Film review: Standard Operating Procedure

23.7.08

Standard Operating Procedure - film posterOn Sunday July 13, I had the pleasure of taking part in a panel discussion, following a special preview screening at the Curzon Cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue, of Standard Operating Procedure, a documentary about the Abu Ghraib scandal by acclaimed film-maker Errol Morris. The event was organized by the Frontline Club, an excellent journalists’ club (and restaurant) in Paddington, which holds regular events, mostly on “frontline” topics that are not covered adequately in the mainstream media.

Morris’ film focuses, specifically, on the Military Police soldiers working at the prison’s “hard site” — Tiers 1A and 1B of Saddam Hussein’s old torture prison — where the supposed “high-value” prisoners were held, although in this, as in every other facet of the “War on Terror,” the “intelligence” that had led to their capture was not necessarily reliable.

The soldiers — none of whom received specific training as prison guards in wartime — were instructed not merely to guard the prisoners but also to subordinate their roles to the requirements of Military Intelligence and visiting representatives of the CIA by “softening up” the prisoners for interrogation. The ironic upshot, of course, was a regime of abuse that did more than almost anything else to blacken the name of the US occupiers in Iraq.

As well as featuring in-depth interviews with many of the soldiers who were later charged and imprisoned for the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, which humanizes them (although not always in a flattering manner), the film also focuses on the “evidence” that led to their convictions: the notorious photos taken by three of the soldiers, which have been the most horrifically iconic images of the “War on Terror” since they were first broadcast by CBS in April 2004.

Morris’ great achievement is to examine the stories behind the photos by talking to those involved, and what he discovered not only propels the viewer into the claustrophobic horrors of Abu Ghraib, but also allows the participants in that horror to explain how the photos came about, and what they actually portray.

Conceived, in some cases, as providing “evidence” of what the soldiers were required or encouraged to do, the photos certainly chronicle the abuse of prisoners — the notorious human pyramid of naked prisoners, for example, which was followed by a sickening session in which the prisoners were forced to masturbate — although other photos, which seem to capture other forms of creative abuse, actually record the guards’ attempts to restrain some of the many violent prisoners with severe mental health problems who were placed in their care.

Abu Ghraib - the The film also reveals that some of the most notorious photos — the hooded man, for example, standing on a box in a pose reminiscent of the Crucifixion, with wires trailing from his fingers — was put in that position partly for the benefit of the cameras, and partly as a failed attempt to “soften him up” for interrogation, as required. The soldiers reveal that the wires were not electrified, and also explain that the prisoner in question — a man named Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh (although he is not named in the film, and there has been confusion about his identity) — was soon discovered to be one of the many prisoners seized by mistake. They state that he subsequently became part of a team of prisoners, trusted by the guards, who were regularly allowed out of their cells to help with the cleaning of the cell blocks.

The effect of all these explanations is, frankly, disconcerting. On the one hand, the viewer is encouraged to question his or her assumptions about photos that seem to show sadistic abuse when this was not apparently the case, but on the other hand some of this abuse was all too real. Where the film fails, I think, is in its unwillingness to keep reminding the viewers that, although sadism was part of at least some of the guards’ approach to their work, their behaviour was only possible because those responsible for defining the parameters of their mission — at the highest levels of government — had shredded the Geneva Conventions, the rules prohibiting physical violence or torture in the Army Field Manual, and the UN Convention Against Torture, to which the US is a signatory.

Though often brutal, the guards were not merely, as the President described them, a “few bad apples,” and nor was the abuse the result of “Animal House on the night shift,” as former defense secretary James R. Schlesinger described it in a report on the abuse that failed to look up the chain of command for explanations. Their actions were, instead, the direct result of telling soldiers, who are trained to follow orders and to observe the Geneva Conventions, that the Conventions no longer apply, that their orders are to indulge in behaviour that was previously regarded as illegal, and that, moreover, they are to use their imaginations to find new ways of indulging in behaviour that was previously regarded as illegal. This is not to excuse their crimes, or to deflect attention from the manner in which they were corrupted in their mission (à la Lord of the Flies, or, perhaps more accurately, the Stanford Prison Experiment); it is, instead, meant to keep in mind the biggest villains of all — in the White House and the Pentagon.

After the film was shown, Richard Watson of the BBC’s Newsnight moderated the panel discussion, in which Tom Porteous, the UK Director of Human Rights Watch, Leanne Macmillan, the Director of Policy & External Affairs for the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and myself, as the author of The Guantánamo Files and a representative of the legal action charity Reprieve, answered questions from an audience that was clearly engaged with the issues raised in Morris’ film. We also dealt with additional questions from Richard Watson himself, who, in the absence of anyone willing to put the US government’s case for abandoning the Geneva Conventions and sanctioning the use of torture, occasionally played Devil’s Advocate in true BBC fashion.

The questions focused largely on torture — how it is defined, what steps the US administration took to redefine torture (as the inflicting of pain that “must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”), and why it is both morally corrosive and counter-productive as a method of gathering reliable intelligence. The questions also included an interesting detour into the Baha Mousa scandal, in which British soldiers murdered a hotel worker in their custody, overriding prohibitions against torture and abuse in the British army, and demonstrating, it seems, that signing up as a US ally in the “War on Terror” also involved signing up to the whole sordid package of abrogation from the Geneva Conventions, and the resuscitation of torture.

While fascinating in and of themselves, however, the lines of questioning also highlighted the film’s weaknesses, as mentioned above. Beyond hints dropped by various players in the scandal, the film refuses to focus on the abuse in a wider context; in other words, to spell out clearly how the drivers of the post-9/11 policy of detention and interrogation — in particular, Vice President Dick Cheney, his legal counsel David Addington, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush — had, through a series of secret memos, deliberately excluded the prisoners from the protections of the Geneva Conventions, had approved the use of torture, had specifically imported harsh interrogation techniques — or the lack of restraints on harsh interrogation techniques — to Abu Ghraib from Guantánamo and from the US prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, and had, moreover, granted seemingly limitless freedom to the CIA and other agencies to behave however they wanted.

Manadel al-Jamadi, murdered in Abu Ghraib, November 2003In the film, the soldiers describe how the unaccountable CIA agents brought in “ghost prisoners,” who were never accounted for, and some of the film’s most shocking scenes concern the “ghost prisoner” Manadel al-Jamadi, who died while in CIA custody and was then packed in ice and stored in a cell on the block, while the agency and those in charge of the military operations worked out how to dispose of the corpse. As a kind of forensic exercise, one of the soldiers took photos of the corpse; actions for which she was later charged. Significantly, the charges were dropped when it became apparent to the authorities that pursuing them would bring the murder — and the CIA’s actions — out into the open. To this day, however, although the photographer was convicted for conspiracy, dereliction of duty and cruelty and maltreatment relating to the rest of her actions while on duty at Abu Ghraib, no one from the CIA has been charged in connection with the murder. In a detailed investigation for the New Yorker, Jane Mayer concluded that it was possible that, “under the Bush Administration’s secret interrogation guidelines, the killing of Jamadi might not have broken any laws.”

In conclusion, then, it may be that sidelining the bigger picture was required to create the claustrophobic atmosphere that defines Standard Operating Procedure. Behind the big-budget graphics and technical wizardry that punctuate the film — in which the backers, Sony, seem perversely delighted by Morris’ focus on the Sony cameras that were used to take the photos — the viewer is trapped in Abu Ghraib with little to focus on beyond the abuse, the photos and the soldiers who took them. It works well as a sordid and distressing chamber piece, but I’d be sorely disappointed if viewers left the cinema unaware of the puppet masters who set up the whole malign experiment in the first place, and who have never been called to account.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on Nth Position.

For other articles on Abu Ghraib, see: Remember Abu Ghraib? (a review of Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), In the Guardian: The 5th anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal (April 2009), The Torture Photos We’re Not Supposed To See (May 2009).

For other articles on Iraq, see: Book Review: Road From Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía (January 2008), Iraq’s refugees in Syria: Mike Otterman reports (February 2008), UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices (March 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Refuting Cheney’s Lies: The Stories of Six Prisoners Released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison (May 2009), Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (May 2009), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq (May 2009), Cheney’s Lies Undermined By Iraq Interrogator Matthew Alexander (May 2009).

2 Responses

  1. Jim says...

    I missed this post when it was first put on the site, but hopefully it’s relevant again now that this film is on DVD. I haven’t seen the film, but most reviews I’ve read tend to agree with its apparent view of the few military personnel convicted of crimes at Abu Ghraib as scapegoats, and it’s disappointing to see a bit of that even in this review (even if it does say “This is not to excuse [the soldiers'] crimes”). Yes, the White House and Pentagon should be held accountable for the torture of prisoners, but so should the people who actually do the torturing; it’s disturbing that the “just following orders” defense is accepted by so many when it’s used by certain offenders.

  2. In the Guardian: The 5th anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib, and Film Review: Standard Operating Procedure (a review of Errol Morris’ challenging documentary about the scandal). And for other articles on [...]

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