“If we leave they’ll kill each other and not kill us. If we stay they’ll kill each other and kill us. That’s the end result of this whole fucking debacle.”
Standard Operating Procedure has so many of these perfect quotes that it could almost have been scripted, and for the first ten minutes it’s actually pretty tough to tell if it is. Could these (mostly) articulate talking heads really be the depraved culprits of one of the most shameful scandals of recent times?
But these are no actors. Errol Morris’s outstanding documentary brings together the views of those involved, both through participation and investigation, in the prisoner abuses committed at Abu Ghraib by military police during the Iraq War. Through interviews, CSI-style graphics and surprisingly powerful re-enactments it unravels the horrors of a system corrupted from the very highest level right down to the ground.
The dumbfounding moments are almost too frequent to list, each more jaw-dropping than the last. CIA agents deliberately deceiving the Red Cross, interrogators using rooms to ‘grab ass’ with each other in front of their detainees, troops performing WWF wrestling moves on rioting inmates, 18-year-old reservists sent to interrogate experienced generals.
It’s suggested that the famous deck of cards created a find-at-all-costs mentality among US troops and that’s hard to disagree with on this evidence, but more damning is the general complicity of the higher powers throughout. Time and again the troops involved cite ‘following orders’, and after a while you begin to realise that there’s truth in that. One talks of the atmosphere of the prison, with examples set right from the beginning that were never challenged and simply became the norm: a rule of “anything goes, just don’t kill ‘em.”
So attacks by dogs were fine, being chained naked with ladies underwear on your head was fine, being forced to simulate masturbation, pile up into a naked human pyramid or be dragged around the floor with a dog lead – all fine. As one soldier unrepentantly puts it, everything in the photos was just legitimate humiliation, softening detainees up for the actual torture which, obviously, was all done off camera.
A suitably grim example has one detainee’s arms bent so far back that his torturers were amazed they didn’t snap. After continuing further they eventually noticed blood pouring from beneath his chili-soaked hood; upon pulling it from his head it was clear the man had been dead for some time. This wouldn’t do: the body was promptly packed in ice before being ‘disappeared’ on a gurney by the CIA – but not before photos were taken of his brutally deformed body.
It’s the infamous photos – thousands in the hands of pretty much every troop in the prison – that would eventually expose the abuse. Some claimed to be secretly collating evidence, others just did it for fun, but so many were allegedly in circulation that when the scandal first broke one of most startling orders from above was made: a prison-wide amnesty on incriminating evidence. Not an investigation into how this could happen, not a demand to know which soldiers were involved, just an order to cover it up and get back to work.
But we’ve all seen them. Hearing low-level troops say they ‘kind of felt bad’ afterwards, blaming each other for the photos – Private Lynndie England says she only held that dog leash out of love for the main ringleader Private Charles Graner – and calling it all ‘part of war’, it would be easy to conclude they were simply evil people, as many commenters quickly did, but that would be to miss the point.
The majority of inmates interrogated on the orders of faceless officials were civilians – taxi drivers, bakers, welders. One outside interrogator angrily confirms that their torture didn’t produce useful intelligence and it was clear from the beginning it never would. And in the end it was soldiers on the ground, not ‘intelligence’, that found Saddam.
Those involved received varying sentences. Most seem to regret taking the photos that incriminated them more than actually taking part in the torture. And the film ends with the beautiful revelation that no one above the rank of Staff Sergeant has served prison time over the whole sorry mess. Disgusting, depressing and compelling, Standard Operating Procedure is documentary film-making at its powerful best.