In addition to its revealing ‘worm’s eye view’ of the Abu Ghraib scandal, Tom Jennings sees Standard Operating Procedure as a more general fable of modern governance.
Telling Tales of Torture. Film review – Tom Jennings
Iraq, 2003. Thousands of fleeing civilians and comparable numbers rounded up on extremely tenuous suspicion of involvement in the full-scale insurgency cower at its epicentre in Abu Ghraib prison between Baghdad and Fallujah under constant mortar attack and with guards outnumbered several hundreds to one. Ranking Guantanamo veterans and military, CIA and privately-contracted interrogators parachute in to extract information by any means necessary, backed by the Commander-in-Chief and his White House cronies with policies trashing the Geneva Convention. A contingent of young army grunts fresh to this hellhole witness the routine humiliation, torture and murder of detainees. Some complain, but are told it’s their professional and moral duty as warriors for liberty, and with varying degrees of diligence and enthusiasm comply with orders to ‘soften up’ prisoners using ‘standard operating procedures’ devised by superiors. Still partially disbelieving, many shoot cameraphone stills and videos of the planned and sanctioned insanity. These then leak into the public domain, and the rest is history – which director Errol Morris proceeds to comprehensively dissect in his new cinema documentary.
Standard Operating Procedure centres around spoken testimony from five of the seven low-ranking ‘bad apples’ scapegoated by subsequent inquiries. Sergeant Charles Graner and Ivan Frederick – ringleaders choreographing the sexualised humiliation rituals – were still in jail, but Javal Davis, Sabrina Harman (notoriously smiling thumbs-up over ‘ghost’ detainee, Mr Manadel al-Jamadi, murdered under torture by the CIA but unlisted in prison records), Lynndie England (with hooded prisoner on leash), Megan Ambuhl (now married to Graner; supervising with Harman and England the ‘human pyramid’ of naked Iraqi men) and Roman Krol feature, as do several other former military police alongside their Brigadier-General Janis Karpinski (now demoted to colonel) and the Criminal Investigation Division’s Brent Pack (who assisted the prosecutors) . The interviews – filmed using Morris’ famed Interrotron, whereby interviewees answer straight to camera while actually seeing the questioner – and the gigantised iconic snapshots and video clips (some never seen before in mainstream media) are supplemented by staged ‘illustrations’ of the events described, with ominously-lit widescreen cinematography and melodramatic score reconfiguring Abu Ghraib’s bedlam as sinister gothic otherworld.
The film’s rendering of human beings in an inhuman situation rather than emblems of evildoing erodes stereotypes of underclass psychopaths relishing malevolence, despite rationalisations of unconscionable cruelty characterised by ambivalence, alienation and disgust at themselves, colleagues, and military and government hierarchies as well as towards purported enemies. Facing uncertain prospects for physical and career survival, the pathetic patriotic training-camp pep-talk of ‘noble causes’ couldn’t completely erase their intelligence and sensitivity or fully underwrite the twisted sadism required of them. And certainly neither could it equip them to comprehend their later demonisation without hefty doses of the bitter fatalistic cynicism and resentful detachment radiating from them now. So letters home from Sabrina Harman to her partner support her assertion that, whereas she saw no option but to follow orders, the photographs were intended as proof of what occurred. Naturally she didn’t imagine them scuppering an otherwise successful cover-up orchestrated by her top-brass – explicitly commanding all relevant visual evidence destroyed once the shit hit the fan – or that she would end up in the dock when those who actually tortured, maimed and killed detainees were never even considered targets of justice. In that sense, then, the whitewash worked.
Thus far may have sufficed for your bog-standard crusading investigator exposing the stitch-up of relatively defenceless underlings as primary villains of the piece – their bosses all the way to the top wriggling and squirming behind pseudo-legalistic sophistry while pinning medals on each other. But ex-private eye Morris always digs deeper to deconstruct the framing of images (as well as of people) and their deployment in media and informational management to advance institutional interests – The Thin Blue Line (1988) famously saving the life of a prisoner on Death Row, and the Oscar-winning The Fog Of War (2003) laying bare the delusional arrogance of the powerful in the person of Robert McNamara (one of the US government architects of the Vietnam War). Here the material leads in many fascinating directions – most only hinted at, such as the much-vaunted prominence of women in the US armed forces unraveling into archetypal virgins (e.g. Jessica Lynch subjected to faked ‘rescue’ by US Special Forces), witches (Karpinski as ‘bad mother’) and whores (Harman et al fucking with Iraqi men’s heads); yet all, of course, puppet-mastered by patriarchs large and/or small-minded.
In interviews Morris emphasises that ‘The Photographs Actually Hide Things From Us’  and a rare achievement of his film is showing this awareness emerging naturally among the MP patsies, irrespective of philosophically sophisticated ruminations on virtual hyperreality and spectacle . To Ambuhl, “The pictures only show you a fraction of a second. You don’t see forward, you don’t see behind, you don’t see outside the frame”; Harman concludes “The military is nothing but lies. I took these photos to show what the military’s really really like”; and England shrugs, “It’s drama, it’s life” – cementing the theme of fictionalisation at all levels. The questioning thus extends beyond why these particular images arose, survived and proliferated, to not only their editing and incorporation into discourses concerning the war but, most crucially, what focusing on them as the ‘truth’ of the matter therefore facilitated being excluded from consideration. More conventionally worthy efforts sometimes tackle such complexity – such as the Tate Modern media art exhibition 9 Scripts from a Nation At War , which presents the thoughts of various protagonists and observers with different positions, perspectives and prevailing understandings of the Iraq conflict. But the visceral impact of Standard Operating Procedure undermines any simplistic or transparent relationship between information and scientific ‘reality’, exposing the manner of its manipulation in wider structures of contemporary power.
1. The book version, Standard Operating Procedure: A War Story by Philip Gourevitch & Errol Morris (Picador, 2008), integrates the participant accounts of the operation of Abu Ghraib’s torture regime gathered in research for the film.
2. see, for example, www.greencine.com/central/morrissop for a comprehensive discussion.
3. An exhaustive analysis of Sabrina Harman and the Cheshire Cat McGuffin of‘that’ smile can be found in Morris’ New York Times blog (‘The Most Curious Thing’ at http://morris.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/05/19/).
4. June-August 2008; see Imogen O’Rorke’s review, ‘Flipping the Script’ at www.metamute.org.
Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 18, October 2008.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: