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Standard Operating Procedure

The Tip of the Iceberg

It’s been nearly five years since we first witnessed the shocking photos of naked Iraqi prisoners being humiliated, tortured, and dehumanized in Abu Ghraib. It’s easy to look at these pictures and demonize the MPs in the photos (and the MPs responsible for the photos) and focus on this group of "bad apples". But, were these MPs just following the Standard Operating Procedure? How much do these photos really reveal?

In Standard Operating Procedure, director Errol Morris looks beyond the photos tied to this embarrassing incident and, not surprisingly, discovers a story that involves much more than just a handful of bad apples. This is not to exonerate the MPs who behaved in a manner that was more than questionable. But, the military is an institution all about following orders; so, what orders were these MPs receiving?

Through a myriad of powerful and revealing interviews with a few of the indicted MPs and a number of other parties present in Abu Ghraib during this challenging period it becomes apparent all too quickly just how stressful, chaotic, and murky things were from the very beginning.

For starters, new prisoners were being rounded up and brought in to Abu Ghraib every day. Naturally, most of these prisoners were agitated and were looking for opportunities to incite a riot or kill their captors. Abu Ghraib was also being shelled constantly. The MPs were far from safe on the inside and outside the walls of the prison, death was a near certainty.

Most of the MPs walked into Abu Ghraib and saw what was effectively "standard operating procedure". Prisoners were led about naked with women’s panties on their heads. Prisoners were beaten, humiliated, and otherwise abused. It’s easy to say these MPs should have questioned how things were being done, but in a situation as bizarre as this one, what rules does one follow?

Coupled with the powerful interviews Morris managed to get from a few of the MPs, former brigadier general of the 800th Military Police Brigade, Janis Karpinski, and several others present at Abu Ghraib during this period is a closer examination of the actual photos taken.

Sabrina Harman, a specialist in the 372nd MP Company indicated in letters to her partner back home that she was taking photos because she knew what was happening was wrong. But, what was motivating the other MPs to take photos during this period? What becomes clear is that many of the photos were taken by male officers who found the poses of the younger female officers with naked Iraqi male prisoners titillating and amusing.

Errol Morris’s deft execution of interviews, exhaustive examination of the photos, and directorial skill result in a superb documentary. Standard Operating Procedure could be considered the yin to The Fog of War’s yang. In the latter, Morris examined the primary architect (Robert McNamara) of the Vietnam War. In Standard Operating Procedure we see a startling and disturbing examination of lower ranking officers whose actions were questionable, but it’s clear that those giving the orders were conveniently left unscathed.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars