Book Review – Standard Operating Procedure


Cross-posted from The Global Sociology Blog.

Standard Operating Procedure is a book co-authored by Philip Gourevitch (also author of the great We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow, We Will Be killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda and writer for the New Yorker) and Errol Morris (director of the great documentary The Fog of War , among others) who also directed the documentary of the same title (incredible website that is well worth checking out with tons of great information that supplement the book very well and makes you impatient for the film to be shown in your area… not yet for me, unfortunately).

The book and documentary are about the Abu Ghraib scandal, of course. We might think that we had read, seen and heard (see also the excellent HBO documentary Ghosts of Abu Ghraib ) everything we could probably stomach about this sorry mess but we were wrong. Besides, as a country, we deserve to have this thing shoved in our face on a regular basis because, as the book states, this stain is our own.

And let’s remember that the story of Guantanamo Bay has not been told yet. Who knows what horrors will come out of there? (Although this post by DDay over at Digby’s place, relating how the US offered its Gitmo facilities to the Chinese for torturing purposes and the fact that we’re stuck there because we have a whole bunch of people we can neither trial – because they’ve been tortured – nor release, because, huh, who cares about their excuses anymore… seems to me there will be no end to the evils to be dug up there). And there’s more coming out every day lately: see McClatchy (one of the only decent remaining reporting outfits), the BBC , and Jeralyn at Talk Left.

But back to the book itself.

The book starts when the occupying authorities in Iraq decided to use the Abu Ghraib prison (a particularly notorious prison under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship) and use it for their own purposes. That was a first major symbolic mistake. That place should have been thoroughly destroyed as a symbol of the end of Saddam’s regime and to let the Iraqi people know that such places would no longer exist in the new Iraq. Moreover, Abu Ghraib, because of its very location was clearly going to be a target.

This first mistake was one of a long list. And that is the first impression of the book: the incredible incompetence at ALL levels, from the prison guards at Abu Ghraib, all the way to the top of the political chain (Bremer, Rumsfeld, Bush) and the military chain (Ricardo Sanchez). Clearly, these people had no clue as to what they were doing. Incompetence, cluelessness, and for the MPs on the ground, high stress as the prison was incredibly overcrowded and constantly attacked from the outside AND the inside. Those were deleterious conditions.

According to Gourevitch and Morris, the first problem in Iraq was the predominance of what they call the “military imperative.” The occupying situation in Iraq was/is completely incoherent (something that has already been aptly demonstrated in Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone ). As civilian control progressively became clearly non-existent, the only logic that prevailed was/is the military one. Let me quote here:

“The occupation was fundamentally fragmented, a grab bag of uncoordinated agendas with snarled and conflicting lines of authority and accountability, tugged this way and that by opportunistic local allegiances, and hobbled by political calculations that often had less to do with Iraq than with Washington bureaucracy and careerism. (…) The big, vague idea was to put Iraq back together, not according to a unified vision, but piece by piece, so for the most part nobody really knew what anybody else was doing.” (25)

In that context, the only coherent entity was the military. And even that fell apart in Abu Ghraib. Of course, the torture, mistreatment of prisoners and unleashing of military violence against civilians did not start with Abu Ghraib. They started in Afghanistan, at Bagram prison, then at Gitmo and we find some of the same individuals who worked there later at Abu Ghraib. These are the individuals that claim the need for tougher treatment of detainees to whom, supposedly, the Geneva Conventions did not apply because they were not soldiers nor civilians.

And as the insurgency emerged in Iraq, pressing demands for intelligence came directly from Rumsfeld. So, soldiers on the ground started rounding up thousands of Iraqis, almost randomly, keeping them detained for months without charges. If a guy has a coca-cola stand near where an insurgent attack has taken place, he gets arrested. If a family is having dinner at home near an attack site, the entire family gets arrested. If a man is suspected of insurgent activities, then, his whole family is arrested and in effect, taken hostage. But the bottom line is that even the paperwork showed that thousands of people were arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time but getting them released was practically impossible. Even those that were acquitted of any wrongdoings by civilian courts were taken back to Abu Ghraib because the military had not released them because, who knows, they might have some intelligence.

The search for intelligence took precedence over everything, and therefore, any agency involved with intelligence gathering, Military Intelligence, CIA, DIA, etc., was given authority over military folks. The MPs at the hard site at Abu Ghraib (where the infamous photos were taken) were constantly told by their own superiors not to argue with what the MI interrogators were doing, and not to interfere. And, of course, no one knew what rules were to be used in the treatment of detainees but different lists and memos, with or without General Sanchez’s signature were circulated, all contradictory, adding or subtracting certain practices (although one might think that rules of common decency would apply universally, but obviously not).

“What a mess. In the course of a month, five different versions of the interrogation rules – the three unsigned drafts, and the two official policies – had been put into circulation at Abu Ghraib. Some of the changes along the way were substantial, but they were never explicitly identified. You had to scrutinize the succeeding documents side by side to detect all their differences, and they all looked enough alike that you could easily assume you’d already read one when you’d actually read another. (…) But the confusion about the law among those who were laying it down for Abu Ghraib suggested that the interrogation rules were not really rules but a kind of guesswork, and that they invited exceptions, which certainly fit with the fact that interrogators were being allowed – even encouraged – to do so much that wasn’t in their handbook, so much that was even restricted at Gitmo, so much they were not trained to do. There was no time for training, and no one to provide it.” (54-55)

And so the stage was set for the atrocities that would come out of the hard site at Abu Ghraib: massive round-up of Iraqis, men, women, children (the youngest was 10 years old) on flimsiest of charges; a gigantic bureaucratic mess that made it practically impossible to release anyone and therefore release the overcrowding pressure; an ill-location detention facility (easily attacked, and it was, constantly) with most of the detainees living in unsanitary conditions in tent camps set up over a landfill; a stressed personnel with no training in what they were asked to do; an unresponsive hierarchy’ and the pressure for intelligence from MI and private interrogators. What could possibly go wrong with that?

It is in this context that the 372nd MP, with its cast of characters now famous, took over the hard site. The way they understood their tasks: do what the MI tell you to do with the detainees (soften them up for interrogation though all the techniques revealed by the photos), don’t ask questions. And above all: there are no rules. Not a word on the Geneva Conventions and most of them had never worked in any kind of correction facility. But some of them, like Sabrina Harman and Charles Graner, loved to take photos of everything. They said it was to cover themselves and provide proof of what was done but that kinda flies out the window when they pose, smiling and giving the thumbs-up. As Gourevitch and Morris put it, referring to the “human pyramid” photos, it was more “reckless abandon ” and “perverse glee. ” (200)

And so, the core part of the book goes over the context and circumstances of all the famous Abu Ghraib photos, giving the protagonists a chance to explain what happened. And what you get is a litany of excuses, of “I was following orders”, “I knew it was weird but I did it anyway because everyone else was doing it”, “the MI told us to do it”, “it wasn’t what you think, it wasn’t that bad”, “that guy on the leash, he wasn’t hurt”, “Graner just told me to get in the picture, so, I did”, “we were at war, war is messy”, “it wasn’t really torture, it was humiliation”, etc. Any one familiar with the work of Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram will recognize these excuses. And quite often, it was all for nothing: the MPs tortured several guys accused of child rape for several hours one night… turned out it was the wrong guys. The corpse that both Graner and Harman pose with, smiling and thumbs-up… yup, wrong guy too. And there is no evidence that any of this ever produced intelligence (in every sense of the term I guess).

“Abu Ghraib was bedlam, and the MI block was its sick, racing heart. There was no excuse for it, 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 of Tier 1A was entirely gratuitous, and it just kept getting worse.” (159)

At the same time that manipulation of the environment was designed to confuse and break the detainees, a lot was done that also confused the MPs. For instance, the MI interrogators were never identified, never wore uniforms or indicators of ranks or unit, and who was military and who was a private contractor, outside of the military chain of command. And from reading the book, it is clear that the MPs were individuals who joined the military because they loved and craved order and structure. And as Abu Ghraib became more and more of a mess, they became more and more dysfunctional. Add to the mix the sexual pairing up between members of the unit (the most famous couple, of course, being Charles Graner and Lynndie England, then later, Graner dumped England and married another MP of the unit, Megan Ambuhl).

So, in the context of complete leadership failure, the detainees that got the worst of it were the “ghost prisoners”. They were brought to the tiers but never put on the books, never identified by name, as if they never existed, and they were accompanied by ghost guards, for the same reason, but mostly, CIA guys. And get it, the detainees did. For every attack, every wounded American soldier, the guards would unleash their rage at them, in addition to the daily humiliations of being naked, having to wear women’s underwear on their heads, to the straight torture (stress positions, physical exertion, beatings, sleep deprivation, environmental and sensory manipulation, etc.). And then, very quickly, the MPs become indifferent to it all.

“Davis felt that what he did and saw on the MI block was morally wrong. ‘But it was reaffirmed and reassured through the leadership – we are at war, this is Military Intelligence, this is what they do – and it’s just a job,’ he said. ‘So you become numb to it, and it’s nothing. It just became the norm. You see it – that sucks. It sucks to be him. And that’s it. You move on.’ (…) And he said, ‘Anyone who’s not in that situation will not understand. If you were there, then most likely you’d understand. That’s how I had to look at it.'” (104-105)

And that is pretty much the same attitude you get from all the MPs involved. As I was reading this, I couldn’t help thinking that these people were going to return to civilian life at some point and that these are people that could very well be perceived as sociopaths and they’re walking among us. I don’t know which way the causality runs (are these types of people attracted to the military or does the military turn them that way?) but it is scary anyway.

And it is depressing in another way as well:

“The stain is ours, because whatever else the Iraq war was about, it was always above all, about America – about the projection of America’s force and America’s image into the world. Iraq was the stage, and Iraqis would suffer for that, enduring some fifty deaths for every American life lost. (…) But although there were Iraqis who supported the war, seeing hope and opportunity for their country or themselves, the war was not their choice. It was an American war because America’s elected officials decided to wage it of their own initiative. (…) What was at stake, for the war’s advocates, skeptics, and opponents alike, was an American story – the story of America as a champion of law and liberty at home and abroad.” (160)

And in Abu Ghraib, as well as all over Iraq, the United States reproduced exactly what it had sworn to destroy: the Kafkaesque prison system, the knocks on the door and arrests in the middle of the night, the disappearances, and the torture.

Now, to be sure, the United States has run torture operations and conducted pretty nasty operations around the world. But the very fact that it was covert indicates that the people in charge knew that what they were doing was illegal by any standard. And now?

“But that was before [Cheney’s] lawyers and the president’s decided that in the war on terror it was more expeditious to replace the law with the theory that torture is a phantom crime, defined by an unprovable intention to impose an unattainable level of pain.” (163)

So yes, the soldiers are all making excuses for their behavior, but it is clear that buck should stop on the desk of the Oval Office with many stops on the way up the chain of command. As as it is presented in the book, that chain of command is very rotten. It seems made of cowards who care only about the buck-passing, the butt-covering and the self-deception. They allowed indiscipline and incompetence to fester at every level of the military bureaucracy that had been cowed and corrupted from the top (Rumsfeld / Bush / Cheney). As Gourevitch and Morris put it, “Abu Ghraib was the smoking gun.” (171) Or also, “If you fight terror with terror, how can you tell which is which? ” (240)

And so, the photos were leaked out (not for high-minded motives), the truth got exposed but, of course, only a few MPs got punished for it. The highest ranking military member to be disciplined was Janis Karpinski. The most severe sentence was imposed on Charles Graner (10 years). But nothing regarding the MI or the private contractors. And, of course, nothing up the chain of command. There has been massive cover-up disguised under the “bad apple” theory. But it is clear that there is probably much much more than the hard site.

But there is an important aspect that I hadn’t thought of in all this (probably because, in the back of my not-always-critical mind, I absorbed a lot of the praise of the US military for its top-notch training and professionalism):

“The amateurism was not merely a formal dimension of the Abu Ghraib pictures. It was part of their content, part of what we saw in them, and it corresponded to an aspect of the Iraq war that troubled and baffled nearly everyone: the reckless and slapdash ineptitude with which it had been prosecuted. It was an amateur-run war, a murky incoherent war. It was not clear why it was waged; too many reasons were given, none had held up, and the stories we invented to explain to ourselves hardly seem to matter, since once it was started the war had become its own engine – not a means to an end but an end in itself. What had been billed as a war of ideas and ideals had been exposed as a war of poses and posturing. It was or image versus the enemy’s, a standard, in this case, by which it was easy to stoop appallingly low before being caught out. The Abu Ghraib photos caught us out.(263)

A compelling statement for a compelling book.

I hope we all get to see the film. Just in case, here is the trailer:

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