Standard Operating Procedure (review: 4/5)

standard operating procedure

If you fight terror with terror, how do you tell which is which?

By choice, I stayed ignorant of the scandals at Abu Ghraib when the news first broke. Too disgusted. Too disheartened. I didn’t want to see it or hear about it, though it seemed the photos were everywhere. I finally came around.

Philip Gourevitch wrote Standard Operating Procedure by drawing on the hundreds of hours of interviews that Errol Morris used to make his documentary film of the same name. There’s some commentary on the mind-bogglingly poor management and bureaucratic indifference (e.g. “In the course of a month five different versions of the interrogation rules had been put into circulation at Abu Ghraib,” or the topsy-turvy relationship of Military Intelligence and Military Police, or the secrecy of the International Committee of the Red Cross even after its investigation found conditions “tantamount to torture,” or the willingness of people up and down the chain of command to look the other way when they saw the photos, or even saw it in person. This stuff is insane.).

But the photographs are the centerpiece. Most of the book details the incidents around the photos with lots of recollection from the military personnel involved, and talks more broadly about the nature of the photograph. It’s the iconography, how they encourage us to interpret the scene even though we have only that slice of time to judge—I’m glad the photos don’t appear in the book.

Were there a scale for jaded political cynicism, I’d probably rank in the 90th percentile, and I still find these stories really upsetting. But I’m glad I read it.