Swans Commentary » swans.com September 8, 2008  



Torture For Fun And Uncle Sam


by Peter Byrne


Book and Film Review



Gourevitch, Philip and Morris, Errol: Standard Operating Procedure, A War Story, Penguin, NYC, 2008, ISBN 978-1-59420-132-5, hardback, 286 pages, $25.95.

Standard Operating Procedure, a documentary film directed by Errol Morris, Sony Pictures Classics Release, USA, 2008, 118 minutes.


Don't be afraid to use force with the prisoners. They don't expect you to use force in dealing with them because we're Americans, and we treat everybody nice.
—Sergeant James Beachner, MI interrogator. (Page 122)
At the same time, she [Specialist MP Sabrina Harman] faulted herself for not being a more enthusiastic soldier when prisoners on Tier 1A were being given the business. She saw other MPs going at it without apparent inhibition, and all she could say was, "They're more patriotic." (Page 117)


(Swans - September 8, 2008)   The prisoner abuse scandal that exploded at Abu Ghraib in 2004 was a very simple story although not so preposterously simple as retold by the US government damage control mavens. On January 13, 2004, Specialist Joseph Darby ("there's an ulterior motive to everything he does" said Sergeant Javal Davis) handed compromising photos to an agent of the Army's Criminal Investigative Division (who for months like other CID agents had watched without objecting to what went on). The seven night-shift Military Police in the Military Intelligence (MI) block of the hard site who appeared in the photos were suspended from duty. Any punishment of weight would fall on them. The army scrambled to retrieve copies of the photos. But the gruesome evidence soon circled the globe and fundamentally changed the perception of the American occupation of Iraq. The president felt impelled to appear on TV and beg the world's pardon.

It was fitting that the commander in chief had to answer for the events photographed in the fall of 2003. The barbarous conditions at Abu Ghraib came directly from decisions made earlier at his desk. Because of the criminal attacks on American soil of September 11, 2001, there would be no limits on how suspected enemies of America could be treated.

The anything-goes attitude set up the crimes at Abu Ghraib. Gross incompetence characterized the whole American operation in Iraq. But the US mismanagement of the Baghdad Correctional Facility was more than a series of blunders; it was a fiasco. Three-quarters of those incarcerated were totally innocent and no information obtained from detainees was of any serious value.

The Abu Ghraib episode could have provided Americans with a definitive learning experience. Reality would have at last dispersed the blowsy clichés that shroud the national psyche like cartoon clouds. The obvious would have been admitted: We and our nation are no more human, just, or moral than the rest of the world. But the government fixers would permit no such advance in self-knowledge. They limited the responsibility for the inhumanity at Abu Ghraib to seven clueless night-shift MPs in the MI block.

No one above the rank of a sergeant received more than a reprimand. Corporal Charles Graner, a sadistic show-off with a photo fetish, got ten years. Sergeant Ivan Frederick, a giddy copycat, eight years. Specialists Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman, both inclined to morbid camera work, got three years and six months respectively. And so on, as if this mad bookkeeper's distribution of years and days could repair the outrage. Months of torture and studied humiliation? Prisoners kept in the open behind barbed wire under mortar fire? Children held as hostages in order to coerce their fathers? Never mind, one of the handlers whose dog tore prisoners' flesh got six months and the other ninety days.

Simple though both the true story and the cover-up may be, Errol Morris mounted an onslaught on the subject that included 2.5 million words of interviews and documents collected from 2005 to 2007. These served as the basis for his documentary film Standard Operating Procedure. The film came first, after the research, and before the book of the same title co-authored with Philip Gourevitch of the New Yorker and Paris Review.

Errol Morris's film, despite the horrors that fed it, begins in beauty with a fine sunset seen from Abu Ghraib. He continues throughout in this vein, artfully framing the infamous photos and showing a mannered care in the way he presents them. Straight off we realize that the pictures, which push naked, tormented bodies in our face, are the prime reality of Abu Ghraib. Such is the nature of the beast; i.e., our perception, our sensibility. Nothing that Morris, or later Gourevitch, will tell us about the pictures being meaningless without context or background will change that.

Morris uses re-enactments to illustrate situations. But these aren't clunky, actor-heavy flashbacks. He invents momentary fragments like a director of a fiction film might in order to evoke a character's dream. He likes slow motion. However, Morris is most effective when he sits a subject down and has him speak directly to us. The intense sensation of tête-à-tête comes from his use of a device called an Interrotron. It links two cameras and two teleprompters so that an interviewee is never looking directly at Morris but at a screen that can show Morris's face or what he pleases. The director is invisible and only intervenes rarely, startling us when he asks for a clarification in his high pitched voice.

The talking heads - or busts, to be exact - speak in short spurts. Sometimes their voices are accompanied by shots of their letters or other relevant material. A subject's statement ends with a brusque blackout. But he will have another turn later when Morris will have maneuvered him closer still to the point he wants to make. This alternating of interviewees proves a subtle instrument. The director can slow or increase the pace for dramatic effect. Here again, in this simplest arrangement of a bust in a frame, Morris's doesn't forget his love of a pretty picture.

The speakers include five of the seven charged soldiers. Among others, we also hear from a civil contract interrogator, a forensic investigator, and general Janis Karpinski. The damage control people first insinuated that Karpinski, an attractive woman, was an airhead. Then they saddled her with the command responsibility for what went wrong at Abu Ghraib, none of which she had been permitted to see. "Formally reprimanded," her rank was reduced to colonel. A very stunned and angry scapegoat, she spoke to Morris for seventeen hours over two days.

Morris lets these soldiers speak their minds. (As he did in his previous documentary, The Fog of War, 2004, where former secretary of defense Robert McNamara said more than he afterwards thought wise: "He [Colonel Curtis Lemay] and I were behaving as war criminals.") Morris's interviewees couldn't be farther from a court of law where most of their testimony would be termed irrelevant by objecting attorneys. They inevitably stray towards self-justification, but their incidental revelations along the way portray the mindset at Abu Ghraib as nothing else could. With this controlled lack of control, we are at the heart of the Morris method. For who else but Morris is cutting the interview footage to make sense -- Morris sense -- of what's said?

His theoretical argument is something of a parlor trick: There's no such thing as objectivity in documentary. The basic traditional form, black and white without frills, no more guarantees truth than any other. The director may feign nonexistence but he's still pulling the strings. No conclusion is apparently reached, only a yes or no decision left to the viewer who is made to feel he's king for the day and arbiter of truth. In short, for Morris, the form is fundamentally flawed, bearing a bias all the harder to discover under the camouflage of transparency.

His present approach is the consequence. He lets rip his beautifying impulse. If we object that the events and the place weren't pleasant to look at, he agrees. But he adds that his esthetic manner alienates the material for us, making it more graspable. He also invokes an all-purpose reply: Why not make it beautiful since a camera turned on ugliness is no assurance of truth? Nothing but heaps of "context" seems to be a sure path. Yet as we leave his documentary, it's not explanations that fill our minds but the photographs of humiliated flesh being gloated over by those miserable camera buffs.

In the book Standard Operating Procedure, the authors will reiterate Morris's contention: An unexplained photo is meaningless or misleading. The book will not include those vile photos or any illustrations at all. The photos are easily available elsewhere and, in any case, have "distorted perceptions of the Abu Ghraib story." This borders on intellectual dandyism, especially since the authors feel the need to give a painstaking verbal equivalent of some of those same absent photos. (Pages 138-9, 183 and 194) From Morris's exhaustive research they will reconstruct the background, amplifying and knitting together the material of the film. They describe the MPs' follow-the-leader "pack hysteria," their sexual games, their hovering on the edge of Military Intelligence, hardly believing their luck that they were safe behind their superiors' no-holds-barred go-ahead.

The authors point out that while the amateur photographers may have been kinky, their photos were relatively innocent. The shots were often staged and posed with props that were the handiwork of others. Photographing a dead detainee -- a sick prank -- sent Harman to jail. But she hadn't killed the prisoner. An MI interrogator who has never been named or brought to justice committed the murder. It's true that Graner, Frederick, and Javal Davis brutalized prisoners, but this was established by testimony, not by the photographs.

At Abu Ghraib, there was no clear line between licit and illicit. "They couldn't say that we broke the rules because there were no rules," said Specialist Megan Ambuhl. The night-shift MPs were ordered to break the detainees in view of interrogation by MI and OGA (Other Government Agencies: CIA, FBI and others, more secret still). Time and again they were urged to get tougher. Javal Davis said, "What we did was humiliate, not torture. Torture happened later. We don't have photos of that." But when does the twisting and hanging of a body become torture? When does the loosening of a snarling dog on a detainee cease being an "acceptable" means of instilling fear? Gallows humor occurs in the documentary, reprised in the book, when a forensic expert flicks through 280 pictures. He looks coolly at each incident of pain inflicted and announces as if sorting a deck of cards, "This is a criminal act" or "this is Standard Operating Procedure."

No matter how often the authors tell us, and prove, that the most heinous American crimes were not photographed, we come back to those original incriminating photos. They brought the scandal to the world's notice. Without knowing the true situation in which they were taken -- without this film and book -- they would still wedge themselves forever into our minds. Misunderstood or quasi-innocent, they stand all the same as the symbol of American moral degradation at the beginning of the third millennium. In the dynamic of the whole damage control operation, those same photos allowed the blame to be put on nightshift MPs for the inferno that had been created at Abu Ghraib by direct order from the president's desk. In a word:

That's how it worked: no photos, no crime. The ocular proof: the exposé became the cover-up. (Page 271)

The book adds nothing essential to what Morris filmed though it allows much filling in and spelling out. The writers in fact seem to have been wrong-footed by the film. Instead of striking out on a fresh narrative line, absorbing the pith of the interviews and producing a seamless chronicle of the Abu Ghraib story, they get trapped in Morris's documentary structure. At the same time, the more ample treatment reveals tendencies held in check by the film's concision. The writers let themselves go in depicting the folksy, all-American naïveté of the people they choose to describe. It's an "Innocence Abroad" view that lessens guilt and responsibility. Readers risk nausea hearing about good-hearted torturers who gave candy to kids when taking a breather from their exertions. In the film we at least saw those people squirm in obvious bad faith as they tried to justify their behavior.

But the inexcusable in the whole Morris-Gourevitch enterprise is that it leaves the Iraqis out. It's as if we are on a hunting party and the prey to be slaughtered, although it has our sympathy, remains generic, anonymous, "the animals." Can we really understand Abu Ghraib without also having some Iraqi heads talking to us? (Sworn statements by detainees can be found on the Washington Post Web site.)

To make it worse, the authors seem to find amusing the sobriquets their keepers -- our fun-loving boys -- gave their prisoners. Don't they realize that the first step leading to murder is to deny the victim his name? (Their own little damage-control routine on the subject can be found on page 283.) "Santa Claus" was a mentally unstable Iraqi whom the "normal" Americans pulled around by his beard. A prisoner who flooded his cell was "Swamp Thing." One who swept his cell was "Mr. Clean," and so on. Sergeant Hydrue Joyner explained, "It was jail but, you know, you can still laugh in jail."

Did "Gilligan" have a sense of humor? During torture he'd been photographed "hooded, caped, and wired on his box [to] eventually become the icon of Abu Ghraib and probably the most recognized emblem of the war on terror after the World Trade Center towers." But it was all a mistake. The torture was wasted on "Gilligan" who wasn't the person the military thought, but somebody completely innocent. Ambuhl admitted that afterwards "Gilligan" turned out to be "pretty decent."

Morris the filmmaker made his points indirectly by manipulating the elements of the film. The two-headed author Morris-Gourevitch, a sober writer, can conclude in expanded, direct statements. He's eloquent on page 171:

It would have been outrageous, of course, if the overseers of America's biggest MI operation in Iraq didn't know what was happening with their most valued prisoners. But the complicity, the blind eye and the cover-up, the buck passing and the butt covering, the self-deception and the cowardice, the indiscipline and the incompetence infected every link in the chain of command that ran from the MI block to the Pentagon and the White House - a military bureaucracy that had been politically cowed and corrupted from the top down by civilian masters who had no experience of combat. Later, when the photographs from the MI block were made public, and America's disgrace was the talk of the world, there would be no end of speculation as to whether a direct link could be found - a document or a trail of documents, some undeniable evidence - tying the scenes in those pictures directly to those top civilians, the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense. This supposedly missing link was spoken of as the "smoking gun." But it wasn't missing; it was there right in front of us. Abu Ghraib was the smoking gun.


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Published September 8, 2008