Standard Operating Procedure by Philip Gourevitch

gourevitch_standard.jpgThe devastation wrought upon America's rule of law by the Bush administration had tremendous consequences for all aspects of government policy. Many of the abuses in the domestic sphere were covered by Eric Lichtblau's book, Bush's Law, which I discussed last week. In that book, Lichtblau mentioned the role played by John Yoo and the Office of the Legal Counsel in crafting absurdly expansive legal opinions regarding the scope of executive power, the most infamous being the "Torture Memo." News of that memo, drafted in August 2002, broke just a few weeks after 60 Minutes ran a story reporting news of alleged detainee abuse at an Iraqi prison just west of Baghdad.

We now know, despite years of attempted obfuscation by the administration, that these two events were inextricably linked. In 2008, Philip Gourevitch published a book about the prison, Standard Operating Procedure, based in part on interviews done for Errol Morris' documentary of the same name. Early in the book, he efficiently laid out the trail of recklessness that connected the torture memo to Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib, resulting in an utter absence of cognizable constraints on prison authorities:

In the course of a month five different versions of the interrogation rules--the three unsigned drafts, and the two official policies--had been put into circulation at Abu Ghraib. Some of the changes along the way were substantial, but they were never explicitly identified. You had to scrutinize the succeeding documents side by side to detect all their differences, and they all looked enough alike that you could easily assume you'd already read one when you'd actually read the other... [T]he confusion about the law among those who were laying it down for Abu Ghraib suggested that the interrogation rules were not really rules but a kind of guess work, and that they invited exceptions, which certainly fit with the fact that interrogators were being allowed--even encouraged--to do so much that wasn't in their handbook, so much that was even restricted at Gitmo, so much they were not trained to do.

After establishing the responsibility of those who set the stage for the Abu Ghraib disaster, Gourevitch spends most of the book recounting the events as experienced by the soldiers who participated in or witnessed the abuse. Rather than offer a straightforward historical or journalistic treatment, Gourevitch has paralleled Morris' film and drafted what might best be termed a literary documentary. The words of the participants' are given priority, with Gourevitch adding context from the bird's eye view:

Real or unreal, participant or bystander, degrader or degraded, overstimulated or numbed out--[Specialist Sabrina] Harman may have meant no harm, but she seemed to understand that in the malignant circumstances of the MI block that hardly made her benign. Unable or unwilling to reconcile her most disturbing and her most appealing actions and reactions, she sought her equilibrium in equivocation. When she wrote of "both sides of me," she said, "It was military and civilian--the tough side and the non-tough side. You battle out which one is stronger. You're trained to be tough. I was right out of basic, and you're just trained to do what you're told, and to not let things affect you. You're supposed to set all emotions aside, because this is war. I think it's almost impossible. It is emotional."

Gourevitch made an interesting choice not to include any of the photographs in the book, explaining that "much of what matters most about Abu Ghraib was never photographed" and the "photographs have a place in the story, but they are not the story, and in would be untruthful here to submit once again to their frame." Instead, Gourevitch repeatedly pauses the narrative to offer a contextual interpretation of the more infamous photographs, discussing what the photographs do and do not reveal, why they were taken, and the powers and limits of the medium itself. Consider the photos of Private First Class Lynndie England holding a tie-down strap looped around the neck of a prisoner (nicknamed Gus) crawling on his knees:

The composition of the third photograph is the same, but England is in motion, taking a step toward the camera, and making eye contact with it. Gus's face is finally visible, and his eyes are eerie--rolled back in his head, flashing white. On the plastic chair by the cell door, a previously unidentifiable object can be seen to be a megaphone of the sort used for yelling at prisoners to keep them awake. This is the best-lit and the least-staged-looking of the three pictures, and therefore the most disturbing; it creates the impression that England is taking Gus for a stroll on a leash and has just run into [Specialist Megan] Ambuhl on her way. But it was a crop of the second photograph, showing only England and Gus, that was first leaked to the press and seen around the world, becoming almost overnight one of the most recognizable images of our time, and making England an iconic figure of American disgrace: "leash girl."

The MPs assigned to Abu Ghraib come across as hopelessly out of their element, untrained, unprepared, and most perniciously, unled. There is no sign of leadership, that most heralded of Army values, amongst any of the officers or NCOs who had any involvement:

Do these soldiers sound like they're just making excuses? Didn't some of them take liberties, and go to extremes--didn't they treat suggestions as orders, and then interpret them as they pleased--when they might instead have shown compassion? Yes. But what happened to command responsibility? There would have been no liberties to be taken, and no extremes to go to, if anybody had wanted to keep the MPs in check. Nobody wanted to because at Abu Ghraib lawlessness was the law.

Of particular personal note is the absence of leadership by the Judge Advocates who served as legal advisers to the relevant commands, including COL Marc Warren, who was subsequently denied a promotion to Brigadier General when his nomination was blocked in a Senate committee. That was also notable because it was among the few tangible consequences for senior leadership:

[N]o soldier above the rank of sergeant ever served jail time. No civilian interrogators ever faced legal proceedings. Nobody was ever charged with torture, or war crimes, or any violation of the Geneva Conventions. Nobody ever faced charges for keeping prisoners naked or shackled. Nobody ever faced charges for holding prisoners as hostages. Nobody ever faced charges for incarcerating children who were accused of no crime and posed no known security threat.

And so on. If the photographs had not been taken, or then not been turned over, or then not been leaked, we might not even know as much as we do. As much attention as Gourevitch pays to telling the story of the photographs, it is disappointing that he does not follow them much beyond their initial public disclosure. In a short epilogue titled "After," he outlines the criminal investigation and the eventual administrative and criminal actions brought against various participants. But he fails to tell the enduring story of the photographs; how they were published, by whom, how they were understood or misunderstood, and what reactions they generated. A full account of Abu Ghraib must contend with this aftermath.

That said, Standard Operating Procedure is an unusual but worthwhile entry into the literature on the Iraq War and the administration that started it. It brings a great deal of context and consideration to the traumatic events that took place in Abu Ghraib, and may even induce sympathy for some of the soldiers who took part. No such sympathy arises, however, for the administration that put them there, and that consciously created the anything-goes atmosphere that had its starkest realization in Saddam Hussein's favorite prison.