Standard Operating Procedure – Behind the Camera at Abu Ghraib

Standard Operating Procedure, a searing documentary that takes us inside the walls of Abu Ghraib, is the latest work by filmmaker Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line).

Checkout the trailer:

SOP is also a book co-penned with Philip Gourevitch, author of the shattering, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, one of the first intimate portraits of the Rwandan genocide.

This month’s New Yorker featured an excerpt from SOP entitled “Exposure: The Woman Behind the Camera at Abu Ghraib“. The piece centers on Military Reserve Specialist Sabrina Harman, the women who took and appeared in many of the infamous photographs that surfaced in 2004.

Having not yet seen the film or read the book, I can only tell you that the 12-page excerpt alone paints a wrenching, horrific, yet page-turning portrait of human beings under conditions of prolonged and near unimaginable stress.

The instant reaction to the abuses at Abu Ghraib is one of shock and repulsion. Members of Congress are said to have gasped at the sight of some photos. Various military personnel at the prison at that time, and certainly anyone appearing in photo, were vilified, scape-goated and replaced. The public was left to wonder how such disturbed individuals escaped notice of those around them. How were they left in charge? Congressman Nighthorse Campbell reportedly said, “I don’t know how the hell these people got into our Army.”

Morris and Gourevitch suggest that these types of questions are, at best, misguided. The New Yorker piece portrays a vivid reality where an “a few bad apples” mentality simply doesn’t fit. Instead it pulls back the curtain on an Abu Ghraib where most of the MP’s acted not out of sadistic glee, but desperate survival.

According to those assigned there, the only rule the White House set for Abu Ghraib was that there were no rules. The prison was guided by no protocol and offered its personnel no psychological support. Instead it was staffed by militia who were unprepared for live action and untrained in prisoner detention, who worked 12 hours shifts for forty days straight, and lived in cells exposed to sniper fire, while attempting to fulfill the duty of “breaking down” the enemy, without being trained on exactly how to do so.

And this wasn’t just any enemy, the enemy-by-default, the soldier in a different uniform. These enemies wore no uniforms and hid among the innocent. These enemies, the MPs were told, were the ring leaders, the American-hating extremists who would stop at nothing until another, greater 9/11 occurred. They were supposed Al-Qaeda insiders who quite probably knew of plots underway at that exact moment that we can only stop if we break them, if we get them to speak.

And this was hardly a “think for yourself” environment. It was the army, during a war, within an overcrowded military prison positioned, without precedent, in the heart of a war zone.

All of this excuses nothing. The attempt to understand the darker side of human nature doesn’t absolve those involved. We’ve all heard the stories and seen the photos. It wasn’t pretty and it’s not at all clear it was even effective.

Yet given the circumstances, it’s hard to image a more moderate or reasonable outcome than what transpired at the prison, or how the daily abuses couldn’t have become, in fact, “Standard Operating Procedure.”

It’s easy to look at the the MP’s who existed within the walls of Abu Ghraib, to point fingers and judge. But what about the administration whose lack of either foresight or concern created and perpetuated the environment that turned well-intentioned soldiers into dehumanizing tormentors?

Yes, war does this itself. Surviving war necessitates a disconnect. Dehumanizing the enemy is standard, necessary. But these were not combat troops. This was a reserve unit that was supposed to engage in peacekeeping tasks. They didn’t know what the rules should have been, and that seems to have been the point.

Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil and defense witness for Abu Ghraib guard Sgt. Chip Frederick, tells Wired Magazine that although reasons don’t eclipse culpability

[s]ituations can be sufficiently powerful to undercut empathy, altruism, morality and to get ordinary people, even good people, to be seduced into doing really bad things — but only in that situation.

Understanding the reason for someone’s behavior is not the same as excusing it. Understanding why somebody did something — where that why has to do with situational influences — leads to a totally different way of dealing with evil. It leads to developing prevention strategies to change those evil-generating situations, rather than the current strategy, which is to change the person.

Sabrina Harman, shown smiling by corpses and laughing while pointing a gun at a naked soldier’s penis, also horded candy and small toys for the children imprisoned in the lower cells with the “regular” detainees. She gave them a bit of freedom to play and an elevated status by assigning them little tasks such as helping with meal times.

She let them out to run around the tier in a pack, kicking a soccer ball, and she enlisted them to help sweep the tier and distribute meals—special privileges, reserved only for the most favored prisoners on the M.I. block. “They were fun,” she said. “They made the time go by faster.” She didn’t like seeing children in prison “for no reason, just because of who your father was,” but she didn’t dwell on that. What was the point? “You can’t feel because you’ll just go crazy, so you just kind of blow it off,” Harman said. “You can only make their stay a little bit acceptable, I guess. You give them all the candy from the M.R.E.s to make their time go by better. But there’s only so much you can do or so much you can feel.” [Em mine]

On an earlier mission, training Iraqi policemen, Sabrina bought provisions for Iraqi civilians, including a refrigerator for one family. Fellow soldiers report that she would scoop up an insect and carry it outside her tent, rather than kill it.

In Abu Ghraib, MP’s were largely on their own. When Sgt. Frederick reported concerns up the chain of command – that they had mentally ill prisoners mixed with the general population, prisoners with TB, children being held with adults, he was reminded that this was a war and told to do “whatever you have to do.”

Zimbardo explains

The military intelligence, the CIA and the civilian interrogator corporation, Titan, told the MPs [at Abu Ghraib], “It is your job to soften the prisoners up. We give you permission to do something you ordinarily are not allowed to do as a military policeman — to break the prisoners, to soften them up, to prepare them for interrogation.” That’s permission to step across the line from what is typically restricted behavior to now unrestricted behavior.

Banning extreme physical violence, authorities left psychological means to get the job done. Harman herself seemed confused at the time by the emotional damage inflicted by, for example, telling a hooded prisoner he will be electrocuted if he falls off the box upon which he must stand for hours at a time. “I knew nothing would happen to him,” she explains. In contrast with corpses and beatings and sodomy, it must have somehow made sense.

Even when a prisoner is having an obvious emotional breakdown, the general reaction seems to have been, poor guy. Glad it’s not me.

It’s not an excuse for abuses beyond the call of duty. It’s simply a hard shoulder-shake for anyone who piously shook their head and slept soundly within an assured whistle-blower fantasy of how they would have behaved differently, rallied against injustice, and changed things for the better.

Sabrina Harman herself planned to blow a few whistles. Already an avid photographer, she began to snap pictures of everything she saw at the prison in an effort to prove what went on. She felt no one would believe her without proof. She seemed to operate on conflicting levels of awareness – participating in the abuses while recognizing them as abnormal or wrong.

Late in her tour she came across a prisoner that her superior claimed had died from a heart attack. She did what had by then become normal for her, she unzipped the body bag to snap a few pictures. It was then she discovered the man had been savagely beaten to death, with bandages applied postmortem to imply medical treatment where there’d been none. It was, the article implies, the first time she stopped to consider that they were being lied to. That everything they did might not actually be for the greater good.

Harman explains after she realized what had happened, she took photos

“…to prove to pretty much anybody who looked at this guy, Hey, I was just lied to. This guy did not die of a heart attack. Look at all these other existing injuries that they tried to cover up.”

She later showed the photos as proof of the murder, but a case was never made of the issue. Harman however, was

convicted by court-martial, in May of 2005, of conspiracy to maltreat prisoners, dereliction of duty, and maltreatment, and sentenced to six months in prison, a reduction in rank, and a bad-conduct discharge.

Others in photographs were similarly disciplined. Only abuses documented by publicized photos were ever punished.

Obvious comparisons have been made to the infamous Milgram experiment and the Standford prison experiment, and both dynamics show otherwise moral and compassionate individuals, under far less stress, acting out cruel and dehumanizing behaviors even when to do so causes them a greater level of emotional pain or discomfort.

The MP’s were cogs in a larger wheel and, much like those imprisoned there, what they wanted more than anything was to simply go the hell home.

Further Reading:

The Abu Ghraib Files – Salon’s in-depth 7-part piece on the prison, including lots of pics and video.

Standard Operating Procedure – The film’s official site. Includes lots of clips from the film including officials speaking about specific photos.

The Man Who Shocked the World” – Psychology Today on the life and work of Stanley Milgram.

Philip Zimbardo’s 2007 re-creation of the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971.


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