Friday, March 23, 2012

Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris: The Ballad of Abu Ghraib

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When I started writing book reviews on this blog, in 2007, part of the goal was to help me get through my unread books so that I wouldn't keep buying books. (I see that I still had facebook at that point- wow!) This was largely successful. In December of the past year, I fell off the wagon a little, but mostly, I've been reading unread books and going to the library. Another reason I started reviewing books was to avoid accidentally rereading books. I read a lot of books and don't have a very good memory (although I did feel a lot better after reading "Moonwalking with Einstein," because it sounds like most people can't remember the last book they read, either), and fear that without writing down what books I have read, I would reread most of them. This also worked well, I think. Until today, when I sat down to write this book review and realized that I had indeed read "The Ballad of Abu Ghraib" before. I didn't realize it till literally the moment I started filling in the tags next to the blog. I usually start writing by doing this as it seems to help the writing start flowing. Let's just say "Errol Morris" isn't a common tag. I had had a sense during the book that little chunks of it were familiar, but the Abu Ghraib story is very familiar by now, and Philip Gourevitch often writes for the New Yorker, and many New Yorker authors who write books basically re-publish their articles with some stuff in the middle. Basically, I had no idea I had already read this book. Which is slightly scary.

I read this book differently the second time. I won't summarize the book because I've done it before, and because Abu Gharib is pretty much common knowledge now, for better or for worse. The first time I read this book, and as the details about who got charged and sentenced for the crime, I felt a couple of things: disgust with George Bush's United States and a sense of "we got what was coming to us" for a ridiculous and unjust war as the world's opinion about the US sunk lower and lower. As details came out, it was unclear whether these were truly rogue officers like the government wanted us to believe or whether the higher up's knew what was going on, but "The Ballad of Abu Ghraib" left no doubt that only a tiny few would take the fall for what was indeed a structural policy of embracing torture. This time, I read the book and two things stuck out at me: one, the importance of images, both for the photographer and the viewer, and secondly, the importance of the chain of command.  When I first read the book, I had only worked animal control for a police department- a para-military organization- for about a year and a half, and my department had only just begun to really formalize and be recognized as part of the department. Now, although I'm done with animal control, I understand more about what it means to be part of a chain of command. Reading "The Ballad," I could almost understand.

Saying that I could understand people that tortured other human beings is a huge statement. I don't mean I get it, and I can't even really comprehend joining the army, anyway, but there's this thing about chain of command that most people don't understand: you can't say no. Where I worked, we had a lot more leeway than really any other police organization else I've ever heard of- partly because it was just animal control, and partly because as I mentioned, the police department was just realizing animal control existed, and animal control was just realizing they were part of the police department (this is very common- when I was back east for school, I volunteered for a shelter who had just severed their ties with the police department because neither wanted anything to do with the other). For example, I was once threatened with discipline for insubordination because a sergeant, not my sergeant, told my commander that dispatchers couldn't locate me on the radio. In fact, the sergeant was not on the correct radio channel, as I had just announced my location. I tried to explain this to the sargeant who went to my commander and told her of my insubordination. I was warned, and not disciplined, which was technically incorrect: I should have been disciplined. Everyone in the department knew that shit rolled down hill- I'm pretty sure everyone in EVERY para-military organization knows that- so speaking up was always risky. I chose to work for a police department, and "subordinate" myself. At the end of each day, I got to go home and sleep in my bed. I could not be court martialed for anything I did, I was not subjected to a brig, or hard labor.  I wasn't even real police: I didn't carry a gun.

The soldiers at Abu Ghraib were operating as real police, with very real guns, under a very serious chain of command. As Gourevitch and Morris lay out, the chain of command extended all the way up to then-President Bush, but the soldiers involved and punished for the incidents caught on camera were at the very bottom of this chain of command. One of the first things you learn about a chain of command is that you don't skip levels. In a normal job, if you don't like the answer you get, you can go to your bosses boss. It might be awkward, but you can do it. It might not be condoned, but you won't be disciplined for it. In this situation, there are rules against it, even if what you're being told to do is illegal, or against your own company's (the military's) rules, not to mention your ethical code. And the soldiers at Abu Ghraib couldn't leave. They could not leave their positions, their duties, or the country. They couldn't say "no" without immense consequences. When one soldier asked to be reassigned, he was, months later, allegedly because of his request, but possibly as punishment. In the meantime, his duties, including those involving torture, continued. In my position, I had quite a bit of flexibility, both in speaking to my superiors about things I had qualms about, but also about which calls I would handle.  I could stand down. Soldiers cannot stand down.

So when I say I understand, I'm saying that I have a more nuanced view now. If Lynndie England and Javal Davis and Sabrina Harman (household names now) say "I did what I was told to do," and this sounds like a shitty excuse, well, it's a shitty excuse. But it's also true. Some of them did raise questions with their superiors. One kept a log in addition to the official log, that was available for anyone to see with the detailed descriptions of what went on. The superiors told them to keep on doing what they were doing. Their commanders saw them do what they did, and condoned it by not stopping it. They condoned it by intentionally creating policies that allowed for and encouraged torture. They condoned it by not passing out the policies and briefing their soldiers on them. I was shocked to read that JAG officers were often present when the torture and abuse was taking place. The soldiers knew the JAG officers were there.  The soldiers did their duty, and the commanders watched. In this kind of structure, the commanders are on the hook. Only the shit rolled downhill, as it does, and the soldiers got the blame.

I don't think we should let the soldiers off of the hook. But I'm not sure what options they had. I always say "there are always choices." Louisa Thomas wrote the book about conscientious objectors, and there would certainly have been a way for the soldiers to have taken an extreme stance like refusing to perform their duties, which certainly would have resulted in discipline and/or dishonorable discharge (I'm not sure how these things work).  There could have been a team effort to keep on complaining up the ladder, but this would have eventually reached a stopping point, as Gourevitch and Morris are clear that the "intelligence at any cost" direction went all the way to the top, and it's unlikely that Bush would have changed direction based on some lowly MPs and their pictures. (I'm not convinced that torture isn't ongoing, and the whole world knows now.) Basically, my point here is, and my take home from my (second) reading of this book is that the choice of non-participation, or even being part of the solution of stopping the problem, was not necessarily available. Maybe saying that I "understand" is too strong. Perhaps this reading just gave me further insight into how deeply Bush sunk our country, chewing up and spitting up individuals like these.


mamagotcha said...

I love these reviews, and as a bleeding-heart liberal, I would have a hard time reading these books (partly because I internalize imagery and it comes back as nightmares, especially those involving children in peril). I also empathize with realizing you've read a book before... I just looked at my Goodreads profile and read my review of The Bonesetter's Daughter, and didn't have any memory of reading it (but I was obviously moved enough to review it). If I picked it up again, how far would I get before the penny dropped?

Anyway... thank you for tackling these tough topics. I feel a bit craven, shying away from them, but reading reviews like yours gives me a taste of what I'm avoiding and keeps me questioning myself.