Abu Ghraib: Snapshots of Horror

"When you see a picture, you don't see outside the frame," one of the American soldiers convicted for dereliction of duty at Abu Ghraib Prison told filmmaker Errol Morris. Maybe people think they know all there is to know, or all they want to know, about the hundreds of snapshots taken in that distilled hell created by American occupation forces in Iraq in 2003. But the truly savage beatings that did take place at Abu Ghraib—at least one of which ended an Iraqi's life—weren't caught on camera. And if a young woman soldier who hoped someday to be a forensic photographer had not taken detailed shots of the corpse left behind by interrogators in one of the prison's fetid showers, we probably would not have known about that case, either.

The pictures you remember most vividly from the Abu Ghraib scandal—that man standing on a box, arms stretched out with loose electrical wires hanging from fingers; naked prisoners handcuffed with their hands stretched behind them, semi-crucified—weren't deemed to show "criminal" behavior at all. Hence "Standard Operating Procedure," the title of a stunning new documentary and an even more powerful companion book about what went on at the Iraqi prison, and what it means to us now. The movie, directed by Morris, is remarkably cool, allowing the horror of the hundreds of photographs and the explanations by some of the soldiers who took them to play across the viewer's psyche like waking nightmares. There is no narrator's voice to amplify the grotesque or guide you to a judgment. The book, written by Philip Gourevitch in collaboration with Morris, is, by contrast, incandescent with righteous anger. The full context for the photographs is even more disturbing than the images themselves. When the case is laid out, when you have met the characters and learned their stories and understood what they suffered as well as the suffering they inflicted, it is hard not to want to scream.

Morris achieved something of the same effect in "The Fog of War," his Oscar-winning film in which Robert McNamara, the Vietnam-era Defense secretary, admitted regretting the disaster he'd helped create. Gourevitch is best known for his account of the Rwandan genocide, "We Wish to Inform You That We Will Be Killed With Our Families," and he brings the same sense of curiously human inhumanity to this narrative. Here there are no heroes, to be sure. But the villains are never quite what we thought they were. The American military police in those damning stills—with their thumbs up, cigarettes dangling from their lips, holding leashes, wielding marking pens, raising fists—had seemed like sad and sinister trailer trash worthy of a Coen brothers movie. In Morris's documentary and in Gourevitch's prose, these kids—for so most of them were—come across as thoughtful, sincere and rueful. They do not plead extenuating circumstances, but they do describe them.

Abu Ghraib was on the front line in the Sunni Triangle, mortared by insurgents almost every day. Americans were dying outside and inside the walls. The U.S. military-police guards were vastly outnumbered by a swelling population of increasingly mutinous Iraqi prisoners who had been held for months with no charges and no idea if they would ever be released. The MPs, who had no training for this situation, were told by a host of nameless "ghosts" who worked for OGA—other government agencies, including the CIA and various Special Operations units—to "soften up" prisoners. Pain was part of the game, but its essence was humiliation as part of a standard operating procedure so weird you'd take pictures of it. Then the OGA ghosts began the real abuse—torture, by almost any definition—the sort that could turn deadly. The MPs took no pictures. They learned to turn away. And the truth is, so have the rest of us.

"No soldiers above the rank of sergeant ever served jail time," Gourevitch writes at the end of his book. "Nobody was ever charged with torture, or war crimes, or any violation of the Geneva Conventions. Nobody ever faced charges for keeping prisoners naked, or shackled. Nobody ever faced charges for holding prisoners as hostages. Nobody ever faced charges for incarcerating children who were accused of no crime and posed no security threat. Nobody ever faced charges for holding thousands of prisoners in a combat zone in constant danger of their lives … Nobody ever faced charges for shooting and killing prisoners who were confined behind concertina wire." And nobody was ever held to account for beating that man to death in the shower, although the woman who shot the pictures initially faced charges for having taken them. All that is outside the frame, precedent for a dangerous future where no photographs will be allowed at all. Which is why this film has to be seen, and this book has to be read.