Wednesday, July 02, 2008

SOP Shows Another Side Of Abu Ghraib


Filmmaker Errol Morris assumes you know everything about Abu Ghraib.

How American soldiers put Iraqi prisoners in humiliating, homoerotic poses while an impish guard with cigarette dangling from her mouth flashed the infamous thumbs up.

He assumes you agree that the maelstrom of negative world opinion that was unleashed from those photographs was a poignant reminder that the war in Iraq is a horrendous mistake.

Because Morris, who won an Academy Award for the documentary dealing with the folly of war in Vietnam, "Fog of War", believes the audience agrees with the premise, he offers up "Standard Operating Procedure", a one-dimensional film devoid of any passion.

Morris doesn't stoke the anger that the release of the photos garnered throughout the world.

You don't come away from the film with a sense of the catastrophe that these abuses meant to the prosecution of this war or, more importantly, that it could happen again.

More to the point, because of the the film's title, Morris believes these acts are common and condoned by the U.S. military establishment. But, he doesn't fully attack the higher ups, except through the appearance of Gen. Janis Karpinski who gives first-person insight into the wheels of the Army and the Pentagon when she says her willingness to hold a press conference coming clean about the acts at Abu Ghraib were rebuffed by the Pentagon.

One soldier even described numerous visits by military leaders as "dog and pony shows" where the prison was cleansed of any hint of impropriety and every prisoner had a mattress to sleep on.

What Morris succeeds in Standard Operating Procedure is telling the story of the photos around its unseen periphery. He argues a photo, in itself, can be taken out of context.

We learn that the infamous hooded Iraqi man standing on a cardboard box is called is said to be "actually a decent guy" and performed odd jobs around the prison.

The most important appearance in the film is the scandal's most well-known participant, Lynddie England, the small, female soldier with a crooked smile.

Amidst the confusion and horror of Abu Ghraib, she tells a story of a love affair with Corp. Charles Graner, the apparent ringleader of the abuses, who was 14 years her senior and who she would do anything for his attention.

England, who looks older and full-faced since the photographs protests what they did at Abu Ghraib was learned from the culture of the prison before they even arrived and downplays the attention the photos received.

"We didn't kill them. We didn't shoot them. We just did what we were told to do," said England.
Another pivotal player in this film, is Sabrina Harman, one of the soldiers who actually snapped the photos. Harman says she was acting as documentarian, cataloging the abuses at the prison for the outside world. Morris is sympathetic to her argument and provides evidence through correspondences to her partner.

If Harman does anything, she helps the film correct a common misconception about Abu Ghraib that the real torture occurred after these guards "soften them up".

Harman is pressed by Morris to explain the photo of herself smiling with, again the ubiquitous thumbs up, with a dead Iraqi prisoner packed in ice. Her answer to the effect that people inherently smile when taking pictures is less than convincing, but the story of why the prisoner is dead lands squarely on something insidious that occurs outside the lens or the perimeter of the prison.

What Standard Operating Procedures aims to accomplish is an assault on American military culture, but when people like Jermey Sivits say, "When you're in war, things change," you become sympathetic to an "anything goes" philosophy.

Morris illustrates wonderfully what's outside the frame--it's not what is cropped, but what never visually appears, but he never fully asks how or why it happened other than to say it's standard operating procedure.

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