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Errol Morris on Abu Ghraib

On the Internet, it’s called “doing a Lynndie.” You may have heard of it. It’s the art of ironically recreating the iconic Abu Ghraib photograph in which Private Lynndie England blithely gestures to the exposed genitals of a stripped and hooded Iraqi man, her hips cocked, her cigarette slumping from a pale-lipped smile. A “Lynndie” is meant as a stamp and seal of humiliation for both the degraded—usually a stranger passed out drunk—and the Lynndie stand-in. On the humor website Bad Gas, which is credited with kicking off the fad, doing a Lynndie is about capturing the spirit of England, whom the site describes as a “diminutive, pea-brained, gender-bending torturer.”

On the set of <i>Standard Operating Procedure</i>. Photo by Nubar Alexanian ©2007 Max Ave Productions Courtesy. Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.
On the set of Standard Operating Procedure. Photo by Nubar Alexanian ©2007 Max Ave Productions Courtesy. Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.

For most people the story ends there, in the frame of that sordid photograph. But for England, a Kentucky-born army reservist, it began just after midnight on Nov. 8, 2003, when Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick and Corporal Charles Graner goaded her into posing for a photograph with a line of naked detainees. The Iraqis were hooded and forced to masturbate. England says she didn’t want to be in the photo, but that Graner insisted. He said it was a present for her. England, “blinded by being in love” with Graner, gave in. The fateful shutter opened and shut. It was England’s 21st birthday.
To contemplate the trauma of such a 21st birthday is to inhabit the world of the new Errol Morris documentary Standard Operating Procedure, about the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The film is flush with graphic photographs of detainees in stress positions, hooded with sandbags or panties, or piled into a twisted human pyramid in a prison where Saddam Hussein once executed 30,000 of their countrymen. But Morris focuses, through interviews, almost exclusively on members of the 372nd Military Police Company, the seven so-called “bad apples” who were photographed perpetrating the abuse. In this way, Morris says, his documentary is “the flip side” of his last feature, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), which is “about a man at the very top of the pyramid, the man second in the chain of command to the President. These are people who, rather than at the apex of the pyramid, are at the bottom.”

Standard Operating Procedure has been compared, often unfavorably, to Taxi to the Dark Side, the Oscar-winning 2007 documentary exposing the mechanics of detainee abuse in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. Moviegoers expecting an explicit indictment of Donald Rumsfeld and other Washington officials for creating the conditions in which torture could flourish will leave Morris’ film disappointed. But it is an invaluable investigation into the human questions we are left grappling with in an era of extraordinary rendition and indefinite extralegal detainment. Standard Operating Procedure is to Abu Ghraib what Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is to nuclear war. Both are meditations on apocalypse, whether it takes shape as the spiritual annihilation of individuals in a prison or the atomic immolation of our society.

Morris says that the Abu Ghraib photographs are “both an exposé and a coverup,” in that while they brought torture to the attention of the American public and the world, they also “convinced journalists and readers that they had seen everything, that there was no need to look further.” In a way, his documentary comes close to making the same mistake. While the film is built on exhaustive interviews of American guards in the prison, an interrogator, and Janis Karpinski, the Brigadier General who oversaw the military prison system in Iraq, viewers are confronted by the thundering silence of the detainees themselves. Morris made a long search for former Abu Ghraib inmates to interview on camera, but came up empty-handed. So their suffering takes place, for the most part, outside the frame. On screen, as in the prison, the Iraqi detainees are reduced to anonymous bodies. Graner, too, is mostly absent. He remains in military prison, unavailable for comment, though he stares menacingly out from photos and grainy, silent video footage like a movie monster.

The images of abuse and stories behind them are nauseating for their brutality and senselessness (no actionable military intelligence was obtained from the hundreds of Iraqis who were sucked indiscriminately and without trial into the maw of Abu Ghraib). Still, there’s a sense of detachment in seeing these photos, juxtaposed with the rationalizing and humanizing testimonies of the Americans who took, staged, and posed in them.

Ultimately we do glimpse the emotional impact of unjust incarceration in this film. It flashes across the face of Roman Krol, the military intelligence specialist who was sentenced to ten months in prison and dishonorably discharged for his role at Abu Ghraib. He was caught, without his knowledge, in the background of a photograph of detainees piled helter-skelter in the middle of a prison tier. When Krol says he was “more humiliated than punished” by his sentence, it is difficult not to think of “Gilligan,” the Iraqi so nicknamed by his American captors, who was photographed standing on a box with wires attached to his fingers, told that he would be electrocuted if he fell. In the film he’s described as a young guy, maybe 25 years old, mostly decent, and nevertheless kept awake for hours on a box in a shower stall, made to believe he was one slip away from death.

Like Krol, the other Americans in the film who were punished in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal say they were unjustly punished. They feel scapegoated, made examples of not because of their behavior, which they claim was ubiquitous not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, but because they were unlucky enough to be featured in photographs that embarrassed the commander-in-chief and tarnished the image of his war. While the higher-ups pay no price, the foot soldiers shoulder the blame—but the fog of war has now settled into all the ranks.

The film’s darkly whimsical score, by Danny Elfman, sometimes lends the movie the feel of a twisted Tim Burton misadventure. That’s fitting, because Standard Operating Procedure is a surreal sort of horror movie. It’s about photography that deforms and eventually destroys everyone it captures, imprisoning them forever, in their monstrosity, in the public consciousness. Photographs can incarcerate as ably as prison walls. They reduce us to a single moment, for better or worse. And in the case of Abu Ghraib, there is only worse.


Ryan Hagen

Ryan Hagen is a writer living in Brooklyn. His writing has also appeared in The New York Moon.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

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