Apr 28, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure

I knew that there were going to be plenty of tickets to see Errol Morris' new, powerful film about the abuses at Abu Ghraib yesterday at the Angelika. I knew it because it is clear that people do not want to know. They don't want to see fictional movies about Iraq, and much less documentaries about it. This is the war we all try to pretend is not really happening. There were like 20 people in the audience. This is sad and stupid.
But thank whoever is responsible for the existence of Mr. Morris (his parents? evolution?), that he insists on us knowing, and that he does it in his own style, which makes him one of the most interesting filmmakers around. Morris is not one of those preachy documentarians. His springboard seems to be an endless intellectual curiosity. This is key, as his films never take the high moral ground nor piously pretend to tell the audience what to think. He just raises thousands of nagging questions in your mind and lets you be the judge; that is, if you can find rational coherence on human acts that seem to have none.
So now he trains his documentary technique on the young soldiers who were punished for the abuses at the infamous prison of Abu Ghraib. As is customary, his investigation centers also on his preoccupation with truth and imagery. Can still photographs tell the whole truth? Do they mean much more than they intend to illustrate? How are they to be interpreted?
In this case, he centers on the incomprehensible knack for snapshot taking that these bored, demoralized, fucked up soldiers evidenced in their terrible tour of duty at the notorious prison.
To me, the pictures of Abu Ghraib are the perfect metaphor for the criminal moral rot of the Bush administration. They symbolize perfectly the literal degradation and debasement that this government has unleashed on this country. The humiliation of the prisoners, of the soldiers who took photos, of the soldiers who were told to torture the inmates, is the humiliation and debasement of us all (I fail to understand why this is not clear to people). Bush has turned the US into refuse and excrement. And there are pictures to prove it.
One wonders why were the soldiers allowed to snap happily away? Who was minding these young people? If I was in command, I would confiscate their cameras unless they were to be used at a Sunday picnic. But it seems that they were left to their own limited devices in utter, despicable chaos.
Besides the shocking pictures of the prisoners, the pictures of the soldiers at rest seem to show a frightening level of despondency and moral deterioration. This is also extremely frightening. Is this how the US Army minds its soldiers? Is this how it treats them?
(I insist: bring back the draft. Send every son and daughter of America to that newly minted wasteland, see how fast the outrage about war comes to a boil).
Many questions are raised by the testimony of Lynddie England and Sabrina Herman and some of the investigators and interrogators who were involved. Are we supposed to feel sorry for England, a lost, 20 year old girl who was besotted with Charles Graner and allowed herself to pose for humiliating photographs with humiliated prisoners? Are we to feel sorry for Sabrina Herman, who always appears smiling and with a thumbs up in front of hooded, naked prisoners, or most notoriously, a dead one? She can explain and rationalize away all she wants, but it is hard to contradict the picture with sympathy. She seems to be having fun. There seems to be not a glimmer of conscience or revulsion or sympathy in the picture takers and the posers. The nazis documented everything because as Germans they have an obsession with order, but also because they were convinced of their victory and they wanted to build their legacy, it was a point of pride. This is not the case here. The case here is a dreadful combination of ignorance, degradation, burnout and boredom, of banality in the face of horrible circumstances, of lack of discipline, of the absence of human decency.
The soldiers rationalize by saying, well, we didn't beat them or kill them, we didn't harm them. But of course they did. Morris makes clear that in the Army's eyes many of these humiliations are harmless and standard operating procedure. Yet they look like torture to us, innocent civilians that we are.
Can a soldier in wartime say: "I refuse to carry out these orders"? The soldiers are brainwashed to think that disobeying orders can cost their buddies' lives. The cowards who made these soldiers do their dirty bidding knew this and abused this trust. None of them has been charged with anything.
Still, it's hard to be sympathetic to the soldiers. Americans are famously obsessed with right and wrong. Every freaking popular narrative that comes from this country's collective unconscious is about heroes and villains. There barely seems to be another narrative going on. So how come it gets fuzzy all of a sudden? How come now our soldiers, raised on a diet of superheroes, can't tell right from wrong? How come we are expected to justify the most villainous, cowardly evil perpetrated by us, purehearted seekers of justice that we are? How is it that we have fallen to the basest levels of barbarity, in a par with those of our vaunted enemies? How is it that we are emulating beasts like Saddam Hussein now?
The movie is hard going, but it is fascinating. Just when you think things cannot get any worse, out come the human pyramid, the forced masturbation, the unleashing of attack dogs. Morris insists on showing the most disgusting and disturbing photographs, which is completely right. We have to see. We have to see what we've become.

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