Almost five years after Abu Ghraib, the story is about to kick off another media spree: Errol Morris’s documentary “Standard Operating Procedure” is due for release on April 25, to be followed by the release of a book of the same title by Morris and Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch. This week Morris and Gourevitch published an article in The New Yorker about Sabrina Harman, one of the soldiers convicted in the Abu Ghraib abuses. The piece repeats much of the same information in the film, though it benefits by being separated from the movie’s silly sci-fi style graphics (rows of pictures marching along through space and clicking into place as though we’re about to get a progress report on the building of the Death Star) and its heavy reliance on so much reenactment footage blurring the thin celluloid line between documentary and fiction film that you expect Robert Stack to chime in to ask us for help in solving the mystery.
Errol Morris may be the most acclaimed documentary filmmaker in America; unlike Ken Burns, he takes on controversial current events and unlike Michael Moore, he doesn’t put his own clowning at the center of the story. His 1988 film “The Thin Blue Line” helped get a man charged with murdering a police officer out of prison. “Standard Operating Procedure” figures to uncork a gusher of praise as well, but the film simply fails to do what it intends to do: find someone important to finger for Abu Ghraib.
From the first publication of the Abu Ghraib pictures—no, “60 Minutes” didn’t “break the story,” but simply piggybacked onto an internal military investigation—antiwar activists have been aching for someone to prove what they just know to be true: that the Abu Ghraib pictures resulted not from the depravity of some poorly-trained low-ranking Reservists but from orders given on high. “It’s much easier for us as a society to imagine seven bad apples than to face the reality of what we were doing,” Morris says in press notes to “Standard Operating Procedure,” which makes use of lengthy interviews with most of the convicted soldiers and the brigadier general, Janis Karpinski, who was relieved of her command of the 800th MP brigade, and demoted to colonel, in the wake of the scandal.
But Karpinski, a seething presence in the film, says she didn’t know what was going on, and it’s easy to believe her. The low-ranking enlisted personnel, meanwhile, keep blaming the abuses on a vague “they” somewhere between them and Karpinski, or resort to the passive voice: This was being done, we keep hearing. But the soldiers in the film can’t come up with the names of anyone who ordered them to do the things they did, or even who knew what they were doing. “Who done it?” Morris and Gourevitch ask in the New Yorker story but they offer no answer; no one above the rank of staff sergeant was convicted of an Abu Ghraib-related crime. Asked about Abu Ghraib’s “smoking gun,” Gourevitch frequently responds, “Abu Ghraib is the smoking gun.”
To an extent he’s right: the pictures remain shocking, not because they depict torture but because even today you rarely see a nude male body in a film. A naked man’s body looks helplessly frail and vulnerable, particular when fully-clothed soldiers stand around in mocking poses, having put panties or a hood on their victims’ heads. But stripping men naked and forcing them to make a human pyramid is the kind of thing fraternities do in hazing week. As Lynndie England points out in the film, when she was pictured holding a leashed naked prisoner, she wasn’t yanking on the leash. She’s barely bigger than a poodle herself, and the leash is slack.
The great liberal construction of Abu Ghraib is that it proves America is the bad guy, in this war and maybe in general, but when you look closely at the events, you get tripped up by a lot of other liberal truisms. “Standard Operating Procedure” is a story of the poor, the uneducated, women and gays—and the awful things they did. Harman, for instance, a gay soldier who, though sensitive—she wouldn’t allow her fellow soldiers to kill a cricket that was annoying them—and spiritually wounded by the experience, is also seen flashing a brilliant smile and a thumbs up while posing next to a horribly roasted cadaver.
It turns out she is the one who told “Gilligan,” the infamous hooded prisoner who was forced to stand on a box, that he would be electrocuted via the wires attached to his fingertips if he stepped off the box. So it turns out the most “iconic” image of American nastiness, the one used to sell T-shirts and coffee-table books was the product of a kind, thoughtful, working-class, soft-spoken young lesbian and two other low-ranking soldiers (staff sergeant Ivan Frederick and corporal Charles Graner, both of whom were not interviewed for the film and perhaps as a result come off especially badly. Graner is still in prison, serving a ten-year sentence.)
Moreover, one message of “Standard Operating Procedure” is that there may be much more to the photograph than the photograph. In no case is this more true than in the most famous picture. Gilligan was only made to stand on the box for “ten or fifteen minutes,” apparently didn’t take the electrocution threat seriously, soon laughed about it, and subsequently became a model prisoner and even palled around with Harman and fellow soldier Megan Ambuhl. “He was just a funny, funny guy,” Harman says. “If you’re going to take someone home, I would definitely have taken him.” So the smokingest of smoking guns turns out to be . . . a water pistol.