Graner threatens a punch. Harman had written "I am a rapeist" on the thigh of the man with pants pulled down.
Sivits cutting the ziptie threatening the prisoner's circulation.
Sabrina's letter to Kelly.
The al-Jamadi section of Standard Operating Procedure immediately segues into the "pyramid" section, which relates the most horrifying incident that the photos and witnesses testify to. This incident generated most of the atrocity photos, including video shot with a cell phone, and its recapitulation provides the most pathos-filled section of the film, partly through the use of music and length and size at which the photographs are shown. This incident, as the multiple cameras on scene document it, contains the most sexual humiliation of detainees.
The section begins with a textual close-up from a prison log," riot reported at Camp Ganci." It was a riot quelled with live ammunition. Witnesses in the film give two explanations for their particular anger at the detainees who were tortured that night—one from Javal Davis was about the seriousness of the riot and injury done to a female MP who "had her face smashed with a cinderblock or something like that," and the other, from Graner and Harman who said some of the prisoners had raped a boy. Both explanations are possibly true: Camp Ganci, the overcrowded tent prison, was of necessity scantily guarded with few MPs available to control the site. Canadian reporter, Doug Saunders, describes the conditions there in 2004:
The treatment of the detainees that night is first described by Javal Davis, who tells his anger and what he did. Then there is a long narration by Jeremy Sivits, accompanied by snapshots and video, as he explains how he used a knife he carried to cut the zipties on a detainee whose hands had turned purple and could have been lost. He's in the video, shown onscreen, and got a year in jail for that. Sabrina Harman took that video and photos of simulated fellatio, made a phone call, and then came back. Two images of this, with one man standing and one keeling, one putting his hand on the other's head, are each held about six seconds, with the music falling to silence at this point. Lynndie England describes the action and comments on the proliferation of photos, including taking pictures from the upper tier. We see many more photos and video taken by Harman, including video of Graner first making the "dogpile" and then the "pyramid" and then forcing the prisoners to line up naked against the wall and masturbate. Lynndie said Graner badgered her into posing with the "one guy who was still masturbating," that it would be her birthday present. At this point, the film holds for eight seconds on the famous image of her pointing her finger like a gun at the humiliated prisoner, cigarette hanging from her mouth.
CID (Army Criminal Investigative Division) forensic investigator Brent Pack goes over some of the same photos and additional ones to explain which camera captured what image. He describes the incident and the photos in this way:
Pack is the one who would testify as an expert witness in the MPs' courts martial as to which images depicted crimes and which depicted standard operating procedure, hence the title of the film. In this section of the film, however, Morris modulates Pack's opinion, which resonates with what other viewers of the photos might assume: the MPs look like they're "having fun." Concluding what I call the "pyramid" section of the film is a long sequence in which Sabrina reads from her letters to Kelly, and we see close-ups of her words there. Accompanying her reading are visual echoes of previous scenes, here reinforced by close-ups of cameras shooting and prisoners framed in viewfinders. The OGA ghosts, in superimposition, again throw al-Jamadi into the shower, and his corpse appears in Harman's viewfinder as do other images of atrocity. She reads from her letters home with a certain self-recognition about her role. However, her words are also disingenous, since she's in the pictures in very compromising ways, and those pictures themselves will provide the proof to convict her:
These two sections—the al-Jamadi section with its dramatic reenactments, and the "pyramid" section, saturated with Abu Ghraib photographs and video—are heavily emotional in a way my verbal description does not do justice. Partly this comes from how the interviews and images are edited together in conjunction with a forcefully enunciated musical score that plays a prominent role in the film. In Standard Operating Procedure, music does not provide "background." Unlike in many documentaries, in this film the score by Danny Elfman is like concert music, with an original movement developing a piano melody that we hear in theme and variation throughout the film. Various sections have their own tempos and themes as well, some with prolonged and sustained musical development. If I were to describe the overall style and aesthetics of Elfman's music here, it seems much like that of Philip Glass, with important differences. Like Glass, Elfman uses short melodic lines, up to sixteen bars but most often shorter, that return in variations. In addition, throughout the film simple ostinado figures of two to four notes establish or double the beat, and these figures are often carried by piano or strings. There are few horn passages or crescendos across the film score, rather understated terminations of sections and melodic figures without discrete beginning and end. As with Glass, establishing these long, pulsing, repetitive musical lines can be seen as forward moving or mechanical or meditative, or for those who dislike this style, as producing "numbness." For me, the music's effect, especially in the pyramid scene, is to beckon the viewer to slow down to look at and emotionally react to, as if with renewed vision, the Abu Ghraib photographs.
In the al-Jamadi section, there is more use of synth and less harmonic music; the music combines with threatening sounds like crashing water or percussive crashing, prolonged with echo and reverb. When reenactments show an extreme close-up of the hanged man's face with blood dripping from it, we hear a two-step motif, with low strings and a bassoon on the one hand and very high pitched violins, on the other, the violins reminiscent of menacing music in horror films. Many sound effects are mixed in with the music, and when Sabrina Harman describes her picture-taking of the corpse, a repeated melody in the strings gives a dirge-like ending to this long, developed musical theme.
Sometimes the music is used ironically, as in the three-quarter-waltz beat that accompanies Brent Pack's forensic analysis to determine the source and time of each photo. In this section the music feel like a hurdy gurdy or calliope and conveys a sense of the mechanical. In contrast, at a later point, one of the most important in the film, Pack sorts the printed photos and stamps some (of sexual humiliation, not just nakedness) "Criminal Acts" and some (of stress positions and nakedness) "S.O.P."—standard operating procedure. Over this section, we hear the sounds of the rubber stamp as well as the opening piano theme and then full orchestral development of that theme. With such an orchestral treatment, Morris indicates the centrality of this official decision-making to his film, and we are intended, I think, to reflect on the ways that criminal investigations and trials will never do sufficient justice to the events as they occurred, both events recorded and those remaining unseen.
[Click here to see how Pack sorted the images and how they would be considered as court documents.]
If music amplifies feeling and once again makes the photographs "arresting" to us, then their representations of the stressed naked body and of sexuality make them even more so. Many writers have discussed the government's exploitation of what it considers Arab attitudes toward gender, nakedness, cleanliness, and sex, and Judith Butler, in particular, has offered a fine analysis of connections between the depiction of homosexuality within the photos and the hypermasculinity promoted within military culture, all of which are part of the photos' "scene." We know that taking photos was part of the mandated "softening up" of detainees with the threat that pictures would be shown to family and friends. Rather than continue this kind of analysis, I would like to look further at how these images work to provoke a certain spectatorial response.
In doing so, I turn to the use of psychoanalytic references, which have provided an invaluable tool to film scholars looking at potential viewer spectator positions and at genres which provoke a bodily response. However, these very references must come with a caveat, for I do not know what elements in a picture might provoke what responses in cultures dissimilar to my own. In this case, the cultural bias of using psychoanalysis as a reference may distance even further those who feel that the pictures themselves, and the dissemination of them—as Morris does in Standard Operating Procedure and as we do here in Jump Cut—are a mark of cultural disrespect. As a writer, and editor, I take responsibility for this and can only hope that the analysis that I offer is useful and taken as provisional, to be modified by others working in this vein.
Torture, sexuality, and theatricality
It does not take Freud to make clear that the nascent torturer exists in every child. It only takes child rearing or extensive babysitting to see children beating up their dolls, enjoying bondage play, playing doctor (i.e., giving injections to or taking the rectal temperature of their dolls), and wanting to see siblings being punished, especially spanked. Not everyone remembers this aspect of their own life clearly, and certainly it is not widely discussed in literature on abuse. Personally, in a family with a Jewish mother, I remember seeing the Life magazine photos of the liberation of German concentration camps and hearing hushed stories between women about the Holocaust. At the same time, my siblings and I used to play with worms on the sidewalk, cutting them in half to see both parts continue to squirm. I understood explicitly the relation between what we were doing and what went on in the camps, but also knew very well that no adult I knew would acknowledge any parallel between us children and torturers. It was something that could not be said. However, in my mind, the same insight persists. Whatever social circumstances bring out or encourage human brutality, its origins may lie in our own ontology as we grew from child to adult.
My play with worms as a child combined a child's preoccupation with body boundaries, pleasure in the impunity to inflict pain, and a forensic interest in dying and dead animals. A story about Sabrina Harman's pet kitten suggests that she too had a child's interest in forensics. When her kitten at al-Hillah died, she "autopsied" it and then took photos of its detached head, which she decorated in unusual ways and placed in various locations. This seems like a childish—or childlike—form of physical curiosity, which may have set the stage for the later blend of abuse and documentation indicated in her photos from Abu Ghraib.[55a]
It is equally clear that torture often has a sexual component. Imprisonment and interrogation usually involve disorienting, controlling, and reducing resistance. To that end captors may seek to break down prisoners' personal autonomy, self-sufficiency and connection to others. The prisoner is thrown into special, abjected, hidden place, a cell, a darkened—often pitch black—room, historically a dungeon, where his/her body and mind are broken. In the Abu Ghraib photos he's seen as constrainable, destitute, and abject. (I use "he" here because that's what the Abu Ghraib photos show us; many women and children were in the prison, and tortured and raped. Their story is not visible in the published photos and has yet to be told. We imagine it.) By stripping male prisoners and putting women's underpants over their face, even before other acts of more painful physical torture or even more degrading sexual humiliation, the guards objectify and "other" them, setting them off as less than human, demarcating them as clearly "not like me," and using authority to negate their bodily integrity.
To a certain extent, prisons involve theater, with sets, roles, costumes, actors and scripts. This theater affects both jailers and detainees. It's an interminable script that the jailers enact to insure their power, reaffirm the validity of their often insecure identity, set clear boundaries between prisoner and jailer, deal with or suppress their knowledge of prisoners' rage, and establish their workday routine as sanctioned by authority. For the prisoner, prison immediately deprives him of his former social role. In this new place, someone else's script imposes control over the conditions of his life; the jailor sets his new reality. The script orchestrates a set of strategies or techniques, the aim of which is to induce in the prisoner fear and terror, disorientation and total dependency. With taunting and yelling, hooding and manhandling, the guards strive to induce feelings of worthlessness. One of the goals of such a theater is to induce psychic disintegration or allow personhood that only to the degree that it follows the script.
In this sense, the Abu Ghraib photos are echoed in mass culture in torture porn, which began with Eli Roth's Hostel in 2005. This genre focuses on captivity and performances of torture; it emphasizes torture's staging and the captives' anticipation of it. Gabrielle Murray has written on torture porn drawing on Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain, and describes it as follows:
We know such scripts come not just from fiction film but from our government, where they are enacted into social reality. We see this kind of scripting, for example, in the CIA's Kubark manual (1963) that scripts scenarios such as "fear up" or "fear down," the orchestration of al-Qahtani's torture at Guantanamo and Abu Zubayda's at CIA black sites, or the more ubiquitous use of behavioral psychology to gain desired behavior in high security prisons in the United States. The SERE program used in U.S. military training is theatrical, instructing soldiers in torture dramaturgy, their to-be-expected roles as prisoners facing abusive captors, and potential scripts of resistance that they can rehearse to develop strategies for maintaining personal identity and surviving capture honorably. An additional script enacted in Iraq comes from a much older theater of imperialism, in which the colonizers — who have authority, powers of definition, and proper names — script roles for the unnamed, racially marked masses of Others in an orientalist way. Thus current prisons for "enemy combatants" utilize carefully crafted techniques to "handle them" and "soften them up," and these tactics assume certain Muslim proscriptions around nudity, sexuality, gender, cleanliness, and prayer. In the Abu Ghraib photographs, the torture is sexualized with these inflections. In the images of "stress positions," such an orientalist script stages the body before inflicting on it further pain.
In the section that follow, as I speak of the potential psychic structures and fantasies that viewing the Abu Ghraib photographs might resonate with or call upon, I do not wish to negate a primary moral response of repudiation and outrage. Rather I suggest that other layers of response are potentiated both by our media culture and possibly by our own psychic development from infant to adult. In particular, for those whose lives have been shaped by trauma, the reality of the pain inflicted on them shadows them for years after, as well as a sense of the irrationality and unpredictability of the social world. When someone has been treated as an object that's been manipulated, reduced, and forced — with the constant fear of death and dismemberment — they have a relation to the torture narrative and images, especially documentary ones, of torture that is far different from my own. Yet I also do not presume that their own narrations or response would simply articulate protest against abuse. Those writing or making films about the aftermath of terror outline layers of feeling and complex responses, especially one generation removed. And they analyze the ambivalent, often contradictory responses to the images, narratives, and fantasies that real social violence engenders.
Inflicting violence upon another's body may have several foundational causes. On the one hand, we all have anxieties about body boundaries, penetration of orifices, bodily fluids, and loss of organs, limbs, and capacities. Our very origins of a sense of self come with sensing and understanding our demarcation from the mother, a process explored by psychoanalysts Melanie Klein and Susan Isaacs, and more recently by cultural theorists Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler. Kristeva and Butler, in particular, posit a link between ideology and identity: that which we reject from our self-concept (as the masculine self-concept rejects the internalized feminine) is still part of us. As a consequence, we may react negatively to and against a whole class of "abjected" beings to keep them safely Outside.
In the case of war and prisons, subjection is scripted in a particular way, especially for those who need to maintain a privileged voice of authority. When someone in authority, however, maintains power by abusing the body of the Other, such a treatment of the conquered, the already vanquished, has an excessive force that reveals the abuser's fears about the precariousness of his own identity and the validity of his role. In particular, and this reaffirms Kristeva's thesis, the abuser-guard reduces the prisoner's personhood by exposing and penetrating skin and orifices to abject this Other as a specifically feminized not-me. In this way, in the "pyramid" scene of the Abu Ghraib photographs, not only do we have evidence of the soldiers' masculine self-concept, but also the images reveal how Charles Graner staged the prisoners in a "homosexualized" way. Directing this kind of grotesque theater confirmed his adhering to his military role as well as carrying out the superior officers' presuppositions about what the MPs were supposed to do. In fact, shortly after this dark night of terror, Graner received written commendation for his work supporting military intelligence operations at Abu Ghraib. The very staging and enacting of torture establishes and re-affirms the captors' identity as U.S. military personnel, the role they need to justify their acts.
In her essay, "Torture and the Ethics of Photography," Judith Butler addresses the framing and staging of the Abu Ghraib photos, saying that larger frame, outside the image, is the ever increasing effort of the United States to control the representation of its actions abroad, especially in the Iraq war. I would expand this "frame" to include the "shock doctrine" articulating the procedures and rationale for a corporatized security state, as analyzed by Naomi Klein. Butler's example of such framing is embedded reporting, to which the press has readily acceded. This orchestrating of access to the war exemplifies state power to impose its perspective on vision, delimiting what must not be seen or shown. Butler sees in such a practice
In this light, the witnesses whom Errol Morris interviews in Standard Operating Procedure were not punished for abusing prisoners, for fulfilling the role the military expected of them, but for taking pictures "outside the ontological field." The real crime lay not in taking snapshots, which were in fact an integral part of the torture scene, but in the pictures' mass publication, their appearance on another stage, to be reinterpreted by numerous new viewers, who would bring to those pictures emotional and ethical responses of their own.
A scene, a vision, a fantasy —
When I first saw the Abu Ghraib photographs I was struck not only by the documentation of bodily abuse, including forced nakedness and simulated sexual acts, but by my speculation on the kinds of images these were and the kinds of image culture they could have emerged from. Rush Limbaugh saw in them fraternity-type hazing photographs and others called them trophy photos, comparing them to the postcards accompanying lynching of Blacks in the United States. The photographs also use tropes from pornography and torture porn and splatter films, subgenres of horror. And they elicit memories of the concentration camp photos from the end of World War 2.
Because of their consistent depiction of forced nakedness, the images stage a scenario of sexuality and power, a seemingly sadomasochistic scenario. It is easy to repudiate one's own emotional response to that scenario in the Abu Ghraib photos by seeing them as merely documenting abuse, but the images may also resonate with an archaic fantasy structure common in psychosexual development. Sigmund Freud's essay, "A Child Is Being Beaten," outlines how his patients create and use a spanking fantasy that has erotic force. For media theorists, this essay has been of interest because within the fantasy, narrator/viewer can identify with different spectator positions and in later life the fantasy is almost always articulated in the third person, as with actors on a stage. Freud mentions that the fantasy's origins lie in the common childhood perceptions that parents and teachers are physically stronger, that to see another child beaten is to be glad "it's not me," and that one might be the victim in the scene, with accompanying shame and eroticism. What makes the essay of interest in terms of media reception is that it posits an archaic triangulation of an image that offers a fantasy manipulation of being out of control and pain; gives both masochistic and sadistic pleasure; and elaborates a third-person narrative that can be embroidered, proliferated, and repeatedly consumed. What's often not discussed about media reception but which Freud's essay reminds us of is that images of torture often carry a frisson or emotional charge. However, in this case, because the photographs are also documents and evidence with the denotation, "this has been," they are not supposed to carry such an eroticized resonance. They are part of a dreadful reality. However, prison or "capture" imagery is often part of ordinary sexual fantasy, scripted in what Linda Williams would call "numbers" in pornography, or used in s/m consensual reworking of such scenes. The sexual imagination often draws on stereotypical cultural scenes, and in the case of s/m it's within a theatrical, temporally bound scenario, from which its participants return to their customary social roles.
I am not saying that the Abu Ghraib photos are pornography, as some critics would say, since pornography's goal is erotic excitement, and it seems unlikely that many people use these photos for that. I am saying that the images of abuse, particularly those with naked prisoners, elicit the frisson of the sex-power connection that is part of an archaic fantasy structure and that they draw on some of the tropes of pornography that probably guided Charles Graner in orchestrating his grand scene, enacted in part for the camera's eye. A pornographic orgy may portray a serial accumulation of bodies, buttocks, penises, bondage, and sexual activity. The sexual part metonymically and mutely stands in for an interpersonal, human act. In the same way pornographic imagery often revels in genitalia and butts, as if these alone led to the whole. In addition, in Standard Operating Procedure, the prison is a dungeon where power relations are racially coded and work themselves out in a sexualized way on the bodies of naked, abjected men. To consider how important muteness or very reduced dialogue and narrative are within pornography's conventions, consider how we would reinterpret some of the worst of the Abu Ghraib photos when the prisoners have a history, friends, a story, and a voice.
If a pornographic imagination shapes prisoner abuse, viewers may recognize that convention, repudiate it, and still have other reasons for a bodily response. An important way that that photography and film generate affect in the viewer is by their depiction of human action. To see human action is to have a kinesthetic response, an aesthetic possibility early noted by Suzanne Langer in Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art (1941). In particular, the stress positions in the Abu Ghraib photos evoke anxiety as a viewer imagines not only muscular pain and fatigue, but the suggested duration seemingly lasting far beyond the instant seen. In that regard, the extension of an interminable anguish beyond the image, felt in the viewer's own kinesthetic response to the strained postures, gives the images what Barthes would call their punctum, that arresting quality that invests the image with a particular fascination that "pierces" and overwhelms the one who sees. Vivian Sobchack writes about this sense of temporality and mortality in documentary imagery by indicating that such images do, in fact, suggest death, especially images that depict violence or show people taken close to death. Unlike photographing a corpse, no longer a person, filming and photographing violence, she says, has become for contemporary audiences "the active inscription of mortification":
I would add that in looking at the photos of bodies in enforced stasis and stretch, because of the fear they induce about interminable duration, they have an ever-greater chance to implicate us in an arresting but unwelcome consideration of mortality. However, Sobchack continues in a way that lets us understand the very different function the photos had when they were taken and have now, circulated as part of a worldwide protest against a torture regime. Now, when a documentary film like Standard Operating Procedure, highlights the photographs, it orchestrates them to give them renewed meaning and affective charge. As Sobchack puts it, the documentary filmmaker's involvement in the social world shapes the film's framing and here its persistent gaze at mortification suggesting death:
If Sobchack speaks to the higher purpose of a documentary that deals with torture, the viewer of the Abu Ghraib photographs or of forensic photographs in general may see in them a fascination ordinarily conveyed by a much "lower" pop culture genre, the splatter film. It too deals with death, but not with the ethical gaze of the documentary film. In the splatter film, the very act of torture involves maneuvering to keep the victim alive while reducing his/her capacity for action, reducing personhood. Manipulating and tending the captive's body preoccupies the captor, binding both together in a sick, intimate relation. Death ends the relation and any "use" the captive has. Rather than frighten the spectator, the splatter film mortifies him or her as a witness to the vulnerability of the body. In viewing mutilation, spectators may oscillate between enthralled, victimized viewing positions and distanced, numbed ones. Writing about The Passion of the Christ, Robert Smart describes the hold this kind of representation has over many spectators. To me, this kind of spectatorship is elicited at well by the photos taken at Abu Ghraib:
Torture documentaries and well as the original photographs of torture and abuse thus partake of what Linda Williams calls body genres in cinema: pornography, horror and melodrama:
For all these reasons, rather than simply rejecting the actions that the Abu Ghraib photographs document, it is important to keep in mind the bodily responses that the photos elicit, the fantasy substructures the images resonate with, and the relation of codifications/ representations of power and abjection to our own viewer response.
In the next section, I turn from considering a theatricalized documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, to a film that uses more of the conventions of dramatic fiction, the docudrama The Road to Guantanamo. Standard Operating Procedure focuses on a close study of the Abu Ghraib snapshots and video. These images, presented large in a theatrical setting, are overflowing with an excess of signification that calls out for an emotional spectatorial response, a possiblility that the film pushes with its extreme-close-up, "detail" reeenactments and its sustained development of musical themes. In contrast, The Road to Guantanamo uses reeenactments to add "realism" and elicit a political response. Director Michael Winterbottom draws on both low-budget, small-camera videowork and his own familiarity with Middle-East location shooting to convey a sense of what the locales of Pakistan and Afghanistan look and feel like. The film's dramatization has a tactile grasp of local details and a sensibilty about local customs that many other torture documentaries or documentaries about the war in Afghanistan and Iraq lack. And the second half of the film, the dramatic reenactments of imprisonment at Kandahar and Guantanamo, shows the "ordinary" treatment of detainess in U.S. custody, not the "extraordinary," as seen in the photos from Abu Ghraib. In that way, the film suggests the need for activism around all detainee imprisonment, beyond combatting extreme torture techniques. The film indicates that the larger structures behind a prison like Guantanamo need to be politically addressed.