Standard Operating Procedure
I've just returned from a screening of Errol Morris's new documentary Standard Operating Procedure, at the Queen's Film Theatre.
Morris's previous documentaries include the Oscar-winning The Fog of War, 'the story of America as seen through the eyes of the former Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara'. Standard Operating Procedure might best be viewed in conversation with that earlier documentary. In this case, the war is not Vietnam, but the second Iraq War. Morris takes us inside Abu Ghraib prison, formerly a centre for the torture and murder of dissidents under Saddam Hussein's regime, and, after the US-led invasion of Iraq, a detention centre in which torture and murder continued to take place.
We've all seen the photographs from Abu Ghraib, which emerged in 2004 -- images that have stained the reputation of the United States. This film tells the story of the photographs: how they were taken, who took them, who was in them, what they depict, how they may be interpreted, and how they have changed the world. It includes explicit images of real torture and graphic re-enactments of prisoners being harshly mistreated. (An irony worth noting: the film features the use by soldiers of Sony cameras in documenting their own crimes, and is distributed by Sony Pictures.)
Why would American military personnel -- some as young as twenty, others in their mid-thirties -- engage in acts of brutality, torture, sexual humiliation and sometimes murder? Why did they believe what they were doing was, in some sense, 'justified' by the context in which they operated? Morris does not mention the Stanford Prison Experiment, but the parallels with that psychological experiment and Abu Ghraib have already been much explored. The film permits us to 'meet' many of those who tortured Iraqi detainees: we hear them describe what they did, and why they did it. To that extent alone, this film is of enormous historical value. It is valuable for other reasons as well. It throws more light, as it were, on the shadowy corners of intelligence-gathering operations and raises questions about the supposed efficacy of torture -- or even 'softening-up techniques' -- as a means to an end. In one scene, a US general argues that Abu Ghraib produced no useful intelligence at all. The arrest of Saddam Hussein, for example, came as a result of intelligence gathering by ordinary soldiers on the ground.
The film includes previously unseen, and deeply disturbing, footage from the prison, and invites the viewer to make various connections that explain -- without justifying -- the behaviour of US soldiers. Factors such as gender play a very significant role, as female soldiers try to prove to their male counterparts that they are their equal, and some male soldiers use sexual humiliation to flirt and seduce female soldiers. Age is also significant, as older and more experienced soldiers exploit the ignorance and nervousness of younger soldiers. Social class membership, too, is everywhere evident as a factor uniting the soldiers in the prison. These are not highly-educated soldiers: even when they write abusive slogans on the bodies of prisoners, they misspell words like 'rapist'. We also witness the exploitation of cultural and religious sensitivities, with Iraqi prisoners stripped naked before being 'interrogated' by female soldiers.
What seems to me a missing link in an otherwise extraordinary film is the connection between those low-rank soldiers subsequently prosecuted for abuses and higher-rank military and political leaders. The film does not follow the documentation-trailto the Pentagon or the White House. Which directives from Donald Rumsfeld and other senior Bush Administration officials ultimately created the conditions that made Abu Ghraib possible? How were government law officers involved in legitimizing the use of torture techniques as a means to an end in the context of war?
On tomorrow's Sunday Sequence, I'll be discussing Standard Operating Procedure with a human rights campaigner, a theologian, and a lawyer: Fiona Smith from Amnesty International, Dr David Tombs from Trinity College Dublin, and John Larkin QC.