American Treatment of Iraqi & Afghan Prisoners: An Introduction

November 7, 2011

The international scandal has raised profound questions for the citizens of our country. Our introductory lesson on the prisoner torture issue includes a student reading and opening and concluding exercises.

To the Teacher:

American treatment of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners has created an international scandal and raised profound questions for the citizens of our country. How pervasive is the American abuse and torture of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners? What and who are chiefly responsible for them? How will those responsible be held accountable? What will the U.S. do to prevent the recurrence of such behavior? The answers to these questions—and what we choose to do about them—will affect the reputation of the United States for many years.

Below is an introductory lesson on the prisoner torture issue, including a student reading and opening and concluding exercises.

Opening exercise: Fishbowl

Invite five to seven students to make a circle with their chairs in the middle of the room. Ask everyone else to make a circle of chairs around the fishbowl (so you will have a smaller circle within a larger circle). Only people in the fishbowl can speak. The process is intended to facilitate focused listening.

Ask students to speak in turn to the following situation:

For some time Iraqi resistance has been growing against the U.S. occupation in Iraq. Almost daily there are fire fights with Iraqi militia groups, roadside bomb explosions, sniper attacks with rifle-propelled grenades, suicide bombings.

You are the American commander of a prison for captured Iraqi soldiers who may well have intelligence needed by U.S. forces to combat the Iraqi resistance and prevent the killings of American soldiers. As the commander, you must give interrogators instructions about how they are to conduct the questioning of prisoners who provide very little information or who may not be willing to talk at all. Specifically, what instructions would you give the interrogators about what to do and what not to do?

Give each student in the fishbowl a minute or two to speak to the situation without being interrupted. Then provide a specific amount of time for clarifying questions and further comments from students in the fishbowl. After 15 minutes or so, invite students from the larger circle to participate in the conversation by tapping a fishbowl student on the shoulder and moving into that student's seat.

Following the fishbowl discussion, lead a class discussion that could include consideration of the following questions:

  • What instructions can the class all agree on? Why?
  • What instructions do students disagree about? Why?
  • Do students know that there are international agreements about the treatment of prisoners? If not, students will learn about them in the first reading. If so, what provisions do they include? Why?

Student Reading:

American treatment of Iraqi prisoners

In the spring of 2004, a series of photos of American soldiers and Iraqi prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison came into public view. The photographs showed, among other things:

  • hooded, naked Iraqi prisoners piled in a pyramid with two smiling
  • American soldiers behind them
  • a female soldier with a cigarette in her mouth giving a thumbs-up sign and pointing at the genitals of a hooded, naked prisoner who has been forced to pretend he is masturbating
  • a female soldier pulling on a dog leash attached to a prisoner
  • a hooded, cloth-draped prisoner standing on a box with arms outstretched and attached to wires

The photographs became public because of Specialist Joseph Darby, a member of the U.S. Army's Military Police Corps. He got a CD of the photographs from one of the soldiers who had participated in some of the scenes. Darby was horrified by the photos, and delivered them in January 2004 to the Army's Criminal Investigation Division.

Three months later the photographs exploded across TV screens on the CBS program "60 Minutes II." At about the same time "Torture at Abu Ghraib," an article by Seymour Hersh, appeared in The New Yorker magazine. The article discussed an investigation Major General Antonio Taguba made in February 2004 into allegations of prisoner abuse by members of the 800th Military Police Brigade at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad.

Taguba's report said that between October and December 2003 numerous instances of "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" occurred at Abu Ghraib, a prison where not long before Saddam Hussein's forces had tortured and murdered prisoners. Taguba listed some of the things Americans did to Iraqi prisoners:

"Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broomstick; and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee."

At about the same time as Taguba's report, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported its own findings to U.S. military leaders in Iraq. They were based on prison visits and interviews and described many of the same things and others: attaching prisoners by handcuffs to the bars of their cell doors for several days in painful positions in their underwear or naked; exposing prisoners for a long time to loud noise or music or the sun on broiling hot days; keeping prisoners naked in empty concrete cells in total darkness for days at a time.

"These methods of physical and psychological coercion," the Red Cross report said, "were used by military intelligence in a systematic way to gain confessions and extract information or other forms of cooperation." They took place not only in Abu Ghraib but also in more than 10 other detention centers, the Red Cross charged. The Iraqi victims included women who were also kept naked and photographed.

According to a senior army officer, some army officials responded to the Red Cross report by trying to stop its spot inspections of Abu Ghraib. Taguba concluded his report by stating that the Central Intelligence Agency kept some prisoners in Abu Ghraib off official rosters. This practice of creating what he called "ghost detainees" was "contrary to Army doctrine, in violation of international law" and intended to hide prisoners from the Red Cross. (New York Times, 5/19/04)

Up to 90 percent of the Iraqi prisoners were detained by mistake, according to intelligence officers (Red Cross February 2004 report). After the public appearance of the photographs, many hundreds of Iraqi prisoners were set free from Abu Ghraib.

There are rules accepted by most countries for the treatment of prisoners. In 1949 representatives from the U.S. and other nations met in Geneva, Switzerland and created four Geneva Conventions (or agreements), including the following:

  • "Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated....prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity."
  • A prisoner of war is required "to give only his surname, first name and rank, date of birth, and army, regimental, personnel or serial number....No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever."

The U.S. has also agreed to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1987). It calls upon all states to "ensure that education and information regarding the prohibition against torture are fully included in the training of law enforcement personnel, civil or military...." The Convention defines "torture" as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person" to punish or to get information or a confession."

For class discussion:

  • How familiar are the students with the content of this reading? If through TV and newspaper reports they have additional information, invite them to share it.
  • What questions do students have? What do they want to know more about? Can these questions be answered from the reading? If not, how?

Ask students to keep a record in their notebooks of unanswered questions for further consideration later in the study of prison treatment.


Closing exercise:

Divide the class into groups of four to six students for a discussion of one or both of the following quotes. The first is from the Rush Limbaugh radio show, the second from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

1. On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh was discussing the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison. A caller told him that to "stack naked men" is like a college fraternity prank. Limbaugh responded: "Exactly my point. This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones [a fraternity] initiation, and we're going to ruin people's lives over it, and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them [the American soldiers] because they had a good time. You know these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people. You ever heard of emotional release?" (New York Times, 5/23/04)

Ask the groups to discuss the quote. Do students agree or disagree with Limbaugh? Why?

Ask a reporter from each group to summarize the group's responses for the class. Then conduct a class-wide discussion.

2. Comedy Central's program "The Daily Show" parodies TV news programs, providing humorous commentary on current events. Host Jon Stewart asked one of his make-believe "correspondents," Rob Corddry, to comment on the American treatment of prisoners. Corddry's response: "There's no question that what took place in that prison was horrible, but the Arab world has to realize that the U.S. shouldn't be judged on the actions of a...well, we shouldn't be judged on our actions. It's our principles that matter, our inspiring, abstract notions. Remember: just because torturing prisoners is something we did, doesn't mean it's something we would do."

Ask the groups to discuss the quote. Do you think Corddry is serious when he says, "we shouldn't be judged on our actions. It's our principles that matter"? Why or why not? What actions is he referring to? What principles? Why are they "inspiring"? "abstract"? How do you explain the contradiction in his last sentence.?

Ask a reporter from each group to summarize the group's responses for the class. Then conduct a class-wide discussion.

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: