The military plans to court-martial rank-and-file soldiers for the torture of detainees in Iraq, while the higher-ups attempt to evade responsibility.

In 1961, after the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted a study wherein test subjects were asked to give electric shocks to actors posing as other subjects. Those in the first group were convinced that they were examiners, testing to determine the effects of pain on learning. They were encouraged to repeat questions as they administered ever-stronger jolts -- until the actors, separated by a window, lapsed into anguished speechlessness.

No subject stopped before reaching a level marked "severe shock." Sixty-five percent obeyed orders to punish the actor-subjects to the end of the scale -- past the "danger" warning.

Subsequent studies have backed up these findings.

Which is to say that untrained soldiers and reservists put in a guardian situation will follow orders. Without giving them proper preparation, without posting the prisoners' rights and without encouraging dissent, this outcome was as certain as the outrage from the Islamic world.

Even if administrative claims of specific ignorance of these torture situations are accurate, the public should not allow "grunts" to become scapegoats.


Silver Spring


The May 9 front-page article "Pentagon Approved Tougher Interrogations" obscured a crucial legal point. At Guantanamo Bay, the interrogation techniques the article described -- sleep deprivation, exposure to hot and cold, loud music and bright lights -- are probably legal. That's why Pentagon lawyers approved them. Under current law, neither the Constitution nor the Geneva Conventions protect suspected terrorists such as those housed at Guantanamo Bay.

Although the United States signed the U.N. Convention Against Torture, the treaty is only a commitment to pass laws banning harsh treatment of prisoners. The United States did criminalize torture in all circumstances, but interrogation techniques that do not meet the definition of torture are not included in the law. One might also contend that these techniques violate something called customary international law. But the unfortunate fact that these abuses are common around the world militates against that argument.

The prisoners in Iraq, on the other hand, are protected by the Geneva Conventions, and the abuse they endured is clearly illegal.


Cambridge, Mass.