Standard Operating Procedure


Detainees at Abu Gharib.

Detainees at Abu Gharib.

(Sony Classics) Sarah Denning, Jeff L. Green, Merry Grissom, Daniel Novy, Lynddie England, Shaun Russell, Joshua Feinman, Janis Karpinski, Cyrus King. Directed by Errol Morris.

The legacy of the George W. Bush presidency is a complex one. Most will remember the economic meltdown that precipitated the fall of the Republicans in the 2008 elections. What may wind up as being far more disturbing in the long run was the advocacy of torture that took place at Guantanamo Bay and at Abu Gharib.

In 2004, photographs came to light that seemed to be incontrovertible evidence that the U.S. military was torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Gharib prison in Baghdad. Seven soldiers, all below the rank of Sergeant, were convicted in separate Courts Martials.

Morris, disturbed by the photographs, wondered about not what was in the photos, for that was very clear, but what was outside the frames. Many of the pictures seemed staged to him (and in fact were); who was staging them and why?

Janis Karpinski, commandant of the prison (who would later be demoted for allowing these abuses during her watch) makes it clear that there not only was torture going on in her prison, but that it was done by independent contractors engaged by higher-ups and with the approval of the Pentagon. Not only does she claim that she is being made a scapegoat (as are the guards who are depicted in the photographs), she alleges that the genesis for the abuses at Abu Gharib go as far up as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The interviews here are curiously emotionless. The camera is an unblinking eye focusing tightly on the faces of the subjects, a Morris trademark. Danny Elfman’s primarily electronic score makes a discordant soundtrack, making the unsettling subject matter seem even more so.

The interviewees are somewhat matter of fact about some pretty horrible things. England, infamous for holding a collapsed Iraqi prisoner named Gus on a leash, was scarcely 20 at the time of the photographs. She was in love with a 35-year-old soldier named Charles Graner, who seems to be the invisible presence staging the pictures and who was one of those sentenced to prison time by the military tribunal (the Army refused to allow him to be interviewed for the film).

They speak about these events with a mixture of sorrow, repentance, resentment and incredulity. More than one of them says that the culture for prisoner humiliation had already been established and they were just following the general pattern of behavior at the time.

It is a disturbing documentary not only for the images of abuse (that are shown in great detail onscreen) but also for its examination of the military mind. The justifications are eerily reminiscent of the excuses given at Nuremberg – we were just following orders. While the military needs the chain of command to function, it is also a soldier’s responsibility to refuse orders that are morally reprehensible. It is also the soldier’s responsibility to act in accordance with the laws of their own country.

The questions Morris asks are legitimate; the answers not always easy nor always given. We will probably never truly see justice rendered for the events at Abu Gharib, nor those ultimately responsible being held accountable. However, this is a gripping film that truly inspires a questioning of what we are told, and what we are not told. We are left to doubt whether our military is acting as representatives of our values. Perhaps that’s the most frightening legacy of all.

WHY RENT THIS: A much more in-depth examination of the atrocities at Abu Gharib than we received from our mass media. A chilling examination as to what happens when soldiers don’t question their orders or their situation.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While there are allegations that those higher up in the chain of responsibility went unpunished, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of attempt to ferret out who those people were.

FAMILY VALUES: There are graphic images of prisoner abuse, and descriptions of torture.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first documentary to be nominated for the prestigious Golden Bear award, the highest honor given to a participant at the Berlin Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Additional interviews, as well as extensions of the interviews onscreen are presented. The Blu-Ray edition also includes a panel discussion on the use of torture and how the International community can protest it.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Curse of the Golden Flower