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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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The well-known documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who received an Oscar for his 2003 study of Robert McNamara and Vietnam 'The Fog of War,' has put the Abu Ghraib scandal under a microscope, but the result is too limited a picture of events.
Morris' film describes and shows the humiliations, the nude prisoners cuffed in stress positions or forced to masturbate or pile on top of each other with bags or women's underpants on their heads; the man they called "Gilligan" in the fringed blanket with the conical hat standing on a box with fake electrical wiring to his fingers; the howling dogs terrifying a squatting naked man and biting another's leg; the corpse of a man beaten to death packed in bags of ice.
The images, both stills and some fragments of videotapes, have a dramatic and quickly sickening effect. The circumstances of their taking is thoroughly explained. But the result is disappointingly narrow and obsessive, because Morris has allowed the low-ranking Americans implicated by the pictures, the majority of them concerned only with their own fates and future, to be the dominant voices of the film. The exceptions are a crude but more experienced interrogator, a precise but morally numb military investigator, and the angry general Janis Karpinski who was scapegoated because she was commander of the MPs.
Rory Kennedy's 'The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,' produced for HBO last year, has already presented all this information about the photo scandal--together with the larger context Morris has left out. Alex Gibney's 'Taxi to the Dark Side' thoroughly explored the larger implications--the responsibilities that go all the way up, the distribution of prison abuses throughout Afghanistan, Iran and Guantánamo, the violations of international law and the inadequacy of torture as an interrogation device. By specifically focusing on the beating and death of the taxi driver named Dilawar at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan Gibney showed much more detail than Morris about the specifics of one prisoner and the full extent of the physical brutality of US interrogators and guards. Anyone coming to Morris' film from Kennedy's and Gibney's will find it incomplete.
'Standard Operating Procedure' doesn't follow up on any Iraqis. Perhaps because Morris' mostly unheard questions were aggressive, his talking heads are always on the defensive, repeating that they were only "softening up" the prisoners as instructed. Lynndie England protests that she was in love with her boss, Charles Graner, and just did what he said. They do admit their process included sleep deprivation, hypothermia, loud noises, and also, when they lost patience or just felt like it, random physical abuse. We learn from the more experienced interrogator that his young associates were useless with high value prisoners. We also learn that no worthwhile information came out of interrogations at the prison. Karpinski explains how heavily overpopulated her prisons became, any suspects once held hard to release.
Morris commits several serious stylistic errors. He introduces fake basement-tape video reenactments (a device he has used before) to augment the visuals of the Abu Ghraib abuses--close-ups of "prisoners'" bodies, blood dripping on a uniform, keys going into a lock--so that after a while you aren't sure what is real and what is fake. The genuine images needed no enhancement, and this confusion is a terrible mistake. The score by Danny Elfman with its heavy-handed drumbeat sounds introduces frantic melodrama, also superfluous and in bad taste.
In fact Morris' material, which ought to have been allowed to speak for itself, is permeated by the banality of evil. The words of the MPs, including Megan Ambuhl, Javal Davis, and Jeremy Sivitz, as well as, most notably in this context, the two women amateur photographers, Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman, are notable for their lack of affect. There is no drama about them. Apart for one or two shaky expressions of doubt, awareness that all this wasn't right, especially on the part of Sabrina Harmon, writing to her "wife" Katie back home, they tend to speak as people going about what they believed to be their jobs; doing what others did and what everybody knew was being done at Abu Ghraib. Except, it seems, General Karpinski, because she was traveling from one prison to another, and says the ugliness was hidden from her. Perhaps it was. There's not much effort to question or puncture any of this testimony.
The film's title refers to the army investigator's conclusion that the majority of the photographed humiliations and punishments were "Standard Operating Procedure" and only certain scenes of physical injury could be classified as documenting crimes. This indulgence is something Morris does not explore further, however. 'Taxi to the Dark Side' goes much more thoroughly into the issue of torture. The distinction between torture and humiliation Morris alludes to seems less important than how the whole pattern of sordid conduct at the prisons get started, a topic 'Standard Operating Procedure' doesn't investigate. We have just had President Bush's admission that he knew and approved high-level meetings inside the White House on harsh interrogation tactics. Morris does not set the Abu Ghraib scandal within this larger framework.
We do hear that children were imprisoned and that there were children raped by prisoners and the prisoners were beaten and injured for that. We're briefly told that methods were transferred to Abu Ghraib from Guantánamo. It's all prefaced by a description of what a disgusting place Abu Ghraib was when the MPs and other American staff came to live there--with constant bombardment, because, in violation of international law (but we are not told that) Abu Ghraib was not behind the lines. This is presented elsewhere by some as mitigating circumstance. The low-ranking Abu Ghraib scandal scapegoats were not only just following orders (or "S.O.P."); they were under stress. Stuff happens. Here again, Morris doesn't connect the dots. Some will like that. The much admired, often awarded Morris is a sacred cow. But this time his result seems more repulsive than effective.
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