As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of the horrifying images witnessed by the world as part of the investigation of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, very little of said commentary centered on context. The acts inferred by the photos were shocking, even more so when placed alongside the Bush Administration rhetoric that the United States was functioning as “liberators” and “peacekeepers” in a nation already haunted by a ruthless, tyrannical dictator. Yet there were photos of American soldiers, seemingly torturing, humiliating, and endangering the lives of so-called ‘enemy combatants’, all in the name of the War on Terror.
Now, Errol Morris, acclaimed director of such fascinating documentaries as The Thin Blue Line, Gates of Heaven, and The Fog of War, wants to uncover the background of this unapologetic policy stain. Via interviews with those involved, those supervising or overseeing the American-occupied Iraq prison system, those charged with prosecuting and/or court marshalling the participants, and those who really were in the country to conduct covert coercion of detainees, a slightly bigger picture develops. What we learn is that some of the rumored atrocities were nothing more than SOP - military slang for ‘standard operating procedure’. While they looked unconscionable, what was depicted was part of a typical war time work method.
That many of these images are excusable is Morris’ first major revelation. The press is branded as premeditated in its automatic denouncement, especially when we learn that some of the stills were staged in order to show brass that action was being taken to retrieve the mandated intelligence. Certainly, not every excuse is plausible, and the frequently featured face of Lynndie England, gaze fixed with a beaming grin and fist constantly poised with a congratulatory “thumbs up” gesture, seems inappropriate for what is happening in the foreground. Yet the ex-soldier, present and accounted for, tries to convince us that her involvement was a matter of juvenile puppy love and personal inexperience.
More times than not, Morris lets his interviewees tap into that ever-popular ‘just following orders’ mantra that means nothing within the concept of human morality and individual ethos. Some literally choke on the words, working them out of their obviously guilty mouths like the bad taste of some long digested disease. At other instances, there is an honesty that ripples across the screen, keeping us from instantly condemning the individual speaking. Sabrina Harman, constantly referenced as the main person responsible for taking the photos, seems stunned that she was even present, her coy on-camera demeanor and telling letters to home (excerpted for voice over narration) suggesting she objected, but also couldn’t contradict a chain of command that ordered prisoners be “softened up” for later interrogation.
Explanation does help here. The sexual nature of the images was a direct response to what the Brass saw as an “Islamic machismo” among the population. As a patently paternalistic society, the emasculating means of mistreated the prisoners had a clear overtone of religious ridicule. Similarly we hear stories of how the detainees threw human waste at their captors and caused violent diversions in hope of escaping. While Standard Operating Procedure barely touches on this, it’s clear that Abu Ghraib had a simultaneous set of problems - those of a typical penitentiary and the addition of a calculated, controlled system of US approved questioning and information extraction. Shockingly, torture is never denied - it’s just argued against within the backdrop of many of the photos.
In some ways, Standard Operating Procedure is too appalling to appreciate. It’s like watching the Nuremberg Trials, Nazis purposefully passing the buck higher and higher up, fully aware that no one above a certain rank is around to take the blame. Equally unsettling is the lack of that one element that President George W. Bush and his Texas troubadours always seem to avoid - accountability. Colonel Janis Karpinski, demoted from Brigadier General, sees the tag placed upon her as political retribution for outing former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his role in approving such treatment. In the end, we feel shocked and saddened that our nation could fall so far from the tenets of humane treatment simply to strike fear into the hearts of men who may or may not have played a part in any pre or post 9/11 attacks on Americans, both at home and abroad.
While disturbing and quite fascinating, the film itself is not without controversy. In trying to illustrate the various points brought out in the testimony, Morris goes back to his tried and true habit of reenacting the atrocities. While never very graphic in nature, these well-executed scenes seem to be spitting in the face of those who argue that the media, and its manipulation of this material, failed to tell the entire story. And no matter how much truth there is, a lens languishing on a pool of blood or the naked body of a dead prisoner, dramatic lighting and music accenting the horror, does little to support or sidestep their statements.
Morris is also been lambasted for paying the participants of Standard Operating Procedure, a notion that again, seems to defy the aesthetic accepted by documentarians around the world. Of course, the filmmaker’s response is matter of fact - if he didn’t pay them, they wouldn’t participate. Still, there is something unseemly about people desperate to clear their name only doing so if there’s a paycheck involved. Sure, many in the Abu Ghraib case seem to have been scapegoated to save a sagging foreign policy that polarizes everything about the Iraq situation, but true innocence is usually argued openly, and for free. A check at the end feels like truth being bought - or even worse - created for the sake of some coin.
No one is questioning Morris’ motives, and he has been quite vocal in dismissing allegations that he’s avoiding certain elements. In the end, Standard Operating Procedure is about the preparation of a set of charges, and an eventual legal defense, against actions that appear to have way too much of the former and very little of the latter. The labeling of certain images - men posed next to each other in the nude, staged suggestions of fictional torture - as simply part of the process may bring about an uncomfortable chuckle as the classification is explained. But there is little to laugh about in this clear military calamity…and while many were jailed, it will be the American people who pay the price for this blunder. It’s a sentence that will last must longer than any time served, or any contextualized illustration.