Margaret O'Brien Steinfels May 19, 2008 - 8:33am
In April 2004, photographs from Abu Ghraib showing U.S. Army MPs humiliating and abusing Iraqi prisoners sent shockwaves around the world. One photo of an Iraqi, hooded and caped, standing on a small box with arms outstretched and attached to electric wires, became an icon of American brutality. Other photos—pyramids of naked bodies, a prisoner on a dog leash, a row of masturbating men—taken in fall 2003 by three of those MPs, held the appalled but sometimes prurient gaze of millions of viewers. The photos also served as evidence in the courts martial that convicted seven soldiers and became emblematic of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Abu Ghraib, Saddam Hussein’s prison, had a sordid reputation: torture and secret executions were commonplace. Under American control it grew ever more notorious. From May 2003 to June 2004, U.S. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer presided over a fractious occupation that saw the outbreak of an insurrection thought to be the work of Saddam. Saddam’s capture became a military and intelligence priority. The hunt produced thousands of prisoners. Abu Ghraib quickly overflowed with terrorist suspects, ordinary criminals, and innocent victims of army roundups. The prison, a shambles when the United States took over, fell into utter chaos: it was overcrowded, undermanned, and subject to regular rocket attacks imperiling guards and prisoners alike.
The 372nd MP Company arrived at Abu Ghraib in early October 2003, part of the 800th MP Brigade under the command of Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who oversaw U.S. prisons in Iraq. The 372nd was assigned to a block holding high-value prisoners under interrogation by OGA (Other Government Agencies, probably the CIA). Seven members of the unit subsequently found guilty of abuse worked the night shift and took the photos in October and November. In mid-January 2004, a fellow soldier turned the photos over to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID). The offenders were removed. In April, these photos and many others were published. Seven soldiers (“bad apples,” Donald Rumsfeld called them) were tried, convicted, and given sentences ranging from ten years in prison to dishonorable discharge. None of them was above the rank of sergeant.
Five years later, we have Standard Operating Procedure, a two-hour documentary about the photos and the soldiers. Filmmaker Errol Morris went in search of the stories behind the photos. What lies unseen beyond the edge of the frame? What else was going on when the shutter clicked? What happened in the moments before and after? Morris interviewed the soldiers, the unindicted as well as the convicted, the disgraced along with the innocent bystander. The film is a forensic-like effort to recreate the scene (including reenactments) and to tell the real story that each photo encapsulates.
Two outside witnesses add their observations: Brent Pack, a military investigator who matched photos to events and created a time sequence for the prosecutors, and Tim Dugan, an experienced civilian interrogator working at Abu Ghraib, who takes his distance from the “bad apples.” They are, he says, “unprofessional schmucks...who didn’t know how to do the damn job.... Disgusting, the whole time we’re not doing the damn job, Americans are dying.”
So long after the events, what can these personal testimonies reveal? Each has his or her well-honed narrative. Gen. Karpinski, with an unflinching gaze and a voice raw with grievance, briefs us on the lack of resources, the disregard of the regular army for the reserve brigade she commanded, the usurpation of her authority by military intelligence, and, after the revelations, her removal from command. One soldier recalls that the general gave the prison little attention, turning up for photo-ops with Washington officials; Rumsfeld, for one, is shown visiting Abu Ghraib. Another soldier claims that sanitized interrogations were staged for Karpinski when she did visit. Spc. Jeremy Sivits says he was accidentally on the scene November 7 delivering a prisoner and was caught in a compromising photo. Sgt. Javal Davis speaks of his overpowering anger when a fellow soldier was smashed in the face with a brick by a prisoner. He wanted to punish the Iraqis and did. Everyone cites the need for usable information as a justification for the “softening” up of prisoners to be interrogated by military intelligence. The unit saw itself in war mode working to protect soldiers in the field.
Pfc. Lynndie England says she was charmed and seduced by Cpl. Charles Graner and apparently willing to do anything he asked (among her many infamous poses is one in which she holds a prisoner at the end of a dog leash). Spc. Sabrina Harman, who took many of the photos, wonders if she really belonged in the Army. Her clownish posing produced some of the most shocking photos. The interviewees attribute the abusive practices to orders from military interrogators, the expectations of their officers, and to Graner’s inane and spontaneous promptings. A frat-house atmosphere is evoked by everyone. Legitimizing authority and sadism, peer pressure and groupthink—didn’t we already know or suspect most of this?
So is Standard Operating Procedure nothing more than Abu Ghraib the DVD? Did Morris get the story he was looking for, the story beyond the photos? Do random pieces of new information justify the replay of so much horror and the reenactment of some of the worst? What new information? We learn that after the arrest of this MP unit, an amnesty was extended to the brigade by Col. Thomas Pappas, with orders to destroy all other photos. What was destroyed? Who was saved from disgrace? Was anyone unfairly charged? Has the military covered up more? The body of a dead Iraqi prisoner, tortured by the CIA, was held in the unit while interrogators asked for instructions. Photos of his bloody and beaten body, taken by Harmon, were never shown in court. Did Army investigators connive in preventing probing questions about the CIA? The film implies that many forms of abuse and torture went on at Abu Ghraib. Morris believes there has been a massive cover-up. He is probably right. But how will we ever know? Oh yes, the iconic photo of the hooded figure on the box never made it to court. It was deemed “standard operating procedure” by Brent Pack, the investigator from CID—the electric wires on the prisoner’s wrists were not live. He was simply in a stress position.
If the film were all there was, we might (I might) wonder what our (my) prurient interests were in seeing this all over again and in greater detail. But Morris does provide more: a multimedia project made possible by the sheer volume of interviews and photos he amassed in two years of research. In addition to the film, there is a New Yorker article (“Exposure,” March 24, 2008), a video interview with New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch, a short video clip from Sony, and a book from Penguin Press. The combined “dossier” cumulatively raises the big issue: The U.S. government has yet to acknowledge that the chain of command permitted and condoned abuse and torture. That point is made obliquely in the film: Gen. Karpinski cites orders to Col. Pappas from Gen. Ricardo Sanchez to get timely and usable intelligence—no matter what! In the video interview with Gourevitch, Morris is more direct: it is clear to him that the great travesty remains the failure to indict and try higher authorities (the names Cheney and Rumsfeld are mentioned).
The New Yorker article by Gourevitch and Morris teases, while avoiding some critical questions. What lies behind the particular acts of these soldiers? Why did they humiliate their prisoners? What is the seedbed not only of abuse but of the gross indignities they visited on the Iraqis? Where did they learn these things? Where had they seen them? Video games? TV shows? Is there something in the culture? In the water they drink? Virtually everything that went on in the block—humiliation, abuse, deprivation, degradation, and harassment—was a violation of the Geneva conventions, the Army Field Manual, and U.S. law, to say nothing of common decency. (Is it a perverse triumph for the view that torture doesn’t work that, according to Gen. Karpinski, no usable intelligence about Saddam came from all of the torment and suffering?) Why did they do it?
Sabrina Harmon, whose photos were the star witness in her conviction (her punishment: six months in prison and a dishonorable discharge), is a dangerous innocent. She sees the prisoners as “pretty much in the same situation I was, just trapped in Abu Ghraib.... I told them that we were prisoners also” (from the New Yorker). Such comfort for the Iraqis! Her camera became a device both to record what she saw and to distance herself from complicity in what she saw. Her effort to explain herself and her fellow soldiers lays bare a form of moral incoherence: an unwillingness to justify what went on along with an inability to explain what went wrong.
Morris’s project shares this aura of moral incoherence, though at a far more sophisticated level. The film teeters on a subtle form of exculpation. The MPs are not “bad apples” but “unprofessional schmucks” turned loose by the Army in a hellhole without proper resources or training or the moral capacity to see the prisoners as human beings. Are they really guilty? A familiar postmodern turn is implicit in the project: What is real? What is not? Along with the cinematically stylish reenactments (how true are they?), this twist undermines the moral impact of the film. If we can’t trust the photos, can we trust the movie about the photos? Are we getting the real story from Abu Ghraib—or from Errol Morris?
In various parts of the dossier, Morris and Gourevitch appeal to an outcome that might justify this redo of Abu Ghraib: the indictment of the higher authorities who legitimated this behavior and condoned such brutality. But if the responsibility of the people who actually brutalized the prisoners is minimized, what hope is there for charging those who deemed torture necessary, authorized it, and made sure it was sent down the chain of command? They too have their reasons and excuses: peer pressures and groupthink, executive powers, legal theories, and public opinion. Can the buck stop anywhere?
About the Author
Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.