In a piece titled "Seen, Unseen", Statesman staff writer Jody Seaborn writes about a new film by Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedure. Morris is a documentary filmmaker who also blogs about photography for the New York Times. This movie, which apparently opens here in Austin (and elsewhere?) on Friday, "seeks to determine whether the abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were merely the work of a few 'bad apples', as the military and the Bush administration publicly maintained, or the result of policies sanctioned and encouraged by civilian and military leaders."
I would hardly call the article "objective journalism," even for an editorial piece (not when the sub-head reads "For filmmaker Errol Morris, the Abu Ghraib photos concealed as much as they revealed, and helped cover up the larger truth."):
For two years, Morris interviewed soldiers, interrogators and investigators, and examined letters, depositions, memos, and military and government reports to find the larger truth behind the infamous photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib. As he writes in his director's statement for the film, "The story of Abu Ghraib is still shrouded in moral ambiguity, but it is clear what happened there."
And what happened, Morris says, is that the seven military police soldiers convicted of abuses at Abu Ghraib — Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick, Sgt. Javal Davis, Cpl. Charles Graner, Spc. Sabrina Harman, Spc. Megan Ambuhl, Spc. Jeremy Sivits and Pfc. Lynndie England — were doing what they thought their superiors wanted done.
In investigating Abu Ghraib, Morris collected more material than one movie can possibly hold. An excellent companion book, also titled "Standard Operating Procedure" and written by New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch, uses the information that Morris gathered to further explore the story of Abu Ghraib. "There was no excuse" for Abu Ghraib, Gourevitch writes, "and there was nothing to show for it either, no great score of useful intelligence, no ends to justify the means. Nobody has ever even bothered to pretend otherwise. The horror ... was entirely gratuitous."
I won't excuse what those soldiers did. But one thing is sure - as Michael Yon explains in Moment of Truth in Iraq - we lost the moral high-ground because of Abu Ghraib, and that likely cost us the lives of countless American service men and women.
I have a problem with is Morris' conclusion, which it seems Seaborn accepts without question (Seaborn helpfully includes an "About Abu Ghraib" "fact list", as well as "additional information" pointing the reader to an article from Morris and Gourevitch in a March issue of The New Yorker, Morris' recent essay (on his NYT blog) about the photo of SPC Harman grinning over the body of a prisoner who it was later determined had been killed during CIA interrogation, Salon.com's "archive of 279 photographs and 19 videos from Abu Ghraib" and another documentary, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, that how these soldiers behaved is what was expected of American soldiers in Iraq:
The story of Abu Ghraib feels incomplete. We have a few so-called bad apples who were punished, but the officials responsible for the box where these apples rotted remain unpunished. It's an unsatisfying ending.
I don't know what the ending is yet. The ending is yet to be written by America and by Americans.
I've been asked, I don't know how many times, what about the smoking gun? Have you found the smoking gun?
What's the smoking gun supposed to be?
Well, I used to joke about it. I would say, what do you think you're going to find? Are you going to find the video conference call where Donald Rumsfeld tells Chuck Graner: "You ever think of piling them in a pyramid?" I don't think that exists!
But I think there are hundreds of smoking guns that we've seen. They're all around us. They're everywhere. How many torture memos does an administration have to promulgate before you get the idea that they're promulgating torture? How much stuff do you need to see?
Every time that we somehow just leave things be and accept the fact that lowly soldiers take the fall and the big shots run away and never are confronted by what they've done, I think we all lose, ultimately. It affects us all. And not for the good.
I just cannot accept that premise. I've known too many people in the military who would NEVER accept that as SOP. It just bothers me that others want to keep Abu Ghraib front and center, implying all our soldiers and Marines would do something like this without questioning the legality of these "orders". No mention is made in the article in regard to the fact that the military was already investigating what happened at Abu Ghraib prior to it becoming a headlining story for newspapers and TV news programs. Just as "Morris explores in Zoom [ed. - his NYT blog] - that it is necessary to understand what a photograph doesn't show us to understand what it does", there is more to the Abu Ghraib story that is shared in his "documentary".