Behind the Pictures

September 10, 2008

Behind the Pictures


Behind the Pictures

As told to Steve Ruhl

Standard Operating Procedure
Errol Morris is a documentary filmmaker whose 2003 film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, won an Academy Award.

Filmmaker Errol Morris has always been fascinated by iconic war photographs. With his new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, Morris examines the deeper significance of Abu Ghraib.

I have always been deeply suspicious of images. There is the photograph, and then there is the story behind it. My interest in photographs—what they represent, what they mean, why they were taken—started off the entire process of this film. Then, of course, all of a sudden an entire story based around a set of photographs appeared: the photographs of Abu Ghraib. The photographs had become highly politicized when I became interested in this project, but to me the question of “Is this policy or is this the individual behavior of rogue soldiers?” is not an issue for political debate. It’s an issue for an investigation.

Part of doing an investigation is the willingness to be surprised. There are many, many things that I found upsetting. Bad things happen in war. Everybody knows that. But even worse things can happen in war if all of the rules, conventions and treaties concerning war are simply ignored or abrogated. I heard one administration spokesperson after another saying we don’t have to follow the Geneva Conventions. Of course we have to follow the Geneva Conventions, and an important thing to remember is that everything at Abu Ghraib is a violation of Geneva: putting a prison in a free-fire zone, taking hostages, kidnapping children. It’s an unending laundry list of violations, not just of Geneva, but of common human decency.

What amazes me about what is going on in the world today is that there can be guns with smoke coming out of the barrel, plainly visible, and no one does anything about it. People would ask me if I found the smoking gun—as if I were going to find record of a video conference call where Donald Rumsfeld asks, “Did you ever think of stacking them in a pyramid?” I don’t think that that exists; no one is going to find it.

It’s not as if there has been a paucity of information. We have the president of the United States admitting that he was involved in discussions questioning the use of torture—or, if you prefer the term, “harsh interrogation techniques”—and approved. We have torture memos. We have endless documentation of the role of various figures in the administration. But for whatever reason, there has been a complete failure to act on it. My hunch is that we no longer feel like we are in this together; the war is someone else’s war.

Shortly after the photographs were brought to the attention of the world, the focus shifted to blame. That is what disturbs me. Blame Bush, blame Cheney, blame Rumsfeld—blame them—but the administration blamed the little guys. We all know that these soldiers, the “bad apples,” are seen almost universally as villains. It’s not as though I think they are morally uncompromised, but I do believe that blame has been misplaced. I have this old-fashioned populist idea that you don’t blame the little guys and let the big guys skate away.

I know of one instance in which I believe the CIA was responsible for killing a man. The interrogator has never been held accountable or punished, but the soldiers who took photographs of the body have been sentenced to prison. To me, that represents a grotesque miscarriage of justice.

The film is a plea for more investigation and for us to act on the things that we know. The military, for obvious reasons, has never been interested in doing a full-scale investigation.

Without these photographs, we would know nothing about what was going on in this place. But the photographs, sadly enough, stopped us from looking further. I could say that the war has nothing whatsoever to do with me, but I know better. I know that I’m an American and that the war has a lot to do with me, like it or not. ai