Because of the curious nature of its subject, Standard Operating Procedure—a book written by Philip Gourevitch and based on interviews conducted by the documentary film-maker Errol Morris—is a meditation both on the meaning of the war on Iraq, and on the meaning of photography.
Abu Ghraib, the site of the hellish story told by Gourevitch—a former staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of We Wish to Inform you that Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994—and Morris, was the biggest of Saddam Hussein’s many prisons and, from 2003, the detention ground where Iraqi suspects were held and tortured. There would have been no way for any journalist to enter Abu Ghraib but, in April 2004, there emerged some damning photographs taken on cheap digital cameras by soldiers in charge of working over the prisoners. These photographs, in which grinning soldiers hovered above kneeling, bloodied, or hooded prisoners, became unmistakably the greatest public relations disaster for the US since Vietnam, and decisively undid the claim that the war was one for liberty. These pictures were worth much more than a thousand words.
Torture cell: US soldiers in Iraq weren’t trained in dealing with prisoners.
Standard Operating Procedure is a comprehensive investigation into how a scandal such as Abu Ghraib came to be. Gourevitch establishes how—although the perpetrators of the atrocities were caught on camera by themselves—the responsibility for the crimes went all the way up the American high command, beginning with the president. After 9/11, George W. Bush issued a series of decrees declaring that the war on terror had necessitated a state of “extraordinary emergency”, and that the rules of the Geneva Convention for prisoners of war did not apply to the fight against Al Qaeda (which Bush repeatedly linked to Iraq).
In the aftermath of the victory in Iraq early in 2003, American forces found themselves in charge of the reconstruction of an entire country even as they fought insurgents in various pockets. This stressful atmosphere led to suspects being dumped into prisons such as Abu Ghraib, where they were worked over by interrogators for “actionable intelligence”.
Many of the soldiers in charge of the prisons were trained in combat, but not in the modalities of dealing with prisoners. Further, they were licensed by their high command to use a range of objectionable methods (keeping prisoners chained in stressful positions, denying them sleep and food, making them wear women’s underwear to humiliate them) to get them to talk. Repeated mortar attacks on the prison by insurgents increased the stress level of the soldiers, some of them barely out of their teens. There soon developed an anything-goes environment in which every sort of beastly practice became “standard operating procedure”.
Standard Operating Procedure:Picador,286 pages,Rs495.
Yet, the manner in which the scandal broke over the US meant that it was the lowest people in the chain—soldiers such as the infamous Private Lynndie England and Corporal Charles Graner—who took the rap for it. Gourevitch’s analyses of these photographs make for some of the best passages in the book. The photographs were so horrifying, he argues, because they were so rich in meaning and suggestion—far richer than photographs of more gruesome crimes would be, precisely because they left something to the imagination. The images of grinning white faces besides stricken brown bodies not only made for an atmosphere of “carnival weirdness” that disturbed everyone who saw them, they also activated a narrative of racist and imperialist venality.
Both England and Graner were given jail sentences in court martials held in 2005, but no soldier above the rank of sergeant served jail time for Abu Ghraib, which amounted to a shocking denial of responsibility by the army high command. Gourevitch’s book is a cautionary tale—widely applicable to other parts of the world where human rights abuses are now taking place—of how, when they seek only ends and ignore the means, the forces of civilization, liberty and order only end up erasing the difference between their adversaries and themselves. Within us, too, there lies a beast waiting to be unleashed.
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