Model of Christian Charity" and aimed to inspire the travelers to establish the most devout, pious, and righteous society ever known, one that could be an example for the rest of the world. He says, "We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.(4) That is even more true now than it was almost 400 years ago. The world IS watching, and now can see us, for good or ill, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Please, God, help us do it right.

Amen!


1. Nancy Gibbs, "Their Humiliation, and Ours," TIME, 5/17/04, p. 88

2. Claudia Wallis, "Why Did They Do It?", TIME, 5/17/04, p. 42

3. "The Stanford Prison Experiment: Still powerful after all these years," Stanford University News Service, http://www.stanford.edu/dept/news/relaged/970108prisonexp.html

4. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, p. 180 quoted in "The Immediate Word," an internet resource for preaching at http://www.csspub.com

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