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An intense look at Abu Ghraib

The Baltimore Sun

Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris' documentary about the crimes against humanity at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003, catalyzes unexpected and often harrowing blends of outrage, sympathy and sorrow. What it doesn't provoke are stock responses of political vengeance. Of course it condemns the higher-ups who escaped blame for encouraging atrocities against Iraqis in the name of American and Iraqi security.

But Morris' indictment is even more sweeping. He puts the finger on all of us. He makes us feel complacency implies consent to unjust policies and procedures and to a culture that makes light of degradation. A recent Mother Jones cover bore the headlines, "Torture Hits Home: When the unthinkable becomes acceptable." Standard Operating Procedure provides the how.

Without sermonizing, Morris brings us deep inside the people who shot the infamous photographs of U.S. soldiers degrading Iraqi detainees. The movie goes beyond condemnation of the military police who staged the humiliations and/or snapped the pictures, and even beyond an indictment of the operatives from "OGA" - "other government agencies" - who helped institute the practice of pummeling prisoners' psyches before subjecting them to interrogation (and, ultimately, physical torture).

As Morris catalyzes fresh evaluations of those images and events, he draws us uncomfortably close to the Army's fall guys and (especially) its fall gals. Even if you shake your head and say to yourself, "I could never do anything like that," you see how they could - and, sadly, did.

Morris (who won an Oscar for his Robert McNamara documentary, The Fog of War) never whitewashes anyone. But in Standard Operating Procedure he exhibits surprising sympathy for the most prominent figures in the prosecutions that ensued once the photos came to light. They include Lynndie England, best known as the petite woman holding a naked Iraqi by a leash, and Sabrina Harman, the wholesome-looking redhead who turned to the camera with a big thumbs-up and a cover-girl smile in front of death and carnage.

This film sees them as products of a misdirected and overwhelmed MP unit and of contemporary American mores too wispy, corrupt or vacant to sustain them through horrific and disorienting experiences. Standard Operating Procedure suggests we're fighting our own demons over there because we aren't facing up to them over here.

Other journalists have explicated the use of female MPs like England to emasculate Iraqis who were shackled naked, adorned with bikini-bottom underwear as head wear, and forced to masturbate or form a nude male pyramid. What's different in Standard Operating Procedure is that Morris details the disrespect and dislocation that affected the military women themselves, even when they weren't exploited in this horrendous fashion. They range from lowly England to Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who blamed civilian and military superiors such as Donald Rumsfeld for the abuse but was relieved of her MP command and demoted to colonel.

England fell in love with Charles Graner, Abu Ghraib's low-level lord of misrule. She joined the Army at age 17 and was 20 when she came under the spell of the 34-year-old Graner. England had loved military order and discipline.

But Abu Ghraib was in some ways as chaotic as any place in Iraq outside the Green Zone. As a military-run prison, it flouted the Geneva Conventions even before the outrages began, because it remained a military target - Americans couldn't guarantee the safety of anyone inside, themselves included.

Within that prison's walls, the easiest way for a young woman to feel secure was to latch herself onto a charismatic man who knew the ropes. And Graner, England says, was "really charming. If you didn't know him and you just meet him, you'd be drawn into him. In a crowded room, he'd be the one to look at. He would draw the attention. If the attention is not on him, he'll get it there. That's what he does."

Morris' multifaceted treatment of this awful history inspires comparisons that go beyond the boundaries of this film. He started his movie before YouTube became a necessary part of media and youth culture, but many Abu Ghraib photos register today as products of the worst parts of YouTube sensibility - sensationalism and a bizarro-world desire for celebrity of any kind and at all costs.

Characters like Sabrina Harman defy categorization and make the film approach the nightmarishly sublime. The daughter and brother of cops who wanted to become a forensic photographer herself, Harman, who is gay, wrote to the woman she called her wife that she started taking pictures precisely to document activities that civilians might not otherwise believe were going on. (Whether she would have made them public if they hadn't been exposed is never clear.) She flashed a Right Stuff thumbs-up in front of the naked and the dead because that's how she always conducted herself in front of the camera; before she came up with that gesture she never knew what to do with her hands. The photos became an external memory device for Harman. But they also express something distant in her response to atrocities. It's as if she put them into a digital camera so she could objectify them and twist them around in her brain. Does this suggest forensic curiosity, amorality or a normal woman's survival mechanism?

Morris has never been more intuitive as a filmmaker. He uses re-enactments to flesh out testimony without distorting it. When he detours into the mechanics of an investigator devising a timeline of horrors by deploying several different sets of photographs, he never loses sight of what the process reveals about man's, and woman's, inhumanity to man. Standard Operating Procedure says that human nature abhors moral vacuums - but sometimes humans get sucked into them.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Online

Watch a preview of Standard Operating Procedure at

baltimoresun.com/procedure

Standard Operating Procedure

(Sony Pictures Classics) A documentary by Errol Morris. R for language and disturbing images and content involving torture and graphic nudity. Time 118 minutes.

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