Errol Morris’ "Feel-Bad" Masterpiece

abu ghraib

Lynndie England with “Gus” at Abu Ghraib

Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure is a shocking, depressing work of art that might tell you almost nothing you didn’t know in your bones: that the torture chambers at Abu Ghraib were a perfect kernel of the war on Iraq. See the movie anyway, for confirmation or as penance. It is a blood sample of a gross policy of humiliation, emasculation, sophisticated mental cruelty and pitiless domination in the Arab Middle East. Errol Morris makes no bones about it. He says: we are looking at icons of American foreign policy.

Click to listen to Chris’s classroom conversation with Errol Morris (49 minutes, 23 mb mp3)

One of the most infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib is a photograph of Lynndie England: 20 years old at the time; 5 feet tall, I believe under 100 pounds, holding what in effect is a tie-down strap [on] a prisoner named ‘Gus’, who is naked on the ground. The photo is taken by Lynndie England’s then boyfriend Chuck Graner. Well, the photograph of course has fascinated me for many, many reasons. Here would be the central reason. I believe the picture is a graphic representation of American foreign policy, pure and simple.

errol morris

Errol Morris: “the word is denial”

Pictures become iconic for some reason. They answer a certain idea we have. It’s not just simply by happenstance. Oddly enough I know that that method of removing Gus from his cell had been approved by the medical authorities at Abu Ghraib. There was nothing “illegal” about what was happening. But in fact the photograph is absolutely appalling, because part of our foreign policy — and make no mistake about this — was this idea that American women should be used to humiliate Iraqi men, without a thought of course that this might be degrading to the American women as well. It’s not something that was devised by a handful of MPs on one tier at Abu Ghraib. It was part of our foreign policy.

And one of the things I find most appalling is that the photographs were used to blame a handful of MPs, really letting everybody else off the hook, as though nobody else was involved and this was just a few guys on this one tier. By the way Abu Ghraib was not one one tier or two tiers. It was a city. There were close to 10,000 people in there — a vast concentration camp in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. The pictures are misleading in that respect as well. They made you think you were dealing with something much, much smaller and more confined than the reality of what was there.

Filmmaker Errol Morris, talking about Standard Operating Procedure at the Watson Institute at Brown, May 7, 2008.

A lot of pretty forgettable questions buzz around Standard Operating Procedure. There are Errol’s own philosophical distractions: is it true that “seeing is believing”? Or must we commit ourselves to “believing” before we can “see” the truth of these pictures. Do photographs in fact encourage us not to look (or think) further? Then there are the critical nit-picks: can we credit the witnesses that Errol Morris paid to be interviewed? Do some visualizations and reenactments belong in the picture?

There’s a darker set of political questions, nested like those Russian dolls, around many levels of cowardice, scapegoating and denial of responsibility for Abu Ghraib. Only a few lost souls (and no civilians) went on trial for the wholesale dirty-work. The officer class and the political chiefs excused themselves. The voters in 2004 seemed to absolve George Bush in reelecting him. And by now moviegoers (in a stampede to get behind the armor of Marvel Comics’ Iron Man) have made it clear that they don’t much want to see S.O.P. or any other movie about the war in Iraq. See Errol Morris’ movie anyway, and take your kids. It’s sickening, but your kids should know what was done in our name — and what their kids, too, will pay for those world-famous pictures.


Comments

10 thoughts on “Errol Morris’ "Feel-Bad" Masterpiece

  1. Thank you Mr. Morris. And Chris, your work is great as usual. I disagree with Mr. Morris about the effect of Abu Ghraib on the 2004 election outcome. I would not call his theory ‘crackpot’ though I would suggest that this theory reduces things to something manageable for examination. IMO, reducing the 2004 election to something manageable is acceptable only if we do not forget we are reducing massive complexity to something manageable for the purposes of mental/verbal examination. I would expect a filmmaker to make such reductions as a matter of course to be able to put one foot in front of the other and be able to get some work done. Seems reasonable, but perhaps a bit habit forming.

    Thanks you Mr. Morris for all your documentary movie work. I have not seen SOP, but I plan to view it.

  2. After a second listen, I have a further thought and would like to posit my own crackpot theory about another matter brought up here, I may or may not differ regarding the iconic label ascribed to these photos. IMO it’s the idea of Abu Ghraib, the practices and procedures that were designed and implemented, and how this idea manifests in the mental capacity of the individual observer (people who are paying attention across the globe) that becomes iconic, and not the photos themselves; mental capacity has an intensity that is absent in visual records. I imagine there is much to argue about regarding this viewpoint, especially given the impact of the mechanical/chemical/digital camera in the 19th, 20th, and 21st century.

    I have seen but one picture of Abu Ghraib; perhaps an outlandish claim, but I believe an accurate one. Nor have I observed first hand or through various means the procedure of various ‘stress’ techniques such as water-boarding, sleep deprivation, prolonged standing, etc. My reasons are private, with intense intentional forethought about the things I will submit to and allowed poured into my mind, and if this doesn’t set well with anyone, tough; nobody sets my personal boundaries for my mental activity. I hold my personal court my way without regard to the media commodity set before me or peer pressure. If I’m missing important events in the human family, they’ll be missed. I do not pass judgment upon others who feel the necessity for viewing such material.

    What comes to mind here is that I do not need to see the pictures of Abu Ghraib, nor various stress techniques for that matter, to understand that what went on there is a travesty, a blight, a disgusting enterprise in indecency that is not a failure in U.S. foreign policy, nor an example of failure of our policy makers, nor the general citizenry, nor a failure in the human animal. IMO, Abu Ghraib is simply a blistering, excruciatingly uncomfortable reminder of our capacities and appetites that seem to me akin to a disease, a malady where there is an absence of moral compass or empathy for reasons probably not understood by anyone very will, and highly unlikely to be understood by the patient engaged in the activity. Most importantly after the fact, it shows our abilities to either deny these capacities. For others, it shows our willingness accept their existence and to either work towards reducing their appearance in human activities or promoting and expanding their manifestation with intentional fortitude. By way of example, I will submit that a couple of my family members are still in denial about Abu Ghraib as a place of U.S. instituted torture and humiliation, I submit that it would appear that Mr. Morris is a person who would probably choose to reduce the appearance of such activities, and Mr. Yoo, Mr. Addington, Mr. Gonzales, Mr. Rumsfeld, et al. as those beings who believe these activities to be appropriate and correct, representative of reasonable core values worthy of U.S. foreign policy tactics. Hence, those who feel most chastened are those who would accept that the brutality exists and would like to see it cease, and so we remain largely non-plussed and angry with our various responses.

    I have never seen pictures or visual evidence of the activities that occurred at Abu Ghraib during the S.H. regime, nor have I seen visual evidence of the various activities that have occurred in the regimes such as Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, the British occupation of India, nor the U.S. treatment of native peoples or slaves or women, and yet I feel I have some comprehension and understanding about the intensity of pain and suffering spread by these regimes. The necessity of icon is absent. Catholic nuns executed in Central America are not more intense for me with photo evidence. As a person, ‘looking’ at these activities in the judgment seat of my conscience(Hesse), I have some ability for understanding the implications without photo evidence, thus iconic becomes more than a visual landmark. I can believe without seeing. It is a reasonable assumption that I do not in fact see until I believe. There are a variety of simple experiments that seem to bear this out. I’m guessing this is part of the point Mr. Morris is making. That there is ample visual evidence of counter productive, wrongful, criminal, unethical, immoral behavior that has been bundled into U.S. foreign policy, but there is no ‘seeing’ at a level we can ascribe as critical mass for a change of behavior because there is no belief that this is a core value we willingly embrace, for whatever our rationales or irrationales may be in matters such as these. We may also believe we have little say in these core values, and thus divorce ourselves from them in a variety of ways: anger, frustration, bitterness, sarcasm, irony being obvious choice for the unempowered. Or, some may feel these behaviors justifiable, correct, and necessary.

    For me Abu Ghraib is iconic/representative in the sense that it is a fiasco of indecency that is redundant not only in American foreign policy, but redundant in the human experience since organized violence began. To quote Jacob Bronowski and his opinion of modern war, “But war, organized war, is not a human instinct. It is a highly planned and cooperative form of theft.” If this has the potential for ‘truth’ to speak to something core in the human being (for which U.S. citizens and Iraqis are members), then it shows a possible, though perhaps painful, way out. It explains to me that our instincts for planning, cooperation, and theft may be strong, in continual perfection from the invaders of Jerhico through the present day, yet not representative of our more primitive proclivities. Frankly, that seems counter-intuitive to Abu Ghraib and its lessons, which for me, and I suspect others, feel extremely primitive and genuinely, if not uniquely, human. The appearance of humiliation may seem more intense because we’re doing it and we’re fairly aware of it, but I’m guessing humilation has likely always been a key ingredient in pacification and conquest exercises for quite some time. Europeans, to brand just one group with a broad brush across time and space, did not invent this form of behavior, but they spent many centuries organizing its deployment around the globe.

    Regardless, the appearance of humiliation, the way the planning, cooperation, and theft has been executed and the feeling and thoughts of being held hostage to these aspects of human capacity, is only one choice of many narratives. There are other optional narratives available, though I would submit that I would be incapable of embracing a narrative promulgated from mass media without a high degree of pondering, or a documentary film for that matter. A question I have about these activities is the following: can the patient, displaying obvious an disease of collective mind and spirit (in this case the patient is a collective group of people who feel threatened and have done much threatening and spread much pain and suffering), work upon themselves and recover from this disease? I think this may be a bridge too far, but if we could make some progress here in the U.S. with such matters, it could provide an important incremental step for the human family out of these problems. The U.S. is not the beginning, nor the end-point in collective human development, but merely one tiny step upon a very old path, for which many will follow. Perhaps from our folly, we can send assistance to the future, in forms like Mr. Morris’ films, and the work Chris does here at ROS.

  3. After a second listen, I have a further thought and would like to posit my own crackpot theory about another matter brought up here, I may or may not differ regarding the iconic label ascribed to these photos. IMO it’s the idea of Abu Ghraib, the practices and procedures that were designed and implemented, and how this idea manifests in the mental capacity of the individual observer (people who are paying attention across the globe) that becomes iconic, and not the photos themselves; mental capacity has an intensity that is absent in visual records. I imagine there is much to argue about regarding this viewpoint, especially given the impact of the mechanical/chemical/digital camera in the 19th, 20th, and 21st century.

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