Monday, February 13, 2012


In think Phillips brought up some important questions in the opening pages of his book. Thus far, we have focused largely on photographs and their efficacy, or possible lack thereof, in preventing violence.  As Sontag concludes and as we discussed on Thursday, such excessive analysis of photographs creates distance and can be problematic in that people begin to obsess over the photographs themselves instead of acknowledging the actual content of the photographs, a far more challenging task. Photographs serve a function in so far as they can make things “real,” as Sontag discusses regarding the Bush administration and the photos of Abu Ghraib.  However, once photographs have brought such issues to light it is critical that we shift our focus from the photographs to the actual content they depict in order to make any sort of progress in understanding and preventing violence. 

Phillips asks the important question of why American soldiers turned to torture. Moreover, what causes soldiers to deem torture acceptable in the context of war?  In his introduction, Phillips briefly outlines various psychological studies that suggest that perfectly normal, moral human beings will engage in violent and abusive behavior under certain conditions.  This is exemplified in Phillips book and the This American Life episode, both of which elucidate the transformative effects of war on soldiers.  I also saw evidence of this in the Brody article when he discusses the labeling of Afghan prisoners as “enemy combatants” as opposed to soldiers, which one U.S. soldier expressed made him more comfortable with abusing detainees.  When I read this I couldn’t help but wonder why this distinction made a difference. What circumstances led this soldier to reason that torturing soldiers was morally wrong, but torturing enemy combatants was justified?  Phillips also briefly questions why torture is still permitted when most Americans oppose it and scientific evidence suggests that torture is a relatively ineffective means of obtaining information.  Thus, it seems that lower level soldiers turn to torture more as the result of psychological turmoil than as an attempt to advance a political agenda.

When looking to understand torture from a political perspective, as Brody argues, it is critical to acknowledge the structural causes that have led to the acceptance of the use of torture.  Criticizing the lower level individuals who actually carry out torture is relatively useless when we recognize this as a psychological phenomenon.  As Phillips suggests, many individuals can be moved to abusive and cruel actions under unimaginably stressful circumstances.  The real issue, then, is why individuals in higher positions of authority have approved such tactics.  This is particularly critical to question, as Sontag points out, when our entire justification for using torture in the first place is the prevention of similar acts being taken against the U.S.  It is difficult to declare to want to liberate Iraqis from oppressive situations when we ourselves our oppressing them.  In other words, how can we possibly expect other countries to take seriously our claims that we want to liberate them by establishing governance rooted in virtues that we clearly lack ourselves?


  1. I agree that it is very interesting to think about how much focus gets put on these pictures of torture. When these pictures come out, everyone focuses on the individual act, the particular offense that is being shown. They fail to recognize that the single act functions in an entire system. The single image serves to both dramatize and downplay the torture at once. On the one hand, the images cause outrage and the soldiers are condemned for their specific offenses. On the other hand, the images cultivate the belief that these are individual acts, when they are, in fact, a symptom of systemic defects. In viewing these photographs, people need to take the focus off of their singular nature and interpret them for what they are: just the surface of a bigger structural problem.
    Another factor that must be considered when talking about specific acts of torture is the age and learned obedience of these soldiers. In “This American Life,” the soldiers talk about how difficult it is just to survive during the war. One line that really stuck with me was from the young soldier when he says he came home and “bought [his] first legal beer.” These are very young men and woman overseas who go through intensive training to learn obedience to authority. It is important that we hold the entire chain of command responsible for these offenses. It is easy for the blame to be disseminated when commands are being given and taken. Again, it is not the specific acts or command that needs to be the focus when discussing this in a political context. It is most important that we focus on the structural problems.

  2. I agree with Britt about holding the entire chain of common responsible for these offenses. At first glance it was easy for me to think what cruel people the soldiers are for doing these acts of torture at Abu Ghraib but after some thinking two interesting points came to mind. First like Britt said these soldiers are just a product of the system, if a person of higher rank says "jump" they ask "how high". This submission to authority has been drilled into their heads since they showed up for boot camp. If you are told insubordination is one of the most disrespectful things you could do while serving your country you are more likely to listen to whatever your commanding officer says regardless if it is morally correct or not. That was the first point and the other thing that came to mind was what if these acts of torture were a sort of revenge for the soldiers committing the acts (Im not saying the acts committed were right). What if these soldiers had family members who were killed in 9/11 or what if they had fellow soldiers who were taken in Iraq and tortured. We do not know the exact circumstances behind the situation. We want to all act like we would take the higher road but we are not in these soldiers shoes, thousands of miles away from their safe American home. They are in the battle field, we cannot begin to fathom the things they have experienced or seen. They could have very well become desensitized to these situations. We don't know because we have not experience. We all want to say we wouldn't do these things but if we really put ourselves in their shoes and lived the lives they lived would the outcomes be any different?

  3. Hi Laura,
    Laura, I think you asked the same questions I have when I was reading the articles and listening to the radio. I also further question the nature of human being, which will soon drive me crazy.
    Anyway, back to your post and questions, I somehow understand when Phillips argued that the act of calling the Afghan soldiers "enemy combatants" "helps" American soldiers feel better when they torture those "combatants." It would be easier to understand if you think of it as being parallel to the act of using the word "incident" instead of "accident" to explain whatever abnormal things happening on a flying plane or parallel to the use of the word "postponed success" instead of "Fail." The euphemisms make people feel better about the situation, even though they do not change reality. The word “enemy combatants” implies two things to me. First, “enemy” is the word we use to refer to someone we don’t like, someone actively wants to harm our wellbeing. It is either the enemies or us because if they have the chance, they will do everything to harm us. The word “combatant” adds to the meaning of the word enemy the notion of dangerous, armed, and murderous enemy, not just a normal enemy. So, over all, “enemy combatant” will evoke the image of evil people, and at the same time, the image of us as good people doing the right things, even if those “right things” include torturing and humiliating other people. On the other hand, when we use the word “soldier” to refer to the people we want to get information, the name might evoke sympathy because the American soldiers call themselves soldiers too.
    Regarding the use and effectiveness of torture, I agree with you when you said it must be the result of psychological turmoil rather than the mean to obtain information. We don’t know what happened to those soldiers torturing the prisoners. And even though they put their thumbs up while posing for the pictures and seem very happy, they might be haunted by what they did. The trauma of war might not because of experiencing torture but because of inducing pain onto other and haunted by the images.
    Below is the link about a sociological experiment done a long time ago about how normal people can easily turn into violent people under the right circumstances. I hope that you have the chance to see it, because it takes a lot about human nature and evil.