As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

"A War Of Sexual Humiliation"

Let me add to the chorus of those expressing their total revulsion in the President's admission that he approved high-level meetings inside the White House to direct what kinds of torture could be used on specific detainees, to the extent of acting out interrogation scenes right there in the room. I've been also spending a lot of my weekend time online reading over my posts from back when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke and we first learned of the beginnings of how torture was employed in our names. I had just started blogging about 10 days before the pictures came out in Sy Hersh's New Yorker article and on CBS. Here was my initial reaction.

I'm really just saddened today. Saddened and sickened by the latest reports that have come from Iraq, tales of torture and humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib (which should now be called My Lai 2.0), of forcing naked Iraqis into simulated sexual positions, of attaching electrical wires to others.

Somehow, we live in a country where we still believe we can take the moral high ground, despite all evidence to the contrary. The official Army reaction was that "this is a small minority of the military, and it's not the Army." In fact, it seems that mercenaries have been running the prison, which is enough of an outrage, that the military is not even in direct control of prisoners of war (This is the true inevitable consequence of outsourcing, as a nation not of workers but of administrators we eventually descend into chaos as we lose all sense of what anyone is doing in our name). This is fucked up on so many levels the eyes are bugging out of my head.

(The wires weren't attached to any electrical source, we later learned. It was a confusing time.)

I figured that as the months went by this would surely consume the Presidential election debate and doom the chances for the Grand Inquisitor-in-chief. And there were certainly enough revelations out there for that to happen. We learned about forced sodomy, dozens of murders, the fact that these policies were widespread and not limited to a few bad apples, the release of many relevant memos which showed that this was authorized at the highest levels. The information was there to make this the issue that would crumble the Bush Administration, if not at the ballot box then by criminal investigation.

But it didn't work out that way. Torture became the new third rail of American politics, barely mentioned above a whisper in 2004 and really not a factor on the campaign trail this year, unless you're talking about the Jack Bauer clones on the right musing about how much torture detainees deserve. Instead of becoming the foundational principle that America has broken, instead of recoiling from torture we accepted it, mainstreamed it, ritualized it, portrayed it in our horror movies and made jokes about it. We certainly never used it as a symbol of an Administration committed to breaking all the moral precepts upon which the country was founded. It gets a polite one-line "No more torture" in Democratic stump speeches, and everyone cheers, and moves on.

We should not move on, ever, until we force ourselves to look at the stain which will never come out. And pursuant to that, I want to tell you about a screening I had the pleasure of seeing a couple days ago for Errol Morris' latest documentary "Standard Operating Procedure."

Morris is probably my favorite filmmaker, and he takes a small-bore approach at determining just what happened at Abu Ghraib and just what is depicted in those now-infamous photos. He uses primarily the source material of the photos themselves, and interviews with most of the military police who took them and participated in them, including Lynndie England, Sabrina Harman, Megan Ambuhl and Javal Davis. It's a complex and difficult film, in one respect because it's hard to presume that these narrators are totally reliable. They've rarely been given such a platform to describe their conduct and set it in perspective, and the fact that ringleaders Ivan "Chip" Frederick and Charles Graner did not appear in the film (Both were in jail at the time of filming and the military prevented any interviews) gives the remaining participants a lot of leeway to blame them for the practices and techniques. There's a lot of "Graner told me to get in the picture so I did" in the film, along with repeated efforts to cast themselves as innocents caught up in a situation beyond their control. England even blames it on being "in love" with Graner; Ambuhl eventually married Graner, even after he fathered a child with England.

But one of the things Morris is a master at is challenging long-held perceptions and forcing you to look at subjects in a different way. It is true that we never have seen and never will see the worst of Abu Ghraib; that happened in the interrogation rooms. We are glimpsing the "softening up" military police was ordered to perform on detainees, and quite a bit of it fell along legal guidelines that military investigators termed "standard operating procedure," incuding some of the more humiliating scenes of stress positions, forced nakedness, even the shot of the hooded man standing on the box with the wires around his fingers. What's shocking is what was authorized as legal. And even what we have to witness is only a fraction of these procedures; in a memorable scene, an MP recounts the day that the head of the prison Col. Pappas, in the immediate aftermath of the revelations in the press, ordered an amnesty for any and all destruction of documents, photos, or any material related to detainee abuse. We are shocked at the destruction of two or three CIA tapes when practically everything at Abu Ghraib was shredded.

A notable scene in the film explores the picture of Sabrina Harman smiling in front of a dead Iraqi detainee packed in ice. The Iraqi died during a brutal interrogation session; the official line at the time was that he had a heart attack. He was locked in a room overnight while top prison personnel tried to figure out the next step. Harman gained access to the holding cell, and first took a posed picture, but then took a series of photographs of the body which revealed beyond a shadow of a doubt that this man was beaten to death and did not succumb to heart failure. Afterwards, personnel took this ghost detainee who was unknown to the Red Cross, stuck an IV in his arm, strapped him to a gurney, and wheeled him out of the cell block, never to be seen again. Harman actually documented the beginnings of a cover-up for murder. In another context she could have received a Pulitzer Prize. Instead she got a year in jail.

(Incidentally, there is a companion book to the film, also called Standard Operating Procedure, co-written by Morris and Phillip Gourevitch, and a substantial article excerpted from the book appeared a few weeks back in the New Yorker. Harman actually went into the Army to gather enough money to go to school. She wanted to be a cop, and specifically a forensic photographer.)

The film is full of these touches, these upset expectations, these deliberations into who these people were and why they did what they did. Morris throughout tries to return some context, to fill out the edges of the frames of these photos, to explain the conditions and the circumstances, and really show that in many respects, a lot of these abuses took place BECAUSE the cameras were present, because there was an artificiality that entered because the participants knew they were being documented. For example, the famous photo of Charles Graner with his arm cocked ready to punch a detainee was a posed photo, according to the MPs.

Afterwards there was a discussion with the filmmaker Errol Morris, and it was fascinating. His belief is that these "few bad apples" were imprisoned for the very act of photography, for leaving a trail for others to find about these abuses (which in the view of Sabrina Harman was her point, she wanted to take the pictures "to show people what was going on here, because otherwise nobody would believe it). Morris said that the question of whether or not the scenes depicted rose to the level of torture is misplaced and spirals into irrelevant questions of precise definitions. Ultimately there is a question of "the principle of fair play and common American decency... you don't punish the little guys and let the big guys get away scot-free." Even without the admission of guilt from the President being known to Morris, he was well aware of his culpability. After all, the Yoo memo justifying the already-enacted sins of the Bush Administration come down to assertions that a President can do whatever he pleases in a time of war. "Well, if he can do whatever he wants, then doesn't that make him responsible? And if so, why hasn't he been impeached?" By the Administration's own logic, there can be only one man to blame, and the fact that he hasn't reflects a basic cowardice and a failure of will.

Morris believes that the scandal at Abu Ghraib helped Bush get elected in 2004, because it gave us someone to blame. We looked at the scenes of abuse and immediately accused those inside the frame of responsibility, instead of those outside the frame demanding that these acts be undertaken. "The Iraq war," said Morris, "was essentially a war of sexual humiliation." We invaded to show Iraq and the world how tough we are. That we could dominate the rest of the world. That we could impose our will and muffle the sounds of dissent. Abu Ghraib was merely a complement to a war of humiliation. And that comes from the top down.

There's a significant moment in the film, a re-enactment of a spot of blood from the dead prisoner dropping on one of the MPs who was holding him up and unaware of the circumstances. He says "I didn't have anything to do with this guy dying," and yet Morris shows the drop of blood over and over, staining the military uniform. In essence we all have that spot of blood on us. We are all responsible. The spot is deep and full and will be very hard to get out. Our will in getting to the truth about torture, in forcing the nation to recognize that spot of blood, to internalize it, to hold to account those who have stained us, will be the defining factor in whether we can ever be washed clean.

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