The May 24 news story "Soldiers Vented Frustration, Doctor Says" cited the findings of Col. Henry Nelson, an Air Force psychiatrist who studied the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison for the Army. The story noted: "Police also stripped, tethered together and photographed some Iraqis suspected of raping a young boy in the prison, he wrote."
While it seems appropriate for Col. Nelson to investigate the treatment of the alleged rapists, the practice of incarcerating minors with adults does not seem to fall within the scope of his inquiry. Does the U.S. military have policies for the detention of minors? If so, what are they and were they followed?
His statement also makes me wonder about the attitude of the chain of command toward the international instruments for the protection of human rights, particularly the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 37(c) of that document states in part: "Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age. In particular, every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child's best interest not to do so."
As a psychotherapist, I feel an obligation to respond to the report of Col. Henry Nelson about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
The underlying issue is not, as the story summarized, our soldiers' "racism and the absence of any meaningful supervision." This emphasizes the individuals and their behavior rather than the system that produced this behavior. In the psychiatric understanding of "acting out," such behavior results from an inability to give voice to one's feelings.
Our young soldiers are acting out, but not as individuals with pathologies. Rather their behavior is collective -- apparently the result of a failure of leadership and direction from the top. The chaos of a poorly managed system is fertile breeding ground for the inexpressible.
Col. Nelson said that the way to "prevent the recurrence of such inhumane behavior" is to ensure that the guilty "face swift, appropriate justice." But making scapegoats of a few seems too easy a way out of communal, national and presidential responsibility -- especially for a psychiatrist charged with understanding a complex system. To really understand Abu Ghraib, we should look at the systemic forces that yielded a consistent, collective acting out.