A microcosm of the Iraq occupation

June 20, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure

Directed by Errol Morris

Cinema release July 3

Standard Operating Procedure, one of several films at the Sydney Film Festival analysing the occupation of Iraq, looks at the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison.

It focuses on the infamous photographs that broke the scandal. It is not a pleasant film to watch — director Errol Morris describes it as "a nonfiction horror movie".

At the core of the film are extensive interviews with the young, low-ranking US military personnel who both took and featured in the photographs. Most of those prosecuted and punished for the abuse are interviewed, although military authorities refused permission to interview Corporal Charles Graner and Staff Sergeant Ivan Fredrick who were still serving their sentances when the film was being made.

Fredrick has since been paroled. The film-makers also attempted to locate the Iraqi detainees featured in the photographs but were unsuccessful.

The interviews are both fascinating and disturbing. They humanise the perpetrators of the abuse.

While the interviews suggest that some of those prosecuted were more culpable than others, what becomes clear is that all were scapegoats. Their actual crime was taking the photographs that caused considerable embarressment to the US military and government.

Explaining the intent of the film, Morris said: "The photographs do two things at the same time. They provide an expose and they provide a cover up. They showed the world that these things were going on, but they point the finger at a very small group of people.

"They make you think it's these people who are the culprits. These are the people who are responsible for everything. That is a misdirection. It gives you a false picture."

What the film makes clear is that the abuse in the photographs is the tip of the iceberg. Abu Ghraib itself is just a microcosm of the US-led occupation in Iraq.

However, the inteviews show that the prisoner abuse was not simply the result of the stress getting to some of the soldiers. What happened was policy. Those prosecuted were acting under orders.

Then Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who was in charge of military prisons in Iraq before being demoted as part of the cover-up and scapegoating, tells of a visit of a senior officer with Pentagon plans to "Gitmoise" the prison. After this the military intelligence section of Abu Ghraib was effectively out of bounds to Karpinski herself.

Furthermore, as Sergeant Javal Davies (sentanced to six months) points out, repulsive as the photographs are, what is seen in them is just the softening up. The "real torture" happened later, at the hands of military intelligence or what were termed OGAs — an acronym standing for "other government agencies" meaning the CIA and other shadowy secret police organisations.

The title of the film comes from the interviews with special agent Brent Pack who analysed the photographs for the prosecution of those charged with prisoner abuse.

He explains that while some of the photos showed criminal abuse, many of the most shocking, including a naked man chained in a "stress position" with a pair of panties on his face, and the iconic image of the hooded man on a box with electrical wires attached to him, did not depict "abuse" but merely "standard operating procedure".

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