The horror of the photographs of the abuse at Abu Ghraib wasn't as much the nudity or the stress positions inflicted on the Iraqi prisoners; rather, it was the smiling faces of the American soldiers who were calling the shots and clicking the shutters. Yet the photos themselves tell only a small part of the story. Philip Gourevitch, a New Yorker staff writer, and Errol Morris, a filmmaker, have synthesized those images and the larger issues of prisoner treatment in their new book Standard Operating Procedure, a companion book to a film with the same name. Gourevitch says that the events are still widely misconstrued as the work of rogue soldiers, rather than the culmination of policies encouraged through the chain of command. He spoke with U.S. News about the new book. Excerpts:
How has our understanding of Abu Ghraib changed?
To say that it stemmed from policy i s never a very partisan opinion; the Economist magazine, a week after the images came out, put the picture of the hooded Iraqi man on the front cover and ran a headline that said "Rumsfeld Resign." There was a clear understanding at the time of what was going on—that it was a matter of policy. And then it changed. There was a sense that the pictures themselves were the offense, not what they depicted. There was a new sense that the soldiers who appeared in the photos were the extent of it, that they were rogue soldiers who were just allowed to do this night, after night, after night, after night.... It struck me that this was a story that told what it was like for men and women to be in that cold, claustrophobic place.... There's a much larger story than what you see in those snapshots.
How have Americans dealt with those pictures?
Oddly, the pictures have offered a way for an exposé. They were embarrassing to us and to our military. There's a pretty strong sense that no one knows what this war was about. So many reasons were given, and none have really held up. But at some level we all know that the war in Iraq and the war on terror are about America's image in the world, America's idea of itself, the way we project force, and our values and ideas. Seeing these pictures, most of us cringed. And yet the pictures presented a handy way to bracket the issue. To say that it's just the pictures, not the thing that's being pictured—that it was only these perverse, depraved soldiers, who went amok. But these were the rules, not the exception.
If these pictures had been taken by photojournalists, they would have been an extraordinary scoop. Instead, because of who took them, the pictures became something quite different than that. But when you look beyond the frame of those photos, when one hears the voices of the soldiers, it is clear that so many things were out of line at Abu Ghraib.
The prison itself was illegally placed inside a combat zone under constant mortar fire. It was a place where as many as 9,000 Iraqis were held without charges, having been rounded up in sweeps, without legal recourse, without a system for release, in virtually secret and indefinite detention. There was a complete breakdown that then, in this particular cellblock where the high-value detainees were kept, came together with a new set of rules, which was to allow the use of dogs, sleep deprivation, nudity, sensory deprivation, to break the resistance of suspected terrorists or insurgents. (And I stress the word "suspected.") And these new rules were put in place and they counted on these military police, who weren't even trained as military police, to carry them out.
What was the breakdown?
In a well-disciplined army, there shouldn't have been room for excess. Armies work by sending out young men and women to create controlled violence—and the control is crucial. Here, you had the opposite. It wasn't just that you had a lack of discipline; it's that there was permission. Many people say that these soldiers were out of line. They say, "Show me a policy that said that soldiers were told to strip prisoners naked and put them in a pyramid." That might be true, but you can see in the policies that no one had a problem with prisoners being handcuffed and chained to a cell door. All the rules that came from the Pentagon all the way down to the military intelligence operation running that cellblock created license and permission to go to far greater extremes in the abuse and mistreatment of prisoners than had ever been allowed before.
Yet some soldiers took the pictures to document the events.
Sabrina Harmon, who took a lot of the iconic photographs, started taking photos just of prisoners as snapshots. Pictures of prisoners standing, in extremely uncomfortable stress positions, with panties on their heads—and they have much more of a photojournalistic quality. In her interview, the phrase that keeps coming up is "I just wanted to show what was allowed." She said that she wouldn't have believed these things unless someone had the pictures to prove it, so she started taking pictures to have some sort of proof. And yes, in time these pictures became something of a game—people would show pictures of what was going on to their higher-ups and say: "Is this OK? Should we be allowed to do this?" They were told, "Go ahead."