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Tim Dugan, civilian interrogator (as himself):
You gotta consider yourself dead, and if you come back, you're just a lucky bastard, you know. But if you're there, and you consider yourself already dead, you can do all the shit you have to do. I wouldn't recommend a vacation to Iraq anytime soon.
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In 2004 the media was full of accounts of the abuse, torture, and even murder of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison by Military Police. Photographs surfaced depicting prisoners naked and wearing cloth hoods, and being forced to masturbate, stand on boxes for fear of electrocution, and forming human pyramids. Twelve soldiers were convicted, and the commanding officer at the prison, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, was demoted to the rank of Colonel. Errol Morris' documentary Standard Operating Procedure attempts to examine the atmosphere surrounding the abuse, the people involved, and whether it was all down to a few "bad apples", or if it was reflective of the American military as a whole.
Morris keeps his authorial influence to a minimum, instead allowing his subjects to speak for themselves. He has interviewed several of the soldiers involved, including Lynndie England, who can be seen in many of the photographs smiling, pointing, giving a thumbs up. She and the other soldiers interviewed describe, with remarkable candour, what it was like living in Abu Ghraib prison, their relationships with each other and the prisoners, and the events and tensions surrounding those incidents depicted in the photographs. It all paints a picture of the prison as a dark and stifling environment, one just waiting to bring out the worst in people.
The real centrepiece of the film, though, are the photographs. Even four years after they dominated every front page and bulletin, they have lost none of their power to appal and disgust. Some, like the picture of a man forced to stand, arms outstretched, on a box with a cloth bag on his head, are surreal. Others, like a photograph of Sabrina Harman giving a thumbs up over a dead prisoner, are simply disturbing.
And hovering above all of this are the OGA, or Other Government Agencies, an often used euphemism for the CIA. It was during the CIA-led interrogations that the most heinous of human rights infractions were most likely carried out. But there are no photographs of these incidents. Standard Operating Procedure raises the point that it is these individuals who should have received the full brunt of the punishment, but it was simpler to lay the blame on lower ranking officers like England and Harman.
It is here that the main point of contention with Standard Operating Procedure arises. It is true that no one above the rank of Staff Sergeant was convicted. And it is true that this should not be the case, that those higher-ranking officers who let this abuse play out under their noses should be held accountable. But Morris tries to divert too much of the blame away from those who were convicted. While England, Harman and the others were just following orders and living in a deeply affecting environment, they are also human beings endowed with free will. They could have said no at any time, and just walked away.
That Standard Operating Procedure raises these arguments means that it is worthy of our time. It presents the facts as perceived by those involved, never itself commenting or judging. It leaves that to us, so that we can make up our own minds. So that perhaps we can learn from the mistakes made by others, and prevent them from happening again.
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