Would You Condone Torture in War?

A new study suggests that abuse of prisoners of war is widely condoned by many veterans, and possibly by many in the military today. Even rape of a prisoner was judged acceptable by more than half of the 351 participants in the study.

"It's pretty shocking," says William C. Holmes, a physician and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. Holmes is the lead author of the study, published in the current issue of Military Medicine.

Participants in the study were all veterans of past wars -- mostly Vietnam -- and while their tolerance of prisoner abuse is surprisingly high, the numbers would probably be considerably lower among all veterans and all military personnel. Most participants suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, or both, and that is believed to have boosted their tolerance of abuse.

They have, as Holmes puts it, "substantial psychiatric burdens."

However, the overall composition of the group matches a large segment of today's military. Most are high school graduates, on the lower end of the economic scale, and predominantly male.

Descriptions From Abu Ghraib

The researchers drew their material for the project from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004, including three graphic scenarios ranging from detainee exposure to the sodomizing of one prisoner with a broom handle. Participants were asked whether they found each case of abuse acceptable, or acceptable with some reservations, or completely unacceptable. The researchers termed that "zero tolerance."

Not surprisingly, as the severity of abuse increased, so did the level of zero tolerance.

Only 16 percent ranked exposure and deprivation as completely unacceptable, and 31 percent rejected sexual humiliation. But only 48 percent -- not even half -- found rape unacceptable.

That was surprising to Holmes because the circumstances, drawn from an actual incident at Abu Ghraib, are shocking. The prisoner was forced to strip naked and lie face down on the floor while military dogs stood nearby. Then the soldier forced the broom handle into the rectum of the prisoner, who, according to the description, "screams and contorts in pain."

More than half of the participants thought that was at least somewhat acceptable.

Escalating Scenarios

The participants were given one of three different questionnaires to fill out, with three increasingly severe scenarios. One version stated that the abusing soldier was not ordered by a superior to treat the prisoner that way. Another said he was so ordered, and the third said a second soldier objected to the abuse and reported it to superiors.

Perhaps predictably, the veterans were more tolerant of abuse when the soldier was under orders than when he was not. But they were also more tolerant of abuse if there was a "whistle-blower."

"I did not originally anticipate that," Holmes says. But since conducting the study in the summer of 2004, he has had lots of time to think about it and study the literature. Soldiers don't like whistle-blowers, he says, because they "threaten the dynamic of depending on one another for survival."

"Soldiers' dependence on one another for survival lead to bonds some describe as stronger than a marital union," the study notes. "Jeopardizing these bonds by labeling another soldier's abusive actions as bad and reporting them may be comparatively unacceptable."

The participants' judgment was also influenced by how much they knew about the situation in Iraq. Those who had read "a lot" about the subject were significantly less tolerant of prisoner abuse.

Are Today's Troops Different?

Holmes says it would be a mistake to conclude that these same figures could be found in today's military. This "sample was from one VA institution located in one urban area and was comprised predominantly of males," the study notes. Only 21 of the participants were women, and they were far less tolerant of abuse than were the men.

But no matter how much less tolerant today's soldiers may be, any abuse is likely to backfire, according to various studies. The Central Intelligence Agency has branded prisoner abuse as "a poor technique" that "yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear."

It's risky to leap from this single study to a broad conclusion about attitudes in today's military, or among veterans at large. Holmes admits that the numbers in this study would be different if so many of the participants were not suffering from depression. But how different?

That's a question someone needs to answer.