Standard Operating Procedure: Right, Wrong and Indecisive

Standard Operating Procedure: Right, Wrong and Indecisive

The truth of any incident is up for debate. Perspectives differ based upon the individual being spoken to and what he or she has thinks might even differ dependent on when a conversation is held. That can’t always explain gulfs in describing a scenario and it all becomes problematic if there is photographic evidence of the proceedings. Despite all that, Errol Morris endeavors to figure out what happened at Abu Ghraib and how all those pictures detailing prisoner abuse actually happened in Standard Operating Procedure (2008). It was Morris’ first film since making The Fog of War (2003) which featured a remorseful, well spoken Robert Strange McNamara attempting to flesh out the whys and hows of Vietnam.

That flick was met with fan fare, this more recent documentary wasn’t as warmly received.

Featuring a solitary figure in The Fog of War allowed viewers to get personal with McNamara to a certain extent. He was perhaps humanized in the film more than in any other public scenario since the end of the war he helped orchestrate. But in Morris’ more recent documentary, a number of different prison guards from Abu Ghraib are interviewed as well as Janis Karpinski, who was at one time a Brigadier General and in charge of the prison system in Iraqi. Some are more familiar than others – Lynddie England might in the future become one of the enduring images of the conflict. But despite that, the candor with which each interviewee speaks points to Morris’ ability to draw out his subjects and also to have such a firm command of subject matter as to create a film that functions as entertainment and enlightenment.

The director and producer’s avowed intent in making Standard Operating Procedure was to make clear the fact that while there were a number of transgressions that occurred - each wasn’t necessarily the fault of the folks perpetrating them. Repeatedly, throughout the film, the interviewees explain not just the fact that they were told by higher ups to do what they needed to do just short of killing a man, but also recount a specific, disturbing incident.

Apparently – according to Sabrina Harman who functioned as a medic at the prison – as mysterious CIA agents attempted to coax information from various detainees, they killed a man. Unbeknownst to both interrogators and the folks who worked at the prison, the body of the detainee hung from a stress position, perhaps for hours, before anyone figured he had died. At the time when this was finally realized, the body was stretched out in a room, covered with ice and locked away until a way to resolve the situation could be figured.

Eventually, the body was dressed in an orange jumpsuit, given in IV – mind you he’d been dead for at least a day at this point – and taken out of the prison in order to avoid not just a riot, but problems with the higher up military officers. Since Harman examined the body, she was charged with destroying evidence as well as a few other things. Nonsense. But this one incident does point to exactly what the filmmaker was attempting to reveal. Guilty or not, the staff at Abu Ghraib were made the focal point of any indiscretions so as to save those higher ranking officials.