Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

Director: Errol Morris


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Early in 2004, the world got a firsthand, uncensored, unorchestrated look at what American troops were doing in one corner of Iraq—Abu Ghraib, a prison formerly used by Saddam Hussein to detain and execute enemies of the state and then (and now) under the control of American and Coalition forces. Like Saddam, the American military used Abu Ghraib for the detention of suspected spies and insurgents and carried out interrogations there. The American military police who served as the prison’s guards were instructed to “soften up” the prisoners for interrogation, and by example and specific instruction, very little was off limits in the discharge of that duty. Just how little became clear as hundreds of the thousands of pictures taken by the MPs who performed this pre-interrogation softening were leaked to the press and made public.

SOP%208.jpgImages of naked Iraqi men apparently being taunted by female MPs Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman and posed in a human pyramid shocked the nation. Other photos of humiliation showed prisoners handcuffed in stress positions with women’s panties on their heads. One particularly heinous scare tactic was the use of attack dogs. And of course, the iconic photo of a prisoner nicknamed Gilligan dressed in sack cloth and a hood, awkwardly balanced on a box, his outstretched arms attached to wires became the image of torture Americans now had to understand was being done in their name. Perhaps predictably, the American public blinked. The “bad apples” were prosecuted, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski was relieved of her command of the 800th MP Brigade in Iraq and busted down to colonel, and Abu Ghraib receded back into its dark, dirty corner. Out of sight, out of mind.

SOP%2010.jpgErrol Morris didn’t forget. After an exploratory interview with Karpinski, he determined that the story of Abu Ghraib hadn’t been fully explored, that the pictures had, in fact, closed down a wider investigation of the truth because they made it so easy to point a finger at the grunts on the ground and be done with it. Morris was sure that there was a story outside the frames of those pictures, a human face to the low-ranked monsters who were punished that deserved to be seen as well, a cover-up to be investigated. Returning to the investigative mode he so brilliantly executed with The Thin Blue Line, Morris doggedly pursued interviews and information, eventually getting Javal Davis, Tony Diaz, Lynndie England, Megan Ambuhl Graner, Sabrina Harman, Janis Karpinski, Roman Krol, and Jeremy Sivits—all prosecuted or otherwise punished for the abuse—to speak with him. Former Abu Ghraib MPs Ken Davis and Jeffrey Frost provided their version of events. Military interrogator Tim Dugan discussed what he saw and gave his opinion of the effectiveness of the MPs’ softening techniques. Finally, Brent Pack, a special agent for the Criminal Investigations Division, showed how he put together a timeline of events and corroborating evidence of who took part in the abuse through the use of the photographs themselves.

Morris introduces us to the prison first. We learn about an elaborate tour of the facility that was planned for Secretary Rumsfeld’s visit in September 2003. Rumsfeld entered the room where hangings took place under Saddam, then hurriedly left the prison with an offhand “fine, fine” comment. When Major General Geoffrey Miller visited Abu Ghraib a day later, the results were more “fruitful.” He intended to run the prison in Gitmo fashion, and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez issued the now infamous Interrogation and Counter-Resistance Policy for Iraq, which tacitly and explicitly authorized certain forms of torture and humiliation in opposition to the Geneva Convention. With the necessary instructions now in place, the 372nd MP Company took up their duties in Abu Ghraib.


Specialist Sabrina Harman’s letters to her “wife” Kelly start spelling out the oddity of some of the sights she’s witnessing. She snaps photos of a prisoner who is handcuffed to his bed with panties on his head. She continues to document many of the abuses she sees. She explains to Kelly that she is keeping a photographic record in case the incidents get them in trouble. She does not, however, refuse to appear in the pictures, often with the thumbs-up pose that seems so callous to the general public.


Lynndie England, of leashed-prisoner photo fame, says all her troubles stem from a man—in this case Corporal Charles Graner, her lover, and a man officials refused to let speak to Morris. Graner seems to have been the ringleader for most of the staged photos of prisoner humiliation. England did what he said out of love and at other times, out of persistent coercion. She was, she said, unwilling to stand by one of the Iraqis who was forced to masturbate and only did so when Graner gave her little option. England also didn’t notice that Megan Ambuhl, who was present during many such incidents, was cropped out of the photos being taken by her secret lover and current husband—Charles Graner. Morris restores the original framing of one photo to show us the reality beyond the edges of the image.

This perspective is exactly what underlies Morris’ purposes in making this film—to show us that the reality we assume these photos show us is only partial. This presentation is, I think, meant to lead us to question what we think we know about Abu Ghraib and demand more answers to nagging questions about how widespread and systemic these abuses were (and are). He intends to show us that these “monsters” are human and, in fact, pawns who were nearly powerless to refuse to abuse these prisoners and predisposed by living in a hell hole in a war zone to dehumanize themselves and the detainees in their care.

I completely agree with Morris’ intentions with this film, but my gut reaction to what I saw was that with the exception of Jeremy Sivits—a classic wrong place, wrong time case—these people were guilty and self-justifying. To me, the film affirmed the bad apple theory, with Graner and Ivan Frederick (also forbidden from talking to Morris by prison officials) as the ringleaders, and the rest—especially the women—going along to get along. “I was only following orders,” comes to mind, a poor excuse in a post-Holocaust world. Despite Morris’ attempts to contextualize their actions by helping us to understand their chaotic surroundings, the examples and orders they were told to follow, the stress of living and working in a war zone, and their interpersonal relationships, I still found myself unmoved. More than anything, I felt these grunts were immature, improperly trained, and definitely not too bright. As the experienced and smart interrogator Tim Dugan said, these tactics were useless and actually encouraged detainees who had indicated a willingness to offer information to clam up.

The investigative arm of this film was tantalizing. I was enthralled by Brent Pack’s explanations of how he was able to cross-reference photos taken by different people to establish the dates on which abuses took place and who was present. If you like CSI, you’ll love this photographic forensic work.


Of course, Morris stages reenactments to help us see what cannot be seen. Some people strongly criticize these reenactments, saying a documentary should deal in real documents, not reimaginings. I disagree with these critics. I want to get an idea of what happened visually, and Morris is careful to stage these reenactments based on the best available information. I think the fact that he does them so well is the major reason for the criticism—it’s sometimes hard to know if you’re seeing the real deal or not, and some people don’t like to be fooled, although that is not Morris’ intention. During the film, there is an insert of some footage, a small square in a large, black frame, detailing abuse. I watched it, trying to make up my mind whether it was shot at the time of the incident or a reenactment, so good are Morris’ set pieces.

SOP%209.jpgHis technique of placing artistically rendered mood pieces throughout the film to break up the talking heads presentation worked less well for me. Some of these visuals were so stunningly beautiful, coming as they did from ace directors of photography Robert Chappell and Robert Richardson, that they simply didn’t seem to belong in such a brutal film. Perhaps it was Morris’ intention to provide us with the equivalent of Yasujiro Ozu’s “pillow shots” as a way to take us out of the horror for a few moments and help us reflect on what we saw, or simply just rest our minds and eyes. The effect on me, at least, was a bit jarring and distasteful. Other reviewers have found Morris’ graphic depictions of the abuse excessive and exploitative, a charge with which I personally do not agree. A film about torture and humiliation shouldn’t worry about the taste or tolerance level of its audience. The detainees couldn’t back away from it; why should we, especially since it was done in our name.

My interview with Errol Morris can be found here.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    16th/04/2008 to 3:52 pm

    I really want to read your interview even more now.
    Having not seen this yet and not having time for long form political rant, let me just say that the last part, where some people find the images too much, strikes me as absurd on their part. I don’t think narrative and documentary films on the brutality of war, torture, genocide have shown enough until recently. I’m glad Morris made the decision to show all the horrible photos that emanated from that shameful place.

  • Thivai spoke:
    17th/04/2008 to 1:06 pm

    I can’t wait.
    Morris is the perfect filmmaker to deconstruct the loaded meanings and rhetorical silences of the images/discourses surrounding this event.
    Thanks for catching my Kurosawa misspelling 🙂

  • Daniel spoke:
    23rd/04/2008 to 10:47 am

    This is a really great review, Marilyn. I had very similar thoughts. Regarding the photos, I’ve been uncomfortable with their uncensored use in both SOP and Taxi to the Dark Side, mainly out of respect for the detainees. No, I don’t know them and yes, they may (or may not) be terrorists, but it’s a fine line between humiliating them and simply providing evidence. On a personal level, I think I can imagine the horrible abuse without seeing it, repeatedly, in such graphic detail.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/04/2008 to 11:37 am

    Daniel – I think there is a tolerance level for most people. Mine is exceptionally high. I’ve been an informal student of terrorism and torture for many years now, and I’ve read and seen some of the most gruesome things imaginable. I guess I feel it’s my responsibility to be informed so that I can act. But that’s my personal position. I would like it if more Americans could not avert their gaze so much – problems don’t get solve that way – but I understand it.
    And yes, I wish he had obscured faces and identifying marks to save these men more humiliation. Nonetheless, the film probably will never be shown in Iraq.

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