Sunday, May 25, 2008

Errol Morris's "S.O.P." provides a sweeping look at Abu Ghraib in Iraq


Errol Morris directed “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” in 2003, and in "Standard Operating Procedure" (Sony Pictures Classics and Participant) he produces a big looking attempt to set the record straight with the prison scandal at Abu Ghraib in Iraq in 2003.

The film is indeed opulent, shot 2.35 : 1, with a hypnotic music score by Danny Elfman, in a style that resembles Philip Glass. The visual element seems a bit excessive, as much of the length of the film is taken with interviews of the individual soldiers, some of whom went to jail, and some of the rest tries to recreate micro details of the prison scenes with actors, sometimes with a grim look that reminds me of the “Saw” movies.

The soldiers tell the story from the viewpoint of the pressures on them, to get information that would lead to the capture of Saddam Hussein (whose capture did not depend on their “intelligence” at all), and also from the hits from insurgents. Nevertheless, mixed messages got send down the chain of command, to the point that soldiers began using questionable interrogation techniques, and started humiliating the prisoners. The film demonstrates the well publicized methods to insult the sense of manhood inherent in Arab culture (and to some extent in most cultures). The interrogators included CIA employees and at least one employee of a defense contractor, CACI. (Ironically from my perspective, CACI was right next door to where I worked in Arlington in the early 1990s as I worked for a company that specialized in selling life insurance to military officers.)

One of the senior NCOs was tasked to reproduce what happened from the incriminating photos, using both the photo content and also decoding the “meta data” from the camera settings available in each photo. That audit trail would be used to incriminate the lower ranking soldiers, especially Ms. England. Pregnancy and heterosexual affairs among the soldiers complicated the situation, and led to England’s pregnancy. The exploitation of homophobia in Arab culture with the humiliating stackings and forced contacts among the prisoners seems ironic, given the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. The NCO does say that the judgment against inexperienced young enlisted personnel is unfair and is based on hindsight. He also marks some of the photos as whether they were “criminal acts” or “S.O.P” – many, he says, are surprisingly legal, even in light of the Geneva Convention. In the end, it seems that the top brass was interesting in covering up for itself, but everybody knew that already.

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