Pressure to Go Along With Abuse Is Strong, but Some Soldiers Find Strength to Refuse
By ANAHAD O'CONNOR
Published: May 14, 2004
The images of prisoner abuse still trickling out of Iraq show a side of human behavior that psychologists have sought to understand for decades. But the murky reports of a handful of soldiers who refused to take part bring to light a behavior psychologists find even more puzzling: disobedience.
Buried in his report earlier this year on Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba praised the actions of three men who tried to stop the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees. They are nowhere to be seen in the portraits of brutality that have touched off outrage around the world.
Although details of their actions are sketchy, it is known that one soldier, Lt. David O. Sutton, put an end to one incident and alerted his commanders. William J. Kimbro, a Navy dog handler, 'refused to participate in improper interrogations despite significant pressure' from military intelligence, according to the report. And Specialist Joseph M. Darby gave military police the evidence that sounded the alarm...
...The power to resist coercion reflects what psychologists call internal locus of control, or the ability to determine one's own destiny. People at the other end of the scale, with external locus of control, are more heavily influenced by authority figures. They prefer to put their fate in the hands of others.
"If they fail a test, it's the teacher's fault; if they do poorly at a job, it's the boss's fault," said Dr. Thomas Ollendick, a professor of psychology at Virginia Tech. "They put the blame for everything outside of themselves. They are high in conformity because they believe someone else in charge."
The average person, research shows, falls somewhere in the middle of the scale. People who voluntarily enlist in the military, knowing they will take orders, Dr. Ollendick suggested, may be more likely to conform. "These are people who are being told what to do," he said. "The ones who are conforming from the outset feel they can't change the system they're in. Those who blow the whistle can go above the situation and survive. They can basically endure whatever negative consequences might come from their actions."
Six years ago three heroes of the My Lai massacre were finally honored. Perhaps 30 years from now these three will be honored. They are true heroes.