Sunday, August 30, 2009

Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris: The Ballad of Abu Ghraib

As far as I can tell, Errol Morris made a movie about Abu Ghraib called "Standard Operating Procedure". He did the research and interviews, studied photos and documents, and then talked with author Philip Gourevitch, who wrote the book, "The Ballad of Abu Ghraib." However it worked out, this book is amazing. It's familiar in places, I'm pretty sure I've read chunks of it in the New Yorker, and even though the pictures described in the book aren't published, I've seen them so many times that I can view them like a slideshow in my head. But the book is new, and worth reading.

The story of Abu Ghraib is complicated, Gourevitch writes, and the book shouldn't be read if you're looking for an answer, or someone to blame, or even for closure, because there isn't any. The story of torture is messy, and the way that Americans allowed and sanctioned the torture is a messy story; the Americans who actually tortured Iraqis are individuals, with individual stories, and there has yet to be resolution. Any resolution will be complicated and inadequate.

The stain is ours, because whatever else the Iraq war was about, it was always, above all, about America-about the projection of America's force and America's image into the world. Iraq was the stage, and Iraqis would suffer for that, enduring some fifty deaths for every American life lost: in this, and by every other measure of devastation, it was very much their war... It was an American war because America's elected officials decided to wage it of their own initiative... What was at stake, for the war's advocates, skeptics, and opponents alike, was an American story-the story of America as a champion of law and liberty at home and abroad, a tough but righteous arbiter of the destiny of nations, intolerant only of intolerance...


Gourevitch traces the history of America's military success from the time of Washington: part of America's very foundation was their treatment of prisoners. They were unwilling to torture or even mistreat prisoners of war, which won them allies. The Third Geneva Convention, which was signed in 1949 at the end of the Second World War, attempted to codify this tradition of humane prisoner treatment. At the outset of Bush's war on Afghanistan a Bush etc, basically decided that Third Geneva Convention did not apply. Secretary of Sate at the time Alberto Gonzales, weighing the pros and cons of this, although allowing it was risky for captured US soldiers, decided that "adherence to the Geneva Conventions was no longer the law but a choice of the commander in chief." Instead of labeling captives "prisoners of war," they were deemed "security detainees" or "unlawful combatants," which meant that they were stripped of their Geneva Convention rights, undoing America's history of humane treatment of foreign national prisoners, even at times of war.

Fast forward to Iraq, and similar linguistic trickery was used to make Iraqi "detainees" into nonentities when it came to human rights. A team of prison specialists had been given one month to build a prison from scratch, and without knowing what they were doing, they chose the only place where anything like a prison was standing at all: Abu Ghraib. They didn't realize they were using one of the most political sites in the country- Saddam's own torture site- so they built away. The spot was also sort of in the middle of nowhere, aka a strategical nightmare, so the politically charged prison in its politically charged location was also a perfect target. Add to it the "security detainees" who were now allowed to be held without charges, indefinitely, with authorized torture, and pretty much, you had a recipe for disaster. It got even worse when you added the Military Police (MPs) who were assigned to guard it, and a faulty chain of command.

The MPs were young soldiers, for the most part- reservists whose mission "was law and order, to provide combat support for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force... and to train local policemen for duty under a new national government." Like all Americans, they were led to believe their operation was to be short and temporary before they handed over Iraq to a new, democratically elected government. (Right.) So when they were transferred to guard Abu Ghraib, they were woefully underprepared and understaffed. They had low morale- what were they doing living in prison cells and guarding dangerous prisoners in the middle of a warzone?- and their station was a mess. They lived in a prison off of MREs, they were shelled every night, and shot at. There were 7 of them staffing tiers of hundreds of prisoners. And they had no Standard Operating Procedures. They were given no instructions except to listen to the orders of the MI's- the interrogators who were questioning the prisoners. When the MI's told them to "break" someone, they did. Things that the MPs started out thinking were wrong, awful, adn weird, became common place.

And then there were the cameras. Each MP had a different reason for taking pictures. Some documented everything, even before the torture started. Some said they were covering their asses. Some were obviously show offs. One MP had served before, and the military doctors had not believed he had PTSD- he wanted proof this stuff really happened. Morris and Gourevitch do an amazing job discussing the photographs, the photographers, and the photography itself. The American public was exposed to Abu Ghraib through the images, but we only saw the images, and thought we knew everything that was going on. But Abu Ghraib was messy- Gourevitch and Morris tell us the story, and let the MPs tell us their stories about why they were taking these pictures. Why they had the cameras in the first place, and what happened in the minutes up to the pictures and afterwards. No one tries to make excuses, and the book doesn't try to absolve anyone or resolve anything. It's messy. And the blame, just as we know, only falls on the lowest level of the chain of command. There was no SOP, and no one ever takes the fall from that. As far as I know, there are still thousands of illegally detained prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and no one has taken any responsibity, except for the handful of men and women with cameras.

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