Standard Operating Procedure
By Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris
The Penguin Press, 286 pages, $25.95
Standard Operating Procedure—the film—is a mannered, stealthy web, the product of an artful, rather self-important yet depressed spider who sees Abu Ghraib prison as the obligingly ambivalent provocation for “an Errol Morris picture.”
It’s as if, after The Fog of War, that infinitely articulate and reticulated study of Robert McNamara’s mixed feelings over the Vietnam War, Mr. Morris believes his mere gaze (despite the blunt impact of his head-on lenses) brings auspicious mystery to any subject. By contrast, the enormous punch of the book on the same subject, co-authored by Mr. Morris and Philip Gourevitch, is such that you can hardly read it without throwing up. Ignore the layering and the ambiguity of the film, and try to forget the glaringly inappropriate music (by Danny Elfman), which is like something from Batman lost yet growing wistful in the airless corridors of the Morris mind; the book is an old-fashioned shocker that makes you want to rip that haunted prison to shreds and impeach the face cards in the Bush administration.
Does the book exist because someone had doubts about the film? This is not in Mr. Morris’ nature, or his track record. He has not sought to go into film and print simultaneously before. We’re told that Philip Gourevitch, and he alone, wrote the book—after a year and a half of continuous conversation with Mr. Morris, and access to the hundreds of hours of interview material assembled for the film. But just as Mr. Morris has been widely attacked by film critics for his movie, so he’s smart enough to register the directness and the smashing effectiveness of the book.
Most people who last out the film are going to be muddled over its exact target and its prettifying methods—why did Mr. Morris need actors in blurry, noir re-creations of situations that are stark enough already in the helpless assembly of snapshots? Why does the film dwell on dripping blood or need so many makeup artists? How does its intelligent eye lose focus on the squalor of Abu Ghraib? There’s a sneaking feeling attached to the movie that Mr. Morris had an urge to make not just a noir, but fiction nearly in which we begin to understand how we’re all in prison, all weak and vicious, and mad on photographs taken to prove that we were there (and that we were only watching, not an organic part of it all).
Mr. Gourevitch never mentions the Morris movie, and so he has no need to dismiss its sophistication. He knows that he has his subjects lined up like candidates for an execution; that the American Army reached its nadir in Abu Ghraib both in terms of effectiveness and as a breeding ground for the most un-American traits. This was foreseeable: For every Iraqi, the prison was fatally infected by its own history and by the death chambers Saddam had made there. A 6-year-old child would have had the wisdom to tear the place down—so many worthier Iraqi institutions were sent to hell in that great burst of American stupidity that followed the taking of Baghdad.
But it’s as if some malign author had stayed the child and said, no, keep the place, for nothing else is more likely to embody America’s need for hellish failure or so undermine the morale of this American mockery—the volunteer army. The same 6-year-old would know that yes, the grinning participation in horrors by raw kids in uniform amounted to crimes against the Geneva Conventions and military law just as surely as the highest commanders were complicit in those crimes—not just former Brig. General Janis Karpinski, the pale-eyed female camp commander who was shown what thugs show a commander when they’re doing far worse things, but Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez (who has his own Pilate’s Progress book just out) and every raddled commander above him all the way to the poisonous top, unique in its indifference and its invulnerability against evidence and reality-based experience. You know the jerk. Don’t shame his office further by naming it.
Mr. Gourevitch tells the story using Mr. Morris’ tapes, though sometimes getting into reports that do not figure in the movie. It’s not a difficult story to tell, not a tragedy likely to leave the reader with much ease or confidence. It goes toward making clear not just the universal folly of the war but the dreadful way in which its conduct has betrayed and confused an army in which jargon and high-tech toys wrestle with educational failure and family collapse. We know how well equipped the American military is, but the book, Standard Operating Procedure, is a portrait of an institution where evil itself has gown in the cracks left by lack of preparation and a failure to notice the brute facts on the ground.
The book does not include a single photograph, though it argues modestly toward a very useful indictment: that in our time and in a world like Abu Ghraib, the taking of “private” photographs by participants and onlookers is fed by the fear of being exposed and accused, and the nagging urge to prove existence. Again, this riddle is more thoroughly approached in the book than in the film. Mr. Gourevitch knows that his readers do not need illustration. He trusts that we will want to forget those small footprints of depravity and insolence—I say that because the deep lesson of book and film alike is the insurrectionary disobedience, the “fuck you, world” spirit that gathers like spoiled pulp in the face of Lynndie England, the Dickensian waif who was clowning around on piles of naked bodies, and the young thug who looks at Errol Morris as if he were a bug she might just squash.
It’s iniquitous that people like Lynndie England have done jail time while their superiors are untouched. Except that the full story of an American Abu Ghraib, the killing field of Philip Gourevitch’s exemplary book, will take its toll for years.
David Thomson’s “Have You Seen …?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films will be published by Knopf in October.