May 09, 2004

Instilling Obedience and Denial, Continued

From an entry of mine only several days ago, about the obedience-denial mechanism so crucial to the military and prison command structure:
With regard to the comments that [Jeremy] Sivits would only have done this if "he was ordered to do it," one would think that people would not be so eager to fall back on the "I was only following orders" excuse, given that excuse's historical provenance and uses in the twentieth century. That observation, of course, depends on people's knowing the relevant history and understanding its significance, which many of these people might not. (The article is also disturbingly similar to all those stories about the "boy next door" who turns out to have been a serial killer -- when all his neighbors talk about what "a nice, sweet, gentle boy" he was. All that such stories reveal is how unperceptive the majority of people are about psychology, and how they allow themselves to be deceived by superficial appearances.)

The more important point is that there is a certain kind of person -- a person with a strong, genuine sense of self, who knows what he thinks is right and wrong, what is permissible and humane and decent, and what is not -- who, when ordered to commit acts which he considers to be monstrous, will simply say, with full and absolute moral conviction, "No, I will not do that." And he will also be prepared to suffer the consequences.

But it appears, not surprisingly, that not too many individuals of that kind are to be found in the military, or in our domestic prison system. I should immediately state that I do not believe that most of those in the military are capable of the kind of torture and abuse that appears to have gone on at Abu Ghraib, or even a majority of them. But neither is this kind of behavior that unusual in my view, and the American public -- aided and abetted by the equivocations that now flood over us hourly, from every source -- is now engaged in a dangerous exercise in denial. It is dangerous precisely because it denies important, and crucial, facts -- and thus makes the likelihood of the repetition of such horrors in the future that much more likely.

I say it is "not surprising" that many persons who will follow orders -- even when those orders may concern horrific kinds of behavior -- are to be found in our military for many reasons. Some of those reasons have been explained in my series on "The Roots of Horror." Here is a description of how these mechanisms work in part . ...

Note the elements that are present here, and how easily adaptable these elements are to the military, or to a prison system: idealization of the authority figure, which figure can be the military itself and/or a commanding officer; a loss of autonomy or, in other words, the lack of a genuine self - which means that "self" can be filled in with "values" provided by those in authority; and, most important of all, the total and absolute premium placed on obedience, as the greatest of the virtues. This is the kind of person who will never say "no" when confronted with a monstrous order -- and it is precisely for that reason that many such individuals are attracted to this sort of command structure in the first place.
Given the dynamics identified by Alice Miller, it was all too easy to predict precisely what is revealed in this story:
HYNDMAN, Pa. (AP) — The first U.S. soldier to face a court martial in connection with the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison grew up in a military family and "knows how to follow instructions," his father says.

Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits, 24, was trained as a truck mechanic, not a prison guard, and would have gotten in trouble had he not followed orders to photograph the abused prisoners, father Daniel Sivits told The Associated Press in an interview late last month.

"Apparently, he was told to take a picture and he did what he was told," Daniel Sivits said. "He was just following instructions."
With regard to where the ultimate responsibility lies, Daniel Sivits is correct about the following:
But Daniel Sivits, in an interview from April 30, said he thought the abuse scandal stemmed from a lack of leadership.

"All it is lack of leadership, lack of instruction and lack of standard operating procedure and everyone at the top is covering their butts," Daniel Sivits said. "My only question is this: Where was the leadership?"
But as to why Jeremy Sivits himself was willing to obey these particular orders, this is still the key to the explanation:
Daniel Sivits said he spent 22 years in the military and his son grew up in the military. "He knows how to follow instructions," he said.
One of these days, people will begin to acknowledge the truths identified by Miller -- and will start to alter the ways in which they raise their children, insisting on obedience and adherence to rules above all, insisting on the denial of the spontaneous, vital, authentic self, and insisting all the time that they do it "for the child's own good."

But until that day comes, horrors will continue to be unleashed on the world. And stories like the ones from Iraq will never end.