Another feature piece will soon follow, but in advance of that, I thought I’d go ahead and post a straight Q&A session from an interview with Errol Morris about his new film, Standard Operating Procedure, an exploration of the infamous photographs at Abu Ghraib, the soldiers who took them and the decision-making and chain of command that created the environment that made them not just possible but in some ways inevitable. For many, the fire over the war in Iraq — not just its inception, but the almost systematic and shameful bungling of its prosecution — has cooled, but the Oscar-winning documentarian (below) is still fire-poker hot. Talking to him is an intense experience; he gets riled up, and there’s a palpable frustration that comes through with what he feels is America by and large refusing to rise up to even try to meet its ideals. The long conversation is excerpted below.
Question: When I first saw the Abu Ghraib pictures, in one sense I wasn’t terribly surprised, because horrible things happen in war, and of course this administration’s competency has been spotty across the board. In talking to people have you found that attitude dominant?
Errol Morris: I don’t think there was any disagreement over whether these were horrible things. The disagreement, of course, was who ordered them? The photographs became politicized immediately, and people would argue — the left would say one thing, the right would say something else. And it very, very quickly devolved into an argument about rogue soldiers versus administration policy, without anyone ever really bothering to investigate the circumstances under which the photographs were taken. It became political football. I’ve pointed out a couple times my surprise that no one really bothered to investigate the photographs per se. No one had bothered to talk to the people who had taken the photographs, bothered to figure out what had happened in these photographs. Instead people simply argued about them, each assuming that they knew what they were about. And to me that’s the underlying problem. I don’t think you want to get into a discussion about whether bad things happen in war, I don’t think there’s much of an argument. Of course bad things happen in war. We’re talking about pictures and what they mean, and the question of policy.
Q: And yet Americans have always considered themselves above something like torture. Was there a certain sense to you, as you spoke to the people you spoke to, that maybe that line has been irrevocably crossed, that [nobler notions of] what Americans will or won’t do are no longer applicable?
EM: Well, I agree with you, but I feel I have to say one thing to qualify what you just said. When I say that the pictures were politicized, they were politicized for exactly that reason. Do these pictures have something to say about us as a country, the current administration or the military, or are they pictures that say nothing more than these were rogue soldiers with behavior initiated by themselves, no one else, and they have nothing whatsoever to say about us or the war in general? If you’re asking me what I think, I made this entire movie to figure out what I think — what are these photographs showing us, what are they about? …My answer is they have a lot to tell us. I remain shocked. But [one] can look at the photo of the hooded man on the box and say, ‘Rogue soldiers, administration policy, administration policy!’ Well, let’s ask somebody, and actually try to come up with some evidence of what was going on there, other than conjecture of what the photographs represent.
Q: Is it an overstatement to say that the pictures represent, to the public at large, the end of an American innocence about the manner in what this country wages war on behalf of its people?
EM: I would say the beginning of the end, or the end of the end, the two being one and the same in this instance. I think there’s little doubt that the pictures are so deeply shocking because they run counter to what this country is about, or what this country should be about. But oddly enough I think there’s something much worse than the pictures, and bothers me much more, and says to me something about my country and this juncture in history, and that’s the fact that we’re willing to punish a few lowly soldiers and allow all the higher-ups to walk away scot-free. And we have aided and abetted it — not a pleasant thought, but in fact we have — by not looking further than the photographs, as if the photographs was all there was to say about Abu Ghraib.
Abu Ghraib has never been thoroughly investigated. It’s ironic, of course, because there were 13 separate investigation. I was writing this essay for the New York Times last night that will run in a week or so, and I described it like the blind man and the elephant, each of which is given a piece of the elephant to explore and then collectively asked to come up with a conception of the whole, and they fail miserably. It’s very interesting, these investigations into Abu Ghraib, all 13 of them. Taguba looks at the MPs, Fay/Jones looks at the MIs, Schlesinger looks at DOD detainment operations and on and on. Nobody really, really wants to discover anything. It’s almost this investigative filibuster that goes on and on, without resolution. Resolution isn’t the intended result. The intended result is obfuscation. What I find really disappointing is that we don’t see the crimes. At Abu Ghraib, we don’t see the people in the photographs as people, we see them as monsters, and the photographs have stopped us from going further, almost as if we’ve gone into this state of shock, and nothing further is needed. Well, it’s a democracy still, and I still have some residual faith in that democracy, and I believe that part of moving past the stain of Abu Ghraib is confronting what actually happened there. Not scapegoats, but what actually happened.
Q: What was your sense of Janis Karpinski (below, Brigadier General in command of the 800th MP Brigade in Iraq)? She seemed to have a lot of emotion during her interview. What’s your take on her, and her responsibility with respect to Abu Ghraib?
EM: Yeah, she’s pissed off. I have my own view about her. I’m not sure that everybody in my office even agrees with me — in fact, I’m sure they don’t. I was always struck — and in fact it’s in the movie, with Jeff Frost saying that the Red Cross would come, Karpinski would come, and they would clean everything up. And when she left they would go back to whatever it was that they were doing. They were hiding stuff. Karpinski was a reserve soldier, she wasn’t part of the general army, she was a woman and she wasn’t particularly liked by the central staff of the military in Iraq. She had trouble with (Lieutenant General Ricardo) Sanchez and with Wojciechowski, his aide, and she wasn’t in control of anything. Abu Ghraib was, for all intents and p
urposes, an intelligence operation. It was the center of intelligence in Iraq, and the MPs were there as an afterthought. There’s so much information dished out by apologies that it’s hard, I think, in even one viewing of the movie, to see the damn thing, but you learn — and I think this is surprising to many people — that Karpinski was given the job of reconstructing the entire prison system of Iraq. I mean, this is really nuts. The one thing that I believe will be remembered about this war is that we sent a military into Iraq that was untrained, under-equipped, understaffed, to fight a war. Remember that Saddam in the fall of 2002 freed all the prisoners. Immediately the prisons were trashed, much like happened to Baghdad in the aftermath of “shock and awe.” The prison system of Iraq was basically destroyed, there was no prison system. So they have to build another one. The CPA. Abu Ghraib was just one prison in a system of many, many prisons, and it was a prison that had been given to military intelligence. It’s one of my favorite expressions that I learned in doing all of this, that people in the military say, “It’s not my lane.” Well, it wasn’t her lane. It was and it wasn’t. I suppose on paper that it was, but the reality of the situation is that it was very quickly turned into a military intelligence facility, and operated as such.
…When Brent Pack (a special agent with the Criminal Investigations Division, tasked with analyzing the photographs from Abu Ghraib) says that it’s standard operating procedure, that it’s not a violation of the policy that they were given, it’s an expression of it, that in itself is extraordinarily powerful. So I’m going to write more stuff. I’m going to write my essays, if I ever have the time to do it. I wanted to make a movie about the photographs and the people who took [them], and the kind of bizarre misdirection created by the photographs. I wanted to make that movie. There are lots of other movies to make, there are lots of other stories to tell, including those that involve the higher-ups. I think there’s so much anger and frustration about the war that [people] want some kind of superhero to come out of the wings and nail Rumsfeld to the wall, and if I haven’t done it they’re just pissed off, like, “That’s the job, guy! Why are you fucking around with a bunch of pictures?” And it’s because I’m actually fascinated by those pictures, and photography, and I’m fascinated by the fact that there are things in front of our eyes that we can’t see.
Q: So to your mind —
EM: (continuing) There’s all the evidence in place, that’s the question you should ask yourself — how many torture memos would you like to see — three, four? Would you like to see eight or nine? Eleven, maybe 17? I can pick some prime number. How many torture memos does someone have to put in front of you before you start to think that the administration is promulgating torture? What does the public need, what does Congress need at this point? You think that this is some kind of strange aberration? Not everything that happened at Abu Ghraib was directed from the Pentagon or from the White House. Rumfeld never told Chuck Rainer, I believe, to stack prisoners in a pyramid. I don’t think that happened. But all of the policies of sexual humiliation and abuse, all of that stuff doesn’t come from a few rogue soldiers. We know all too well that it comes from higher up, that it was orchestrated.
When Sabrina Harman and Javal Davis (soldiers both prosecuted for participation, sentenced to prison and given bad-conduct discharges) talk about walking in …and seeing prisoners shackled in cells in distress positions… with underwear or women’s panties on their heads — these soldiers didn’t create that, they walked in on it. And what are they supposed to do? I love people sort of temporizing with these guys. It actually does piss me off. You have this picture of Sabrina smiling with her thumb up over the corpse of (Manadel) Al-Jamadi. …No one says, “I wonder how the guy got to be a corpse?” Well, we’ll blame her because she’s in the picture. “I don’t like that fucked-up smile on your face. Wipe that smile off your face! You killed him, didn’t you? And you’re smirking and enjoying the fact that you did it.” Well, she’s taking a picture that exposes the U.S. Military, she had nothing whatsoever to do with the murder, and the people who committed the murder have never been charged or prosecuted and we the public don’t care because we’re happy just looking at a photograph and being outraged by it, without any desire to know further.
Q: You talk about the misdirection created by the photographs, but speaking in the broader sense, to your mind is there a correlation between the increasingly technological world in which we live in and a sort of emotional distance or deadening in the public?
EM: I don’t know. My first inclination, whenever I hear questions like that, is to think about people who find a causal connection between television and violence. I like to remind people, of course, that the Holocaust occurred before the advent of television, so I don’t believe that TV can be implicated. People have always been violent, they haven’t needed technology. But technology does give it a new twist. This story, of course, we know would never exist without digital photography and technology, which I think is a good thing. I’m actually a great believer in technology. The photographs would never have been distributed around the world the way in which they were. You know that Sabrina burned a CD shortly after the death of Al-Jamadi, and she was sent back to the U.S. on leave. She tried to show the photographs to someone at CNN, who didn’t really want to look at them, she got back to Iraq, and when the photographs were given over to CID, the Army started panicking and sent police officers to her girlfriend’s house in Virginia to try to recover the photographs, which seems so naïve in this current world because… now there no prints, there are CRT screens, and LED screens and LCD screens. A photograph can be sent a hundred million places with a click.
Q: And it’s worth a thousand words, or more. So are the pictures of Lynndie England (below) ultimately more destructive as a tool of propaganda against America, or for the psychological barriers that they may cause us to erect, to avoid confronting these issues that go beyond just the photos?
EM: Interesting — the scariest thing about pictures to me is
that they can be used to reveal and to hide. They can make you think
you know things that you don’t know, they can certainly show you things
that you cannot have seen otherwise. Part of it is that I think we need
to be aware of how images work, and how they can be used for and
against us. But if you ask me the wide dissemination of knowledge is a
good thing, I think it is inherently a good thing. I’m a populist,
actually, I think by inclination. I would often say when I was making
this movie that I don’t know, really, whether Americans care about
torture. I care about it, but I don’t know whether people care in the
sense that they tell themselves it’s an implacable foe, a ruthless
enemy, and you have to do what you have to do to win the war. I think
you can argue endlessly about the question of torture, but one thing
that America still stands for is the idea of a level playing field for
the little guy — that there is not absolute equality, but something that
pays lip service to equality. And here is a story where the little guys
took the fall and the big guys just ran for cover, and we all bought
into it in a certain way. And I keep trotting out my theory — and I
know my co-writer on my book, Phillip Gourevitch, does not necessarily agree with me —
that Bush won in 2004 because of the “bad apples.” I think scapegoats
are very powerful. Why wouldn’t you like such a thing? Here you had the
perfect set of scapegoats and in the end he could simply say, “The war
is going south, the insurgency is growing, but blame only these guys.”
Q: In 1998, I believe, The Siege that had images in it that could be from Abu Ghraib — a naked
prisoner with a black hood over his head being tortured about a
potential terrorist plot. This is three years before September 11, so
if some Hollywood screenwriter could imagine it back then why are we really so
surprised that it’s part of the American character?
EM: Because we’d
like it not to be. We don’t like it in our face, we like to pretend
otherwise. In the same sense, I can understand why the administration
would like to pretend that they’re following the Geneva Conventions,
even though they’re not. I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories in life,
I’m a great fan of self-deception as an explanation for much of human
behavior. I think the sad thing about the human mind is that we can
convince ourselves very easily of our own rectitude. We can convince
ourselves we’re doing the right thing, we can deny things that are in
front of our very eyes. That to me is somewhat appalling and
Q: Are you surprised that the film’s dramatizations of torture, or enhanced interrogation techniques, have drawn some criticism, and generated controversy?
EM: I’ve done the dramatizations, for better or
worse, in almost every single movie I’ve ever made, and am I surprised
that now people are paying attention to them? I mean, there was a Yewen
cry when I made The Thin Blue Line about so-called reenactments. I have
no problem with them, obviously. You’re telling people that photographs
really don’t show us the world, they de-contextualize things, they
allow us to read into them, to imagine things about them that might not
be true. Part of the idea — and maybe the central idea of the movie,
something that’s still on my mind, by the way — was what if you could walk into a photograph and its [complete] history? Nicholson Baker has just written this revised history of the period between the wars, and the advent of World War II, with his radically reinvented
version of Churchill, the anti-Martin Gilbert version of Churchill, and
it’s really, really interesting and worth reading. He does something
that interests me — he seizes on little details which he attends to,
and then puts them together in a historical collage. History is always
written from the outside in, and I wanted to take these very specific
moments and bring them to life and explore what was the inner world and
thinking around them. And the re-enactments help me to take an audience
into that moment of photography.