By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 24, 2008)
Auschwitz staff, 1944.
Abu Ghraib staff, 2004.
There was a fascinating documentary recently on the National Geographic Channel called Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell. It was the most harrowing depiction of the Holocaust I’ve seen, but it offered nary a glimpse of the oft-shown photographs of the atrocities themselves. Rather, it focused on photos from a recently discovered scrapbook that belonged to an SS officer assigned to Auschwitz.
Essentially an organized, affably annotated gallery of the “after hours” lifestyle of a “workaday” concentration camp staff, it shows cheerful participants enjoying a little outdoor nosh, catching some sun, and even the odd sing-along, all in the shadow of the notorious death factory where they “worked”.
If it weren’t for the Nazi uniforms, you might think it was just a bunch of guys from the office, hamming it up for the camera at a company picnic. As the filmmakers point out, it is the everyday banality of this evil that makes it so chilling. The most amazing fact is that these pictures were taken in the first place.
What were they thinking?
This is the same rhetorical question posed by one of the interviewees in Standard Operating Procedure, a new documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal from renowned filmmaker Errol Morris. The gentleman is a military C.I.D. investigator who had the unenviable task of sifting through the hundreds of damning photos taken by several of the perpetrators.
Since this is primarily a movie review, I don’t feel a need to rehash the back story for you (especially when a Google search of “Abu Ghraib” yields over 3 million results). We’ve all viewed those thoroughly repulsive photos ad nauseam, and the cold hard facts of the case have been well-documented and endlessly dissected.
The next logical question might be, what was Erroll Morris thinking? What startling new insight could he offer on this well-worn subject? This guy is no slouch-he has been responsible for several of the most well-crafted and compelling American documentaries of the last 30 years, from his 1978 debut Gates of Heaven (a knockout doc about pet cemeteries) to the true crime classic The Thin Blue Line (1988), and his most recent critical success The Fog of War (2003). Once again, Morris serves up intimate confessions from his interviewees, delivered directly into a modified teleprompter.
Morris makes an interesting choice here. He aims his spotlight not so much on analyzing the glaringly obvious inhumanity on display in those sickening photos, but rather on our perception of them. So just who are these people that took them? What was the actual intent behind the self-documentation? Can we conclusively pass judgment on the actions of the people involved, based solely on what we “think” these photographs show us?
In a weird way, Morris’ insistence on drawing us completely “inside” the photos made me flash on Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blow Up. The protagonist in that film is a fashion photographer who becomes obsessed with examining a series of seemingly benign pictures that he takes in a public park. He begins to believe that he has inadvertently documented a murder taking place in the background of the photos…or is he just seeing what he wants to see? The film challenges our perception of what we “see” as reality.
According to Abu Ghraib poster girl Lyddie England and several other of the convicted MPs who Morris interviews in the film, the “reality” behind the prisoner “abuse” was (in their perception ) “standard operating procedure”; they were merely “softening up” the subjects for the CIA interrogators. You know-just doing their job. One phrase you hear over and over is “everybody knew what was going on”, which sounds suspiciously like that old Nuremberg litany “we were only following orders”. And so it goes.
Morris also plays up the bizarre love triangle aspect. When asked to explain her hammy poses for the infamous prisoner humiliation photos, England blames it on amore. “What can I say,” she shrugs, “I was in love.” She is referring to Charles Graner, currently serving 10 years for his part in the scandal (Morris was denied permission by the military to interview him).
As we now know, Graner was concurrently dating another MP, Megan Ambuhl, whom he has since married (it’s all so Jerry Springer). Here’s a sobering thought: Thanks to the “softening up” of America’s prestige conducted by the Bush white house, all it took was this taxpayer-funded white trash “scrapbook from hell” to drive the final nail into its coffin.
Morris has taken some flak for focusing only on those who some may consider the low-level “scapegoats” of the Abu Ghraib debacle; these critics seem to be implying that he is not targeting high enough in the food chain. There is some merit in this assertion; the only brass who appears on camera is the palpably embittered ex-brigadier general and former Abu Ghraib overseer Janis Karpinski, who angrily asserts that she was treated to a dog and pony show whenever she visited the facilities. But in all fairness, Morris does not have the hindsight of history on his side in this case.
We can’t expect anything close to that great final shot in All the President’s Men…the close-up of teletype keys pounding out the Nixon resignation bulletin. In a truly “fair and balanced” universe, the only satisfactory denouement to any story about the Iraq “war” should be a closing shot of a spinning newspaper, finally righting itself to declare “Bush and Cheney to be Impeached for War Crimes!” The Nixon administration is history. We’re still living this nightmare.