America’s unending descent into Naziism and barbarism are somewhat investigated in this Errol Morris documentary. I say somewhat, because the investigation falls flat and is highly limited, constrained primarily to the collection of characters who were prosecuted for taking the pictures of themselves abusing Iraqis.
Notably, not one Iraqi voice is permitted. No human rights lawyer is included. The only people included who are opposed to these atrocities are Army personnel and a private mercenary interrogator from CACI! There’s balance. One can get more “fair and balanced” discussion on Fox News occasionally.
Morris gets statements from General Janis Karpinsky, the figurehead of the US prison system in Iraq, who was quite out of the loop in regard to the torture and systematic “softening up” of prisoners nightly. The fact that it was her job to know what was going on in the facilities under her command never seems to enter the discussion. Her testimony helps establish the Army’s cover-up, however. She does name her superior officers and establish some complicity.
In previous investigations of Karpinsky, Rumsfeld’s torture memo came up (Rumsfeld’s Memo on Interrogation Techniques), but was not included here. The director, Errol Morris, repeatedly drops the ball and fails to connect the dots regarding the command responsibility. He spends so much time giving an open microphone to people like Lynndie England, that the expected hard-hitting investigation of the policies and the policy-makers never happens. Far from establishing the chain of evidence and prosecuting those people for establishing a torture gulag, the case is left mostly to insinuation and hearsay.
Morris ignores the John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales torture memos that expose the Bush White house approving their evasion of the Geneva Conventions. He ignores the use of the term “military necessity” as a condition for abusing prisoners, a clear red flag. He ignores the torture deaths of previous prisoners in Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, and the extensive investigations that had come before such as General Taguba’s report. Also, the statements of high officials like Dick Cheney in defense of drowning torture. Morris could have also included the widespread torture performed by US client regimes including SAVAK in Iran and the South Vietnamese government, which did much of America’s dirty work thorughout that conflict. Even today, the US insists on sending its victims to known torture states for interrogation, an unlawful program called “rendition” that Barack Obama has not discontinued. America’s close relationships with dictators who use torture is well-documented and irrefutable.
But Morris, in typical liberal apologetic style, opts for a Pollyanna attitude about the entire matter. His claim is that America somehow lost its way and its values, never considering that this way has been the way since anyone can remember; ask a native American. Morris treats Standard Opertaing Procedure as more of a pet art project about the Abu Ghraib photographs themselves, than as a criminal investigation of numerous war crimes.
A clue to the man behind the movie is found in Morris’ director’s commentary, when he asks a jaw-dropping rhetorical question of the audience: “Do the ends of bringing freedom to Iraq justify the means of abandoning America’s core values and principles?”
What universe does this man inhabit?
“Bringing freedom” to Iraq? Is that what happened? Morris must have drunk the Kool Aid a long time ago to entertain such a fantasy. This sort of Democratic side of the aisle warmongering was evidenced around the time of the Iraq war vote. Morris could have actually investigated some of the alleged “freedom” that the US attempted to install in its occupied client state. L. Paul Bremer’s “100 Orders” tell the story of a conquered, raped nation completely at the mercy of its imperial masters. The fact that no nation can be rewarded for conquering others, as enshrined in international law, holds no sway with Morris. He mentions “Geneva” a couple of times throughout, something that should be front and center, without elaboration. Without even a single quote from established international law that the USA is a signed party to. No mention of the laws prohibiting torture. The torture question is left uncomfortably indeterminate.
The liberal hawks, which apparently include Errol Morris who makes no argument against the illegal destruction and invasion of Iraq, are the great obfuscators. They present a muddled “moral ambiguity” and attempt to pin the blame on — who? All of us! We’re all responsible, as Americans. We’re all a part of it. Morris’ usage of “us” and “we” is repeated, never acknowledging that a lot of “us” were out in the streets in the millions prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. We were not all on that same page, Mr. Morris. And we are not today.
In short, Morris fails to establish the context of this armed aggression against Iraq, and to bring the audience up to speed on how these particular soldiers ended up in their respective roles. The invasion of Iraq by American and allied forces was a clear breach of the United Nations Charter. Ironically one of excuses floated by Bush and company was that they needed to invade Iraq in order to enforce international law vis a vis “weapons of mass destruction” (which the US controls thousands of real ones, by the way). In fact the aggression against Iraq was the “supreme international crime” a Crime Against the Peace, and violated the UN Charter, Article 2:
“All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.
All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”
The use of language in Standard Operating Procedure is maddening, to say the least. War criminals are given open mics to present their one-sided portrayals of the events. They are not challenged or rebuffed, or corrected. Their terminology (much of it straight from the Pentagon) stands as factual. Example: Karpinsky calls her prisoners of war “terrorists” without any interruption or call for clarification by her interviewer. The prisoners were not accused of targeting civilians, and likely wouldn’t have been a priority of the US military if they had. They were resistance fighters battling an occupying military force. They were an armed struggle, not “terrorists.” The true terrorists were those employing terrorism, such as the kidnapping of children in an effort to coerce their parents into surrendering. There was much terrorism to speak of, but this presentation by Morris is through the looking glass. He does not consider any act by any American in this film to be worthy of the name “terrorism.”
Another frustrating term is “detainee.” This is the standard jargon used to obfuscate that these men were prisoners of war with legal rights and protections under the Geneva Conventions. The US military invents terms, such as “collateral damage,” to evade legal prohibitions and for propaganda purposes. The term detainee is another dehumanizing shifting of legal protections, as is the term “unlawful combatant” which was also tossed about casually.
Already mentioned was the omission of any testimony by those who suffered at the hands of these torturers and abusers. On the DVD commentary we learn that some detainees were indeed contacted. One of them even allegedly vouched for Sabrina Harman, the gay ever-smiling thumbs-up girl who posed next to a corpse.
The detainee allegedly said that she was one of the good ones. Maybe so. But, he didn’t get to say it in the movie, and he wasn’t given the opportunity to comment on those who were not “the good ones.” Why no victims permitted in this documentary? Even more humiliating than being edited out, the prisoners shown were given Amercanized nicknames like “Gus” and “Gilligan.” These are the names that Errol Morris uses in the film as well, perpetuating the racist dehumanizing of these men.
Now I don’t believe Errol Morris set out to make a biased film based on a blinkered world view. It’s just what happens, especially when the artistry of the piece takes precedence over getting to the facts. Burning screen time on Lynndie England’s love triangle takes away from putting generals and secretaries of defense into prison. That’s a fact of life in documentary infotainment. It is what it is, and it’s better that SOP was released out there into the wild than if it hadn’t been. We should be grateful for the effort, I suppose, but ever vigilant of its limitations.
In related news, on May 11, 2012 a War Crimes Tribunal in Kuala Lumpur found George Bush, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld et al. guilty of torture and Nuremberg violations. Perhaps prosecutions can advance in the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. The charges included:
“(a) Torture; (b) Creating, authorizing and implementing a regime of Cruel, Inhumane, and Degrading Treatment; (c) Violating Customary International Law; (d) Violating the Convention Against Torture 1984; (e) Violating the Geneva Convention III and IV 1949; (f) Violating the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention of 1949. (g) Violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Charter.”