SOP Obscures The Truth
From Hades... | Germany | 09/21/2008
(1 out of 5 stars)
"Representatives for film director Errol Morris told me during pre-production that "Standard Operating Procedure" would be the very best documentary on the abuses of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib - the one that would tell the whole truth.
I had pinned great hope on that. It didn't turn out that way.
My perspective on the Abu Ghraib scandal came from spending from September 2003 to February 2004 at the Iraq prison as a sergeant in Army Intelligence. Working the 8 p.m.-to- 8 a.m. night shift, it was impossible not to notice who was directing the operation. And I shared all this with Morris.
But now I've seen the film and I'm disappointed. Morris does little to get to the bottom of what happened. He muddies already opaque waters regarding who was actually responsible for the abuse of prisoners.
The film focuses on the awful photos, the people in them and those who took them. This perspective plays right into the hands of the cover-up artists. It perpetuates the myth that the abuses are rightfully laid at the feet of those impressionable, but very human, young soldiers.
Morris should have been looking up the chain of command; at the civilian and military officials actually responsible for ordering these Military Police Reservists to rough up prisoners.
A no-holds-barred documentary? Give me a break.
Finally, the Whole Truth!
I was first put into contact with the makers of "SOP" while I was still in the Army. From the beginning, I was told this was going to be a huge project with the production support of Sony Pictures Entertainment; and that Morris, who had won an Oscar with his documentary, "The Fog of War," would be at the helm.
This was to be the breakthrough investigation into what really happened at Abu Ghraib, who was responsible for the abuse and why it was ordered - the project that really got people's attention, going where previous investigators and media had feared to tread.
Call me gullible but, believing this was to be a groundbreaking work, I fully cooperated with Morris. I assisted him in his quest for documents, videos, photos, notes and helped him contact fellow soldiers who were at Abu Ghraib and knew what happened.
When I was discharged from the Army in October 2006, I went to Boston for a two-day interview.
Morris asked me to sign several contracts before and after the interviews, and I did as he asked without paying much attention to them. I do remember however, that in one contract Morris agreed to pay me one dollar.
In any event, I never got the dollar, but was reminded of this last week when I read in the New York Times that others got paychecks for their participation.
I have never asked for or taken money for media interviews. To me, that undermines the process and trivializes the importance of the issues of torture and prisoner mistreatment and their meaning for the moral atmosphere in our country as a whole.
When the film was finished, Morris told me he had intended to use some of the footage from my two days of interviews and the materials I provided, but decided in the end to "narrowly focus" on the Military Police. This, of course, is what so many others have done and is in the worst tradition of a Nixon-style "modified, limited hangout."
Chain of Command?
Here's the oddest thing: Even though Morris's lens is trained on the Military Police, he does find room for a civilian interrogator, Tim Dugan, who worked at Abu Ghraib for CACI, a contractor factory for civilian interrogators.
I witnessed for myself how civilian personnel, like Dugan, corrupted the military. Indeed, they were the genesis of the break from conventional interrogation techniques into what Vice President Dick Cheney hinted at when he spoke of the "dark side" of intelligence.
It was they who ordered the Military Police and some of my own unit's Military Intelligence soldiers to "soften" the detainees for interrogation, and encouraged the behavior depicted in the photographs. I know; I was there. And, of course, I told Errol Morris.
So I was surprised, to say the least, to see Morris giving Dugan a place to contend that, essentially, the abuses were all the military's fault.
Odd indeed. Even Maj. Gen. George Fay, whose investigation of Abu Ghraib left much to be desired, reported the pernicious effect civilian interrogators had on the impressionable and inexperienced soldiers.
Fay reported, for example that Daniel Johnson, one of Dugan's CACI interrogator colleagues, whom I knew at Abu Ghraib, was using Spc. Charles Graner as "muscle" for his interrogations.
And yet, Morris describes Dugan as "remarkable." Remarkable, indeed, Errol.
Did no one tell you that CACI, Dugan and several of his fellow interrogators were sued by their victims in Abu Ghraib, seeking to hold them accountable for their behavior?
In the civil case brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Abu Ghraib prisoners, the lawsuit implicates Dugan in the abuse.
"CACI interrogator Timothy Dugan also tortured plaintiffs and other prisoners," the lawsuit alleges. "For example, he physically dragged handcuffed plaintiffs and other prisoners along the ground to inflict pain on them. He struck and beat plaintiffs and other prisoners. He bragged to a non-conspirator about scaring a prisoner with threats to such a degree that the prisoner vomited.
"When a young non-conspirator directed him to cease the torture and comply [with] Army Field Manual 34-52, Dugan scoffed at his youth and refused to follow the direction."
The lawsuit further alleges that Dugan took part in a CACI cover-up of when a detainee died by going through "the charade of interrogating a prisoner who was already dead as part of the conspiracy's efforts to conceal a murder." Dugan is accused, too, of threatening a fellow CACI employee who talked to investigators.
CACI has denounced the lawsuit as baseless, and the individual defendants were dismissed out on a technicality. However, on Nov. 6, 2007, U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson in Washington denied CACI's motion for summary judgment and ordered a jury trial against CACI.
A criminal investigation also is pending in the Eastern District of Virginia concerning some of the CACI employees.
In "SOP," Dugan presents himself as a whistleblower who tried to stop the abuses. He claims that he reported to his "section sergeant" that two Army female interrogators were stripping detainees naked as an interrogation technique, and how shocked he was to see this.
Dugan claims he got the brush-off; was told not to get involved. So who was this "section sergeant?" And is he/she above the law?
Why did Dugan not offer himself as a witness in any of the various investigations? Where has he been if he felt then the way he now says he did? Again, why sport the good-guy badge now?
I came away with the impression that Morris was unprepared for the interview and was being taken for a ride.
For obvious reasons, CACI has gone to extraordinary lengths to separate itself from the horrors of Abu Ghraib, arguing that the military alone was at fault.
CACI recently announced the release of a book, Our Good Name: A Company's Fight To Defend Its Honor And Get The Truth About Abu Ghraib.
CACI contends strongly that its interrogators adhered to the military chain of command, something it has been feverishly trying to establish in the lawsuits against it.
And so, the behavior captured in the photos? That was the military's responsibility, not CACI's.
That is not what I observed from my ringside seat.
I told Morris that the reality was that the civilian contractors paid little heed to the military chain of command, and that they were the ones actually running the show. That didn't make it into the final version of "SOP."
Even though it is now an established fact that between 70 to 90 percent of detainees at Abu Ghraib were completely innocent, something I learned directly on site, Dugan implies that the harsh interrogation practices applied there were legitimate - except of course for the failings of the military.
This myth-making is intended to hold CACI harmless and help it maintain its very lucrative government contracts. CACI International had $1.6 billion in revenues in 2005. Folks have always told me it all has to do with money; I suppose they're right.
But Congress should be asking some simple questions. It should start by asking why civilian contractors are being employed in connection with the interrogation of persons under detention in wartime, a function which previously has been entirely in the hands of the uniformed military?
This could yield some interesting answers. Indeed, evasion of military rules and discipline as well as avoidance of congressional oversight might be at the heart of the answers.
Morris takes pride in calling "SOP" a horror movie and - with the mood music and the needless slow-motion reenactments - he makes sure of that.
However, "SOP" does little more than humanize some of the "bad apples" (a good thing, I suppose), while gratuitously absolving the civilian interrogators actually responsible for fouling those apples.
But, wait. Abu Ghraib is not primarily about Military Police - or civilian interrogators. It is about the many thousands of wrongfully detained Iraqis - many of them abused, tortured and even killed. It is also about their families. What about their story?
Morris has called "SOP" just "the tip of the iceberg," citing the unused volumes of material he's collected since production began. But Morris owed his viewers a glimpse of the whole iceberg, not just the small misleading piece that bobbed above the surface.
He has announced his next film project: a comedy. Go figure."
Important Exposure, Necessary Information
Grady Harp | Los Angeles, CA United States | 11/27/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"As is obvious in the complex responses to both the book and the film by Errol Morris and Philip Gourevitch, STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE places in our faces some facts we would rather shield than discuss. The story of the period of between September 2003 and February 2004 at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq is so well known not only from the news media but also from the Internet blogging sites that it need not be outlined in a review of this film. The facts documented by photographs taken by those who participated and observed the inhuman treatment of prisoners are indisputable: seeing them on the screen in full frame and in close-up shots is almost more than the compassionate eye can tolerate. But there it is and yes, we do need to witness the abuse and humiliation that describes the US prisoner treatment in Iraq, no matter who is to blame - enlisted personnel, MI, high ranking military officials, the White House. The fact that it occurred as such a gross abuse of human rights should awaken in all of us a more complete awareness that war makes humans do such things. It is ugly to watch, difficult to digest, and extremely trying on our set of beliefs that man's inhumanity to man has and does exist despite our need to believe otherwise.
Given the atrocities documented by this film, the style of the film as a work of cinema deserves to be addressed also. The flow of the documentary with the interplay of interview pieces by those infamous young people upon whose shoulders the blame was placed in what appears to be a diversionary technique to avoid deeper probing of the true guilt, along with the images of the prison itself - stark lines of cellblocks and living conditions so foul they seem to actually smell on the screen - is well conceived and beautifully/creatively captured by cinematographers Robert Chappell and Robert Richardson and enhanced by a strangely appropriate musical scoring by Danny Elfman. The film may be about things ugly, but the technique used to tell the story is high quality art.
Abu Ghraib, along with Guantanamo, will always be a scar on the conscience of America, even beyond the time that this ugly Iraq war is over. We should all look at this film with the hope that with seeing actual footage of a nightmare may help prevent recurrences in the future. Grady Harp, November 08"
Morris turns his eye to the War
thornhillatthemovies.com | Venice, CA United States | 05/19/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"In the past year, there have been a number of fiction films released all of which attempt to dramatize various aspects of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these films were well made, and share common themes. But they also have something else in common. They all flopped and failed to ignite the public moving them to action.
Now, the well-known documentarian Errol Morris ("Mr. Death", "The Thin Blue Line", "The Fog of War") turns his eye to one small part of the current conflict, Abu Ghraib.
Morris, like Michael Moore, is an unconventional documentarian. Both almost overtly inject themselves, their thoughts and views into their exploration of the subject matter. And both are usually criticized for this practice. Every good documentary displays the filmmaker's strong point of view. This is why the film is made in the first place, someone wants to share their view on a topic, the filmmaker was interested, disturbed, concerned about something. Moore has been criticized because he has taken on politically charged ideas. Morris is now turning his eye on politically themed ideas and is receiving similar criticism. In my mind, even when their films are flawed, they are interesting and meaningful because the directors are passionate about their point of view. Why would you want to see a documentary without a strong point of view? Such a film would be boring and pointless.
I would find it hard to believe that you haven't seen at least one picture to come out of this prison in Iraq, a prison the American forces took over and converted into an interrogation facility for the prisoners they were also holding there. As soon as the story broke, some of the pictures were shown on every news show and cable network ad nausea until the next big story broke.
And, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
In "Standard Operating Procedure", Morris tries to give us a better view of the circumstances leading up to these events and to describe, in greater detail, what happened and why.
He does a remarkably good job creating a powerful, moving documentary.
The film begins with a brief explanation of what Abu Ghraib was - Saddam's prison before he was overthrown, a place he used to kill many of his political prisoners - and quickly moves into interviews with the main people involved in the event. As he talks to many of the service people who were stationed there, working there, we begin to get a picture of their living conditions. Upon their arrival, they moved into cells once used to house people who were subsequently killed, cells much like the cells of the prisoners they were there to watch.
As you watch the interviews, with subjects who have since served some time in prison, the trademarks of an Errol Morris film quickly become apparent. Morris has a unique interview technique, and a unique interview device, the Interrotron, a camera he developed for his own use. In many documentaries, the subject is looking at the interviewer to the side of the camera. As their talk is filmed, we watch the subject look to the side of the camera. They are looking away from us. The Interrotron reflects Morris, who is actually in another room, into the camera directly where the lens is. As he interviews a subject, the subject looks at his image in the camera, causing them to look directly at the lens. As they speak, and address his questions, they are looking and speaking directly to us. This makes the stories the subjects tell much more immediate and interesting.
One thing you may not have asked yourself is why did these soldiers take digital pictures of these moments of interrogation, torture and humiliation? They had to have realized they might fall into the wrong hands and become ammunition against them. Morris explores this question, allowing the subjects to talk about life at Abu Ghraib, their roles as caretakers of these prisoners, the quality of life they experienced while they were there. And why would they pose for photos, holding a thumbs up, smiling, laughing, documenting these moments, recording them for history.
A picture is worth a thousand words, but it can't say everything and Morris spends some time exploring both the photos and the quantity. Using unedited photos, he shows us what we missed as the soldiers attempted to cover up various things, before the government attempted to cover up the whole thing, and before the media created a firestorm around the whole affair. Morris also talks to an investigator hired by the government to make some sense of this mess and to determine what happened. As the investigator speaks, Morris shows us photos taken of the same event at precisely the same time, from two different cameras. Then, we see the other camera in each photo. Naturally, they have time stamps, so the investigator begins to build a timeline of specific events and goes through the photos to determine which of the offenses will the soldiers be tried for, what crimes have they committed, and which would be considered standard operating procedure?
As the subjects begin to tell the story, it becomes clear pretty quickly that one man, a sergeant, is at the center of the whole thing. He seems to be the instigator, encouraging his fellow soldiers to take pictures, to pose, to completely denigrate themselves and their prisoners. And they only seem to be too happy to do so, to follow the instructions and whims of this `leader'. He is also the only subject directly involved in this scandal Morris was unable to interview. The reason is explained at the end of the film, during the coda. But he certainly seems to have been the driving force behind the whole thing, manipulating his girlfriend, Lyndie England, the poster child for the scandal, to do things she says she wouldn't have other wise done. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but the sheer number of people pointing their fingers at this man is compelling.
Using recreations and the sheer volume of photos, Morris helps to give us a more detailed look at what happened before and during the moments some of the more shocking photos were taken. He is trying to come to terms with what would lead these Americans to take pictures of themselves with prisoners who are piled naked on top of each other, naked and masturbating, dead and in body bags, and much more.
As I watched the film, an eerie similarity struck me. As more and more photos of the tortured and humiliated prisoners at Abu Ghraib were shown, I was reminded of the photos of the victims at Auschwitz, Bergen Belson and Dauchau made public to the world after these prison camps were liberated. Now, I understand some, many, of the detainees at Abu Ghraib were guilty of a crime, but the people who are charged with the livelihood of these criminals should rise above the behavior of their captors. If they don't, how are they any different from their prisoners?
When a picture is worth more than a thousand words
Roland E. Zwick | Valencia, Ca USA | 01/12/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
"We're all familiar with the images that began flowing out of Abu Ghraib Prison in the spring of 2004 - photos showing detainees (some terrorists, others undoubtedly not) hooded and stripped, forced to assume painful and/or humiliating positions, often for hours on end, with American soldiers posing gleefully nearby, smiling and flashing thumbs-up signs for the camera. Once the pictures went viral, they came to symbolize not only the botched operation that was the Iraq war, but the fundamental failure of the U.S. military to win friends and influence people in a land the Bush administration claimed vehemently to be "liberating."
In "Standard Operating Procedure," famed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris ("The Thin Blue Line") attempts to uncover the truth behind those photographs, mainly by allowing those who were most closely involved with the scandal to tell the story in their own words (including Private First Class Lynndie England, who, whether fairly or unfairly, emerged as the one clearly identifiable "face" and household name from the scandal). Morris provides no voiceover narration to accompany the interviews, just re-enactments of the incidents done in a quasi-surrealistic style, using slow motion photography and artsy graphics.
Through his discussions with the principal players in the drama, Morris provides a probing study of the effects of war time stress on the human psyche. The film offers no easy answers as to exactly why the events at Abu Ghraib unfolded as they did; yet, while it doesn't turn the individuals involved into easy-to-blame villains, it doesn`t completely exonerate them either. In fact, it is the seeming "normalcy" of these people, as they attempt to make their case for the camera, that renders their actions all the more unsettling. Morris also makes it clear that these low level individuals - many of whom have served time in prison for their crimes - were most certainly used as scapegoats for higher-ups in the military who managed to successfully deflect any personal culpability for the events that took place there.
In a true journalistic coup, Morris was able to obtain grainy home movies shot at the same time that the pictures were being taken. As a result, we're able to witness the step-by-step process by which that infamous shot of the naked men stacked in a pyramid formation ultimately came about.
"Standard Operating Procedure" doesn't successfully address all the questions it sets out to answer, but that is hardly a weakness of the film, since it is dealing with a complex, messy situation involving complex, messy people caught up in a complex, messy war. One doesn't leave "Standard Operating Procedure" necessarily more enlightened that when one went in - just more well-informed. And that's perhaps the best one could reasonably hope for under the circumstances."