Standard Operating Procedure

After seeing this cartoon, Errol Morris was kind enough to send a screener of his new film, which Andrew O’Hehir discusses in Salon today:

Tony Diaz, a former military-police sergeant who served at Abu Ghraib, stares into Errol Morris’ camera and speaks in baffled tones about being called into a shower room at that notorious Baghdad prison where CIA interrogators were beating an Iraqi detainee to death. Diaz says he did not participate in the man’s interrogation and did not beat him; he was ordered to hold the man up and help secure his arms, and he followed those orders. While he was doing that, drops of blood fell from the detainee’s battered face onto Diaz’s uniform, and that troubled him. He hadn’t done anything wrong, he told Morris, yet the blood made him feel responsible.

I don’t mean to demonize Tony Diaz. Virtually alone among the interviewees in Morris’ new film “Standard Operating Procedure,” an artful, meditative investigation of the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs and the circumstances that produced them, Diaz seems to be wrestling with his conscience, after his own bewildered and evasive fashion. (Morris has also co-authored a book of the same title with New Yorker staff writer and Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch, to be published next month.)

Everybody else who was there, from former Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who commanded the M.P.’s at Abu Ghraib, down to the specialists and privates who took the fall for the abuses committed there — including Megan Ambuhl, Sabrina Harman and Abu Ghraib poster-child Lynndie England — enthusiastically points fingers and passes the buck: Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld did it; I fell in love with the wrong guy; there were black-hat government agents I couldn’t control; I was just following orders.

As Morris said to me in our recent interview, welcome to the human species. But at the risk of sounding like a terrorist-coddling America-hater, the human species in our country, circa 2008, has some issues with moral clarity. If I believed that there was any public appetite for a movie like “Standard Operating Procedure,” I might also believe that it would spark a public conversation about responsibility for the crimes and abuses committed in our name — some we know about and a great many more, one suspects, that we don’t. If we’re honest with ourselves, which is a pretty tall order, we might find ourselves in Tony Diaz’s position: We didn’t do anything wrong, so how did that blood get on our clothes?

But it’s evident, as Morris has observed elsewhere, that the American people don’t care about torture. We don’t mind it, in fact, as long as we don’t have to see it or think about it. If it’s called something else, like “harsh treatment” or “stress positions” or “special tactics,” so much the better, although I doubt the euphemisms are fooling anybody. Morris’ mission in “Standard Operating Procedure,” in part, is to restore human dimensions to people like Ambuhl and England and Harman who have arguably committed evil and contemptible acts. Some critics have suggested that Morris is justifying their conduct by placing it in the broader context of the paranoia, conformity and oppression that afflicted the military campaign in Iraq and Abu Ghraib in particular.

I don’t see it that way. Intentionally or not, Morris’ interviews with these confused, vacuous and morally rudderless people felt to me like a sweeping indictment of those of us who are their fellow citizens and who share the culture that produced them. Lynndie England, in particular, is pretty hard to take. Out on parole after three years in prison, she looks battered and puffy, closer to 40 than 25, and remains completely without insight into how her affair with former Cpl. Charles Graner (the alleged mastermind of many of the abusive acts shown in the photos) led her to collaborate in the sexual humiliation and ritual degradation of Iraqi detainees.

Listening to her talk, I felt only contempt and disgust — contempt for this beaten-down, dull-witted woman for the things she has done and disgust with myself for being unable to muster more than a faint flicker of compassion. Unfortunately, the people who really deserve our compassion, the Iraqi men brutalized at Abu Ghraib and other places, are absent from Morris’ film. He says he tried to find the men in the photographs, but many remain unidentified and others have disappeared. (As for Charles Graner, he remains in prison, and Morris’ requests to interview him were refused.)

The rest.