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By Bryan Newbury
October 20, 2008


Nearly six years ago, the United States committed itself to a costly and embarrassing debacle. In the end accounting, we’ll be looking at a $3 trillion price tag, in addition to the 4,181 (and counting) servicemen who’ve died in country (the statistics on casualties are subject to some creative accounting… it is hard to know the true number of American soldiers killed and maimed because of this), the 300,000 to 1.5 million Iraqi deaths (who’s counting?), and a few generations of international leprosy that make the 21st Century a hell of a time to manufacture Canadian flag backpack decals.  

While it is obvious that the likes of W., Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice and Kristol, among others in the neocon rogues’ gallery, were the team that brought us the fiasco, much has been made of who the bench team of blame might be. Is it the Congress, for rubber-stamping virtually any action the administration suggested? Is it a complicit media, who took a pass on their charge as the Fourth Estate and assumed the role of official stenographers? Could it be the American people, who should’ve known better despite government and media propaganda that seemed to fool only us?  

As Errol Morris artfully depicts in Standard Operating Procedure, the above list of possible co-conspirators has come to their own comforting conclusion. The people to blame, as it turns out, are low-level enlistees of the United States Army. 

While S.O.P. is a film about the Iraq War, specifically the sickening spectacle of Abu Ghraib, it is also a meditation on the role of women in the military, the idea of complicity in evil, and the digital camera. Morris is keen to point out that photographs are, in some ways, the central characters of the film. We begin with them and end with them, and most of S.O.P. pontificates on how a still photo, or even a moving picture, can simultaneously rescue events from the memory hole and frame our perception of events.  

Morris makes his case through a host of interviews with people involved in our war crimes theme park. We see the story through the eyes of the men and women who were implicated in the photographs our nation will not live down any time soon, from the PFCs and sergeants who actually took the fall, to a private contractor, up to Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who fell on the sword the way generals do, not by way of a jail term but by professional hand slapping. As her interviews progress, it is hard to see whether even the hand slapping was merited, and she offers a few names who could be added to our ever-growing Nuremberg list.  

The film challenges our perceptions at every turn. More surprising than any revelation we get about the infamous Lyndie England are the photographs and letters of SPC Sabrina Harman, best known for her smiling, thumbs-up shot with a severely beaten dead man in a body bag full of melting ice. The question seems obvious, but, until Morris bothered, seems to have gone unasked: the shot is pretty gruesome, and obviously this young woman is quite disturbed… but, who killed the guy? This scene is the major chord around which the Abu Ghraib torture photos ascend and descend. When these pictures came out, people the world over were rightly disgusted, saddened and angered. Given the visceral reaction they elicited, it should be little surprise that the scope of investigation was myopic. The emotional impact of on-the-ground proof that we do indeed torture was such that the only psychological response for the vast majority of people is to recoil, punish the act and not go into the matter any further, giving birth and breath to the “bad apple” account of events. Send the grunts to the brig and this water will make our hands clean.

The value of S.O.P. is that it is the sole piece of work, along with its companion book, that pans out to see the wider shot regarding the prisoner abuse. True, there is a growing list of films and print pieces about rendition, torture and the conduct of both wars, but the events covered specifically in S.O.P., and the people involved in said events, have been subject to a very narrow view. This is to be expected when suitable patsies have been offered up. Some have criticized Morris for his penchant for metaphor. True, the “Saddam’s egg” scene and the Phantom V9 slow motion flourishes are a trifle arty for doctrinaire documentarians, but it must be said that he has successfully portrayed his metaphor. As Christopher Buckley has recently reminded us, even a man as strident as his father didn’t lose the script for ideology. The only requirement in issues of taste is to provide an argument. The mythic scope of Errol Morris isn’t to the liking of many critics and viewers, but let it be said that he has made his argument, specifically, that the events at Abu Ghraib were viewed through the lens of three digital cameras, and we’d better venture outside the margins if we are to acquire any truth about the events. 

To this point, it seems that most of us are tempted to paraphrase the Preacher, son of David, that search reveals envy, not help. Put another way, there is no ignorant bliss like half-informed ignorant bliss. Outside of the symbolic device of the camera and its periphery, S.O.P. makes a very basic point through the voices of the soldiers and contractor. After most of the soldiers in those photos (the most striking of which, that of “Gilligan,” an innocent 25-year-old Iraqi in a hood and makeshift poncho, standing on a box with wires attached to his hand, turns out to be inspiration for the film’s title. This was, as it turns out, standard operating procedure, and not a crime, in the eyes of the army.) have served their sentences, the people responsible for murdering the man in Harman’s shot have not been tried or even revealed. We can only speculate as to whether they’ve been questioned regarding the matter. As Sergeant Javal Davis points out, there weren’t any pictures of the actual torture sessions. It is useful to point out here that the scenes of depravity in the photographs weren’t the torture, but the “softening up” of prisoners before the “interrogations” were to take place. What went on beyond that was and is the business of various military and intelligence operatives who boast a pay grade significant enough to do their work in darkness. 

It is no longer debatable whether abuses of the type seen in S.O.P. are systemic or isolated. The question becomes, and Morris astutely raises it, what is accomplished? It obviously isn’t actionable intelligence. Any interrogator worth his salt knows that information acquired through torture is almost always unreliable. If the objective is to make the conquered docile through terror, then they might want to go back to the drawing board. It is hard to imagine a better brochure for attracting the next generation of anti-American radicals than the images of Abu Ghraib. It is barely hinted at, but if one ponders the issue long enough, it is natural to go into conspiracy land and consider whether this entire foreign policy quagmire was designed for the sadomasochistic sexual pleasure of a demented cabal. Most of the dehumanization endured by prisoners at Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, &c., has been of a sexual nature. Officially, this is because of the backwardness of Arab culture towards women and sexuality. Hard to imagine a culture such as our own, puritanical as it is in its way, having the vision to call that kettle black. Could it all be the work of some satanic sex cult?  

We’ll jump off of that loony wagon presently, but the line of thinking illustrates what is possibly the deepest psychological scar we’ve suffered in the last decade: what outrageous theory can be dreamed up that is demonstrably worse than the things that aren’t known but are true? Known unknowns, they’re called. Or, is it unknown knowns? 

In the end, the fact that the soldiers who took the rap for Abu Ghraib should not be vindicated solely because of their lowliness within the hierarchy, a point that Morris shows considerable deftness in balancing. The defense that one was only following orders is a paltry one, though the historical example that we draw such a truism from wasn’t one in which privates were tried. Again, there is another layer of meaning, which indicates how ethically bankrupt our nation has become. When times are good, the people at the top are capitalists. When they’re bad, they become socialists. For themselves, of course, with an obliging government. When surges are purported to work, or when “we got ‘im”, the generals and civilian leadership receive their round of huzzahs. When war crimes come up, the privates and sergeants get taken down. If there was ever a purely just and egalitarian society on a large scale, it is hard to think of it, making aspiring to it a bit guileless. However, even historians like Zinn would agree that the speed with which we attach the yoke of the powerful to the backs of the peons is unparalleled. As Sabrina Harman points out, her choices were to refuse orders and get thrown in the brig, or to do what she did and get thrown in the brig. Thoreau she isn’t, but some perspective is long overdue.  

While S.O.P. is absorbing in its own right, its release on DVD doubles the impact. The special features, though brief, serve as additional illumination. The viewer is tempted to call out for a director’s cut expanding on each snippet, but they will do nicely for the time being. It also does something unheard of for the casual viewer: the director’s commentary is as useful as the film itself. This feature, typically of service only to the film wonk, is most welcome even after just one viewing of the film. In it, the viewer receives an extended interview with Morris, elucidating his method and meaning, and offering details that weren’t available (or would’ve been unforgivably discordant) during the making of the film. The rare usefulness of these features elevates Standard Operating Procedure beyond mere required viewing into the area of required multiple home viewing. As a precedent, it should have documentary fans dancing, just as soon as they find themselves able to get the macabre images of the film out of their heads.


Standard Operating Procedure

Participant Productions, A Film by Errol Morris

Color, 116 minutes, 2008

spleeberski on December 16th, 2008 at 12:14 am 

many higher ups hand down vague instructions on how to deal with these POWs… Give them authority they’ve never had throw in some prisoners and tell them to interrogate until you have “truthful” information and you got yourself homemade American torture… look at the Stanford prison experiment.. its the same concept of what went wrong

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