Standard Operating Procedure
Errol Morris has been open about his politics at times, not least when he spoke out against the invasion of Iraq while accepting an Oscar for his documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. But until now, his films have never been all that concerned with current events. Instead, they have tended to explore the nature of evidence and the psychological factors that affect how people interpret that evidence. Where some documentaries can come across as works of politically-minded journalism, Morris, a former private detective, tends to be more interested in forensic science, and in the philosophical ambiguities and absurdities that result from people's investigations of the cold hard facts.
So there is an interesting tension in his newest film, Standard Operating Procedure. It concerns the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, and thus practically begs to be viewed through a political lens—it is easily his most topical film to date—but Morris often expresses interest in other, more cerebral aspects of this story, and the result is a film that isn't quite sure what it's about at the end.
The film is noteworthy for featuring interviews with five of the seven Military Police who were indicted for their abuse of the Abu Ghraib prisoners, and one of them, Sabrina Harman, gave the filmmakers access to the letters that she wrote home to her "wife." (Yes, she's gay.) The picture that emerges is of one of chaos and confusion, leading to sadism and manslaughter or worse, as the prison is shelled from outside, Iraqi guards on the inside turn traitor, and children are arrested and held hostage within the prison walls to induce suspects to turn themselves in.
The MPs themselves come across like a dysfunctional family centered around Charles Graner, an Army reservist who had affairs with two of the other indicted women. In the end, he impregnated one of them—Lynndie England, perhaps the most notorious of the bunch, due to her role in certain photos—and he is now married to the other, Megan Ambuhl. But we never meet Graner himself, because he is still serving time in military prison, and was thus unavailable for interviews.
This makes it somewhat easy for the interviewees to shift some of the blame for their actions onto him; even if they were smiling in the photos, they tell us that they didn't really want to be in the photos, they just posed because he told them to. England tells us that the army is "a man's world," and everyone who ended up in jail for these offenses was put there "because of a man." Jeremy Sivitz asserts that he was relatively uninvolved in what went on there, but on a few rare occasions he did what people told him to do because he wanted to be "a nice guy"—and so he ended up in the brig because, as he puts it, "being a nice guy doesn't always pay off."
Clearly, despite some of their protestations, the troops at Abu Ghraib knew that what they were doing was wrong. Janis Karpinski, a former brigadier general whose unit was attached to the unit at Abu Ghraib, says she never saw anything untoward during her visits to the facility, and she wonders if the troops were setting her up so that she could say she had been there and seen nothing wrong. Morris cuts from this to a soldier who says, yes, the people at Abu Ghraib would put on "dog-and-pony shows" for Karpinski, bringing out the mattresses and prettying the place up when she visited, and then putting them away again afterwards. Karpinski goes on to express outrage that she was relieved of command over this scandal—and that she heard about it from a reporter—while none of her superiors were punished.