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Standard Operating Procedure

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William Crawley | 21:18 UK time, Saturday, 16 August 2008

abughraib.pngI'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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Which war was it again that didn't have atrocities on both sides?


    Why single out this one?

    Nobody knows what intelligence will or will not be gained from particular interrogation techniques on particular individuals until they are tried. Nobody knows what they would do themselves if they were in a war in similar circumstances. It's easy to sit back in the comfort of your living room and pass judgement on people whose lives are in perpetual danger in the heat of battle. Some of them will crack but I am grateful to all of them for volunteering to risk their lives to protect mine. Smearing the reputation of the many who didn't commit war crimes by perpetually focusing on the acts of a few who did is a vicious smear campaign designed to defame the best fighting force to defend freedom in the world. This blog is a disgrace.

  • Comment number 2.

    "It's easy to sit back in the comfort of your living room and pass judgement on people whose lives are in perpetual danger in the heat of battle. Some of them will crack but I am grateful to all of them for volunteering to risk their lives to protect mine."

    Are those running interrogations at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay putting their lives at risk? Do they face the heat of battle?

  • Comment number 3.

    "Volunteering to risk their lives to protect mine".

    How on earth were they protecting your life at Abu Ghraib? American citizens are a bigger threat to your life (look at the murder rate). What threat were Iraqis to Americans before the invasion? The truth is that they were less a threat than a a good many other people in various parts of the world who would love to get revenge for the way Americans have treated them. Don't be surprised if 20 years down the line your 'fear' becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    If the 'free world' abuses freedom and rights in the cause of freedom, then it destroys its own case.

    Mark, it is sad that your freethinking and critical attitude to other matters is belittled by your uncritical, sycophantic warmongering subservience to American imperialism. Open your eyes. You have a huge self-imposed blind spot.

  • Comment number 4.


    The life of anyone in a war zone is at risk. I thought you were smarter than that.


    we may never know the truth about whether or not Iraq had WMDs. Practically every major intelligence service including M5 believed it did. There was a mountain of circumstantial evidence that they did. It may all have been a stupid ruse to make us think they did. They had six months to hide them between 9-02 when the US wanted to strike and 3-03 after attempts to get a redundant UN resolution to cover Blair politically at home failed and the weather in theater was changing. Perhaps some of it was faked by the intelligence services themselves to skew the advice they were giving their governments because they feared the worst and wanted an invasion. The sexed up dodgy dossier was a BRITISH document. Blair believed it, why shouldn't Bush and the CIA also have? You act on the best information you have. In the case of WMDs in the hands of those you feel are likely to strike you with them, you err on the side of safety. Iran is making the same mistake and the results will be the same only in their case probably an even worse strike and ultimate outcome for them. In thiis era, a pre-emptive strike is the only rational course of action when other forms of coercive persuasion fail.

    I'm also grateful to police and the prison system which protects my life from more ordinary criminals closer to home.

    If you think America is as spineless as Europe, you are mistaken and it will not be cowed or reined in by anyone on the outside. Europe has lost all influence and credibility with America. There is nothing it can say or do which will be listened to anymore. It's been dead wrong on critical matters of survival too many times.

  • Comment number 5.

    So two members of Amnesty for Abortion, and an Irish lawyer. And who was speaking for the American side? Presumably William did that himself.

  • Comment number 6.

    The disgraceful inhuman behaviour carried out by the American military personnel under the direction of their political god-fathers at the Abu Graib prison is only a sad reflection of American low self esteem.

    Their torture regime is a product of gung-ho panic by the bully in the playground of the world by attacking the weak and vulnerable to take the bad look of their lack of competence in dealing with world terrorism.

    Being wronged does not give America the right to reap vengeance by unlawfully retaliating against the helplessness of human bodies created in the image of God, by torturing the human body they are attacking the sacredness of creation.

    The American military/political regime have committed serious human rights violations against powerless human beings by removing their freedom by instituting a form of slavery make worse by torture, the American regime misguidedly carry out torture inflicted by one human being on another supposedly to gain an some advantage in the pursuit of truth, exploiting the weak by a form of military capitalism, the strong controlling and exploiting the weak they try to equate their illegal torture regime as legal corporal punishment, by doing this they dishonour the name of America and they become a perpetrator against the truth of God and His image, by doing this they join a long list of war criminals they discredit the pursuit for truth and justice.

    All forms of torture must be condemmed by any right thinking person as dehumanization, both to its victims and also to the perpetrators, the end does not justify the means.

    “The human body must never become a thing, an object as might fall under the unrestricted power of another man and be used solely as a means to his own ends”Dietrich Bonhoeffer

    The declaration of Tokyo which advises doctors against the use of torture should also be a guiding principle for those that are born in the image of God.


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