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:

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.

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