Abu Ghraib, Administrative Evil, and Moral Inversion: The Value of “Putting Cruelty First”


  • The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Guy B. Adams is a professor and associate director of the Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri–Columbia. His research interests include public administration history and theory, public service ethics, and organization studies. He is an editor-in-chief of the American Review of Public Administration.E-mail: adams@missouri.edu.

Danny L. Balfour is a professor and director of the School of Public and Nonprofit Administration at Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, Michigan. His research and teaching interests include organizational theory and behavior, social policy, public service ethics, and the Holocaust. He served as managing editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education from 1995 to 2000. E-mail: balfourd@gvsu.edu.

George E. Reed is a professor and director of command and leadership studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He is an army colonel with 25 years of experience as a military police officer. He is a national security management fellow of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University and a fellow of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society. His research and teaching interests include national security policy, strategic leadership, and ethics. E-mail: george.reed@carlisle.army.mil.


The torture and abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and at other sites in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba raise disturbing questions that have few, if any, easy answers. Were these intentionally evil acts committed by a few bad apples who took advantage of the power they wielded over the detainees? Or were they cases of administrative evil in which the obvious evil of torture and abuse was masked from the perpetrators, including those who performed subsidiary and supportive functions? The more fundamental question is, are torture and abuse always wrong? How close did the United States come to moral inversion in this case? Judith Shklar’s concept of “putting cruelty first” aids our understanding of this case and points toward a trajectory that could help prevent future moral inversions and administrative evil.