This is one of many things “Standard Operating Procedure” got me to thinking about:
Suppose I had enlisted in the army at 18, which I almost did. Suppose it’s now, and me with a high school education feeling my oats and getting all revved up about terrorists and swallowing any propaganda the army threw at me, whether true, exaggerated or patriotic fiction.
Suppose I got in with a bunch of men and women guarding Iraqi prisoners I was told we could “soften up” for interrogators. Suppose one night I saw these yokels my age — some of them friends and sex partners — with the same education, dragging some prisoner around on a leash. Suppose my girlfriend asked me to take a picture of her with a corpse who died after an interrogation?
‘Standard Operating Procedure’
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY Errol Morris
RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes
What would my 18- or 19-year-old self have done?
I think I know I would have done the right thing, but then again what if I really believed these were evil men? Suppose I had a few beers in me.
Now, how about you, especially if you “knew” or felt that those in command were willing to look the other way, including the then secretary of defense?
Errol Morris’ documentary, which should be seen by all Americans but probably will viewed only by a relative handful, does not solve all the mysteries surrounding the inhumane violations at Abu Ghraib Prison and the issue of those infamous photographs that landed soldiers such as Lyndie England and Sabrina Harman time in the brink.
But after seeing interviews with them and other soldiers, you may conclude there was a conspiracy of silence that reached into higher levels of the military. Perhaps you will agree with a chief investigator who wonders: “How could all this go on without anybody knowing it?”
“Standard Operating Procedure” does not aim to castigate George Bush and his cabinet, even if it takes some nasty swipes at Donald Rumsfeld. Its principal achievement is to expose a culture of depravity within the entire enterprise. Though one can credibly say that it was “a bunch of drunk MPs acting like idiots” and that the participants in the photographs were “stupid” kids, there is much more to the issue.
Perhaps disgraced Brigadier General Janis Karpinski is spilling sour grapes when she claims she was a scapegoat, but to me, it looks as if she was hung out to dry, lest officials in the CIA or higher Pentagon circles get tagged with shame, demotions and maybe jail time. In interviews, Errol Morris states one of his aims: that he clings to “the old-fashioned American belief that it’s wrong to punish the little guys and let the big guys go free.”
It’s a statement about a pervasive culture that extends beyond the military; it’s a variant of the corruption inherent whenever an incompetent CEO receives a golden parachute after wrecking a company in which hard-working innocents lose their jobs and pensions, although in this case, not every low-level soldier is innocent.
“Standard Operating Procedure” is not as powerful as other Morris documentaries, namely his recent “Fog Of War.” There are some re-enactments of events, and already a controversy erupted when Morris acknowledged he paid some of the participants to talk on camera. (In fairness to Morris, the interviewees appear to be candid and natural.)
I don’t know whether to feel sorry for England, but it was important to meet her face to face; the same with Harman, who seems more intelligent, as revealed by her letters home to her “wife.” Her posing with the corpse of Manadel el Jamadi was a crude gesture, but it is clear he was roughed up and accidentally murdered not by her pals, but by interrogators whose names we may never know.
The movie will enable us to think more about the righteousness of torturing suspected terrorists, and in this regard, we even hear about some of the official guidelines.
But the most horrifying truth is that legal or not, everyone involved in the enterprise is in a demeaning, depraved business. How can anyone connected to the humiliation of other human beings remain in contact with his or her integrity as a moral being? During or afterward? Is it enough to defend our fellow American torturers with the cliché that “Somebody has to do it”?
It’s a depressing thought in a troubled time.