The Evil of Banality

I love politics and movies. So it’s probably not surprising that I enjoy political documentaries, like Errol Morris‘s “€œThe Fog of War”€, a portrait of one of the leading architects of the Vietnam War, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. The film which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, compresses 20 hours of interviews that Morris conducted with the controversial McNamara during more than two years and is organized around 11 “€œlessons”€ that the former Pentagon chief “€œlearned”€ during his career in business and government”€”all of which sound like the faux wisdom you find inside fortune cookies, such as “€œempathize with your enemy”€ and “€œbelief and seeing are both often wrong.”€

Some veteran anti-Vietnam War crusaders accused Morris of giving McNamara a platform to help him restore his tarnished and blood-stained personal and political legacy. I didn”€™t buy that. After all, this is a film in which McNamara is telling Morris, among other things, that he and General Curtis LeMay would have been tried as war criminals for the fire bombing of Japanese cities, had the Americans lost the war, not to mention the airing of his serious misgivings about the conduct of the war in Southeast Asia and other U.S. decisions and policies during the Cold War.

And if anything, the McNamara that we”€”well, I saw”€”in “€œThe Fog of War”€ looks like a passionless, if not a heartless technocrat who in the name of national security and political loyalty, continued to follow the orders of his superiors even if that meant that he had to sell his soul to the devil, a classic case-study in The banality of evil. That the film was released a few weeks after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, provided us with an opportunity to examine the mindset of those like McNamara or another Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who were confident in their ability to manipulate human lives through the use of military force.

But it is one thing to use a camera and a microphone to deconstruct an intellectually towering figure like McNamara in a way that exposes his soulless mentality and reduces him to what he probably is a number-crunching Angle of Death. It’s another thing to apply the same media tools and techniques in order to transform someone who can only be described as a “€œbanal character”€ into a symbol of evil. But that exactly what Morris seems to be trying to do in his new political documentary, “€œStandard Operating Procedure, where he interviews a bunch of amateur porno stars of the S&M variety, masquerading as American soldiers, including the now so infamous Lynndie England“€“the one holding thumbs up, with naked, abused, humiliated and even dead Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib”€“who have succeeded in giving a bad name to such clichés as slut, sadist, and White Trash, and let’s not forget, Bad Apples.

And when you take into consideration that England and some her co-stars, including two other female military police-women, Megan Ambuhl and Sabrina Harman, following in the footsteps of their predecessors, were apparently paid by Morris to appear in the documentary (England’s boy-friend/impregnator Charles Graner, who is still in jail, wasn”€™t allowed to be interviewed for “€œSOP”€), you might feel that you”€™ve been a bit abused and in need of a shower.

There is not a lot of new information in this documentary for anyone (which I assume includes all the readers of the post) who has followed the wide media coverage of the Abu Ghraib scandal. My guess is that those Americans whose media consumption includes more than just the plight of Paris Hilton and the latest American Idol, have probably concluded by now that England, Graner, and the others who took part in creating such works of art as the Pyramid of the Naked, were not “€œbad apples”€ but that their conduct was tolerated and even encouraged by the higher ups in the military.

But anyone who is hoping that “€œSOP”€ provides a “€œ60 Minutes”€-type investigative work that would provide documentary evidence about who up there in Baghdad or Washington”€“the Pentagon? the White House?”€”was really responsible for Abu Ghraib is bound to be disappointed. There are no smoking guns directly tying Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and other top officials to the events in Abu Ghraib. There are no diagrams that detail the chain of command or a complete timeline of the abuse scandal. Instead, there are a lot of interviews with the soldiers and civilians who had witnessed the abuse or participated in it (as well as with Janis Karpinski, the former brigadier general in charge of Abu Ghraib, who alleges that she was made a “€œscapegoat”€ in order to protect her superiors) mixed with somewhat artistic reenactments of several of the instances of abuse.

Unfortunately, those of us who had expected another Fog of War, end up watching something that looks like a cross between “€œDumb and Dumber”€ and a Trailer-Park version of “€œThe Young and the Restless”€ with a touch of “€œSurf Nazis Must Die.”€ We lean how young and innocent England fell under the spell of Graner, the evil commanding officer, who was simultaneously having sex both with England and Ambuhl, and after making England pregnant (she is now a proud mother to a son, both of who are probably provided for by the American taxpayer) he married Ambuhl. Isn”€™t it romantic? The third female guard, Harman, is a lesbian whose letters to her “€œwife”€ are featured in the film, which injects even more perverse sexual energy to the abuse drama (“€œJoin the military, and….”€).

In between the scenes from this anti-erotic soap opera, England and her follow torturers explain that much of what they did was considered to be, yes, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) which is apparently the alphabet-soup version of “€œI just followed orders.”€ They were supposed to soften up the prisoners”€”and humiliation (like covering a face with a woman underwear) is a SOP”€”and make them more receptive to interrogation by the CIA and the many private security contractors. And they were quite stupid, to put it mildly. Hence while they had enough time (and permission) to get rid of the incriminating photos before the start of the investigation, many of them just couldn”€™t dispose of those war trophies (“€œHere, son, you can see your mom standing next to this Iraqi dude playing with his penis. Isn”€™t that funny?”€).

The Photos. In a way, it seems to me that the thousands of incriminating photos without which we wouldn”€™t have had this scandal, seemed to have paradoxically emptied the film of any sense of great political drama, of meaning. Morris’s preoccupation, if not obsession, with the medium of the photograph has turned this medium into the message of the movie (with apologies here to Marshall McLuhan). Indeed, it sometimes feels as though Morris is teaching a course on Photography as Art and Propaganda: The Camera Sometimes Lies. He is trying to demonstrate that photos can be manipulated, especially at a time when we have access to so many digital advances, and that we shouldn”€™t accept what we see through these photos”€“or we think we see”€”at face value. Hence, the photos of abuse, humiliation, and death from Abu Ghraib were shocking. But, but, but…here is comes… we need to put each photo into context, to figure out who had taken it and when, to discover what is missing from it, etc. etc. After going through this painstaking process, we may find out that what we considered to be shocking is just, well, banal.

Hence, remember the photo of the hooded prisoner, and standing on a box with his arms supposedly wired to an electric charge? Well, the wire wasn”€™t actually connected to a power source. We also learn that the prisoner being beaten up by Graner in one of the photos had raped several children (someone printed the word “€œrapeist”€ [sic] on his back). Or that Graner scratched out the image of his Ambuhl, his future wife, from a photo, making it look as though poor, poor England was the only one who was having fun watching naked Iraqi men being humiliated (and she really didn”€™t enjoy all of that, England explains to Morris. And recall that it was all a SOP).

OK. I get it. Photography can distort reality. I recall watching a few years ago a television show in which a former guard from the Soviet-era Gulag explaining that this or that photo makes it look as though prisoners in the camp were mistreated by him, but, hey, he actually saved the lives of three women who were going to be executed. The point is that watching a film on the abuse and killing that had taken place in a Soviet or Nazi concentration camp I would expect to see more than just interviews with stupid low-level guards and a discussion of the misuse of photography.

Forget doing investigative journalism and finding out who was really responsible for Abu Ghraib? How about interviewing some of the former Iraqi prisoners and members of their families? Or visiting the trailer park where England had grown up and trying to find out whether the little monster who we see walking a prisoner on a leash or next to men forced to masturbate while she looks on with a smile and thumbs-up sign is a representative of contemporary American culture. And more important, how and why we allowed all of this horror to happen? Perhaps in a few years from now, when Paul Wolfowitz would be in his 80s, Morris could do “€œFog of War II”€ with him.



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