Standard Operating Procedure
|Directed by||Errol Morris|
If a you torture a prisoner and nobody takes a picture, did it really happen?
In his new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris makes the case that the military fervently believes it did not, and damns the fools at Abu Ghraib who took the pictures. It was the age of Photography for Dummies that did them in, the easy access to the taking, storing, and sharing of hundreds of digital snaps and videos that seem to have been passed around the barracks like baseball trading cards.
But Morris’s larger thesis is that the grunts who took the fall for the abuses at Abu Ghraib were not the principal villains. A title card at the end of the picture lays bare the lightly-kept secret of the whole disgraceful business:
“NO ONE ABOVE THE RANK OF STAFF SERGEANT HAS
SERVED TIME IN PRISON FOR THE ABUSES OF ABU GHRAIB.”
Morris opens with news footage of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s visit to the Iraq prison after the deaths of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay. Rumsfeld took a quick look at a sanitized cell block, and then left saying “I don’t want to see anything else,” keeping his deniability intact.
There’s no deniability for the low-level stooges who took the pictures and let themselves be recorded in them. To listen to them talk – and we do, at great length – they were not a bad bunch of kids, not the “rotten apples” the Pentagon hung out to dry, but just a few sad sacks who wound up in the wrong place in the wrong company at the wrong time. The individual of this bunch who would appear to have the greatest claim on rottenness, Spec. Charles Graner, does not get his say here. Graner is still doing time, and the army did not make him available to Morris.
The ones who do get a chance to talk tell a variety of tales, and paint themselves as innocent, unlucky, or guilty but with extenuating circumstances. Take Lynndie England, whose grinning pixie face in some of the most indelible images made her the poster child for the Abu Ghraib scandal. She was Graner’s girlfriend, or one of them, at Abu Ghraib, and later bore his child. She says she was baffled by some of the treatment that was being dished out to the prisoners, and didn’t want to be in the pictures, but was sweet-talked into it by her older lover. Or take Sabrina Harman, who memorably posed with a bright thumbs-up by the bruised and battered corpse of a detainee who had been beaten to death (the official line was that he’d suffered a heart attack in the shower). She reads from (and Morris shows us) handwritten letters she sent home to her partner Kelly, expressing her discomfort at some of the abuses being heaped on the prisoners. In those letters she tells Kelly she is taking pictures to prove these things really went on, because she knows she won’t be believed without the evidence. But while she was in the midst of it, she says, she had no choice but to go along.
“I guess the reality is, what was going on wasn’t right. But it’s your job, you can’t just walk away and say ‘Hey, I’m not doing this.’ Either way, you’re going to get screwed.”
The young ex-soldiers we see in these interviews are a sadder, wiser bunch than the grinning, swaggering MPs in the photographs. They don’t seem like monsters. They’re defensive, they’re remorseful, they’re self-justifying. What they did was part of a culture and an ethos that undoubtedly was set much higher up the chain of command. “The example was set when we got here,” Harman claims, and another former MP says “Graner told me he was doin’ what he was told.” The terrible truth is that, as we know from phenomena as different as high school hazing, mob violence, and soccer crowds, people under special circumstances will behave in ways they would normally find unacceptable.
Tim Dugan, a civilian interrogator, rolls his eyes in disgust, “Surreal,” he sighs. “A bunch of unprofessional schmucks who don’t know the damn job.” Later, echoing what filmmaker Alex Gibney’s father, a WWII interrogator, told his son in Taxi to the Dark Side, Dugan remarks that there’s no way of evaluating the reliability of information gotten through torture. “They’ll tell you anything they think you want to hear.”
The real torture, the kind that caused the death of the man who had the “heart attack in the shower,” happens during interrogation, according to a young African American guard named Javel Davis. “As long as it’s not on camera, you’re okay.”
It falls to Brent Pack, a military investigator, to examine the hundreds of photographs and determine which ones constitute torture and which were SOP – Standard Operating Procedure. Some, like the infamous photo of the hooded man attached to wires and standing on a box, fall into the latter category because there’s no evidence the wires were attached to a power source. As Davis says,”You don’t see what’s outside the frame.”
Morris (who won an Oscar for The Fog of War) does a penetrating job of reassessing the crimes and the responsibility for Abu Ghraib. But despite his technical brilliance, there is a static quality to a film that relies for the most part on talking heads and still photographs, fleshed out with some re-enactments that muddy the issue of what’s real and what isn’t. And then there’s the subject matter, on which audiences may feel they’ve already surfeited. Morris offers valuable new perspectives on Abu Ghraib, but the paying customers may not care to go there again.
If a movie opens and nobody sees it, has it really happened?
© Text 2008 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be