Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure

The photographs of what appears to be the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq raised many questions. At the least, they suggested a breakdown at the level of the soldiers directly overseeing the inmates, flaws in the command structure of the U. S. military, fundamental problems with military interrogation procedures. They raised moral and ethical questions focused on our presence in Iraq and whether our own announced intention to bring democracy, law, and order to Iraq needed to include our own government and military policy. And they raised questions about context: do the photographs truly show what they appear to show, or are there mitigating circumstances?

Standard Operating Procedure (2008) relies on a series of interviews with the American military personnel involved in the events at Abu Ghraib prison, from the individual prison guards and soldiers to their commanding officers. There is almost without exception a lot of defensive blaming. Few are willing to take responsibility for what happened. Some were too young. Some thought they were carrying out orders. Some didn't know what was going on. Some felt they were made scapegoats.

Context is a crucial element in all of Errol Morris' documentaries. Documentary films purport to show reality. They function with an illusion of objectivity even when they take a strong point of view. They seek to adhere—or are supposed to—to the laws of logic, fact, credibility. Morris is a filmmaker with a particular point of view. It was clear enough in his documentary The Fog of War (2003), where he basically allowed Robert McNamara, secretary of defense during the Vietnam years in the 1960s, to do most of the talking, with the exception of a few questions we hear Morris ask off-camera. (Whether there were other questions asked off-camera we do not know. We have to assume there were). The result was that McNamara managed to make all the critical points that one would wish to make in a film about American foreign policy during those years.

Context is an explicit subject in parts of Standard Operating Procedure. One interviewer talks about a photograph in which she is shown next to a nude prisoner crouched on all fours. She points out that the way the picture has been cropped makes it appear that she is the only military person in the image and therefore the person responsible for what is going on. She notes that in an uncropped version of the image another American is standing nearby, watching. In general the film argues that the tight focus on the guards and personnel at Abu Ghraib prison tended to deny a larger web of responsibility for the events—a web in which, to an extent, the Americans at Abu Ghraib were hapless pawns rather than independent agents.

Morris is a reputable filmmaker. Unlike Michael Moore, he is not a propagandist. Although we may assume he knows where he is headed in his films before he begins, he likes to investigate, examine, interrogate, and let the answers and evidence that accumulate make their own statements. Of course, as the filmmaker he's in the ideal position to determine what those statements will be. But his films do admit to the complexity of the subjects he examines. In this one Morris employs a number of reenactments to illustrate the points being made in the interviews. There is a certain coercive effect in the reenactments, the accompanying music, the editing, and the juxtaposition of actual photographs alongside the faces of interviewees and images from the reenactments.

It's clear that Morris doesn't place primary blame on the American soldiers who served as guards in the prison. Many of them were fairly young. One was barely 21. They had little experience in wartime situations, and even when they objected to what was going on they felt they had no recourse but to follow orders. The film does draw distinctions between actions that were clearly in violation of law and procedure—for instance, forcing inmates to pose naked, allowing guards to take photographs of prisoners in humiliating positions—and there were others that were simply standard operating procedure—the film suggests that even those procedures were objectionable.

I think Morris is right to place blame on the military hierarchy that allowed the abuses at Abu Ghraib to occur. Yet the soldiers themselves cannot be excused either. The film as a whole raises questions about whether the civilized, democratic values we pride ourselves on as a nation extend to the citizens of the nations we invade and occupy, even when they might be hostile combatants.

Standard Operating Procedure is not as compelling as some of Morris' other films. It lacks the suspense and complexity of Thin Blue Line (1988). It doesn't have a central personality as its focus, as in The Fog of War. There is no real mystery to be revealed, other than the answer to the question of how such lapses in judgment and morality could happen in the first place.

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