copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

Speech images:
Standard Operating Procedure

and the staging of interrogation

By Jonathan Kahana

Like most of the major U.S. pans of Standard Operating Procedure (dir. Errol Morris, 2008), J. Hoberman’s review in The Village Voice — under the headline “Errol Morris Lets Torturers Off Easy” — preoccupied itself with director Errol Morris’s “obtrusive mannerism.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] The aesthetic premise of these critiques — that in making a documentary with the industrial and stylistic resources of commercial entertainment cinema, Morris violated a law of genre separating documentary from other forms of screen culture. Such a criticism was accompanied by a kind of moral formalism, the suggestion that what Richard Schickel referred to as the film’s “production values” were the moral equivalent of the ethical and legal transgressions of its subjects.[2] In highlighting Morris’s use of film style, however, these reviews did the film a certain poetic justice even as they helped discourage audiences from seeing it in theatres.

Taking seriously its juridical poetics, I would like to consider what it means that Standard Operating Procedure not only allows convicted criminals and agents of the brutal U.S. occupation of Iraq to speak in their own voices without contradiction by either their victims, academic or journalistic experts on the war, the military, the region, or the editorial voice of a narrator; but that it also provides a sympathetic context for this testimony, giving the subjects’ complaints, fears, and reasons for acting in seemingly inhuman ways emotional and intellectual credence even, one could say, honoring and dignifying the speakers and their words by turning them into the stuff of low or high cinematic art, in lavish reenacted sequences that recall, depending on your frame of reference, torture porn or the beatific set pieces of Bill Viola. In these ways, I think, the film places the testimonial performances of the Abu Ghraib “bad apples” within the discourse of trauma and the linguistics of the excuse.

These designs are announced from the very beginning of the film, which opens with remarks by one of the ostensibly critical observers among the film’s small cast of characters, Tim Dugan, a civilian interrogator employed at Abu Ghraib by the CACI corporation. Dugan’s psychologistic opening remarks invite the viewer to hear the testimony that will follow as evidence of a traumatic situation. As an overture or epigraph, his remarks establish that not only the historical and autobiographical statements that follow, but also the textual “voice” of the documentary itself,[3] will function as a kind of excuse for the actions depicted and described. Dugan begins in medias res, and the part of his interview that we hear first is — uncharacteristic, for a Morris film — truncated so that it sounds quite clearly like the response to a question, rather than a self-contained statement.

Although we can guess what Dugan means by “it,” in the phrases “it was Charlie Foxtrot, without a doubt … I’d never seen anything like it” — and I think that the point is precisely that we know quite well already to what “it” refers — the initial obscurity of the referent literally begs the question, while highlighting the absent cause, or provocation, of Dugan’s memory. The reflections that follow — “I never thought I’d ever see American soldiers so depressed and morale so low…” and “You gotta consider yourself dead, and … if you’re there and you consider yourself already dead, you can do all the shit you have to do” — prefigure the Abu Ghraib veterans in the rest of the film as survivors of a traumatic experience and prepare the viewer to hear their voices as evidence of their experience of a state in which agency and action are separated from will and from consciousness.

Both of Dugan’s rueful expressions of belatedness frame the film to come as a paradox. Either too late to solve the mystery represented by the photographs, or able to explain it only if the photographs and soldiers’ voices are treated as evidence of what in the United States is called a “pre-existing condition,” and one that well predates the production of the Abu Ghraib torture scenes or the enlistment of the Reservists of the 372nd MP company, back to the national-popular use made of trauma theory in the wake of the September 11th attacks, and back before that to the psychic history of U.S. military operations in Vietnam and to other conflicts. In each of these crises, documentary cinema has played a role in establishing an excuse for violence.

Once thought of only as an individual affliction, one that was an exclusive concern of medicine and psychiatry, trauma is now used by many disciplines as well as in the popular imagination to name a collective condition, so pervasive as to function at times like a historical periodization. Medical anthropologists Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman declare trauma “the universal language of a new politics of the intolerable.”[4] And although the “new” discursive event to which they refer is the acceptance of post-traumatic stress disorder in 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association, this historical paradigm could also describe the past decade in our discipline, which seems to agree that trauma is a fundamental concept for understanding screen culture since September 11th, 2001.[5]

Take for example the framing gesture of Julia Lesage’s sixty-page Jump Cut essay on “Torture Documentaries,” where Lesage declares that the “traumatic event” of the “U.S. involvement in torture” is “the issue of our time, especially in the United States.” Before an official or authoritative history of the torture era is written, Lesage claims, documentary films will establish the outlines of a public sphere of debate about this state-authored “catastrophe.”[6] In a climate of official silence, sophistry, and legal subterfuge from their government about its embrace of torture, good Americans, Lesage suggests, will not only learn the truth from PBS’s Frontline, or from films like Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (dir. Rory Kennedy, 2007), Taxi to the Dark Side (dir. Alex Gibney, 2008) and Standard Operating Procedure, but they will learn from such films how to “face” this truth. Such descriptions of a decade-long crisis, with its own audiovisual symptomatology, configure a national-popular condition of trauma, a state in which the condition of being a goodAmerican flows directly from the production or consumption of documentary images of international violence. Standard Operating Procedure certainly entertains this idea of a traumatic episteme of documentary. But I think the film also offers or at least evokes a quite different historicization of trauma, of torture, and of the relation of both to truth, as we use the term in documentary studies, somewhat obsessively and somewhat unthinkingly. The prevalence of the rhetoric of the excuse throughout the film is in keeping with this premise.

The harshest reviews of Standard Operating Procedure took issue with the use of film style in the reenactments and tended to separate out the reenactments from the rest of the film. Even when critics remarked (in negative ways) on the interviews, their objection was to the post-production treatment of them. But the (somewhat or greatly redundant) relation of the reenactments to the (quite frequently reiterative) content of the interviews is key, I think, to the film’s aims and to distinguishing these aims from those of the other films in which many of the same characters appear. By contrast with Morris’s other work since The Thin Blue Line, these reenactments frequently recall what we have already heard on another track of the film, serving only to amplify, exaggerate, or aestheticize facts or ideas delivered as testimony. In this way, various forms of narration in the film create a self-enclosed economy of discourse about torture at Abu Ghraib, a system within which the statements of the accused have the effect not of confessions but of excuses.

The excuse is a particular kind of speech act, one that — unlike the confession — makes no reference to external conditions or measures of truth or, more precisely, carries with it its environment of authenticity. “To confess,” writes Paul de Man, “is to overcome guilt and shame in the name of truth.”[7] The confession appeals to its listener to hear the confession as a path-breaking statement of the way things are or the way they happened, one that sets the record straight or overcomes a self-deception. The most important aspect of the excuse, on the other hand, is not its (absolute) truth claim but its (relative) ethical claim since every excuse says, “I had good reason to do the thing which to you seems wrong.” The excuse is thus the more radical speech act. Although the confession attests to a change (of heart) in its speaker, it does so in reference to social standards — reality, the good, the past — which are shared by speaker and listener. The excuse, on the other hand, invites the listener to reconsider both historical and ethical givens and standards; to entertain another explanation of what happened and what it means now.

And since, as de Man observes, the excuse “states a suspicion […] that might lead to an impossibility to know,”[8] interviews which perform excuses in the guise of confessions have been important to the development of a kind of radical history in documentary. In the United States, these two tendencies were amply displayed in political documentary of the late 1960s and 1970s when, borrowing tactics of consciousness-raising and “coming out” from the feminist and gay/lesbian movements and their counterparts in documentary, films like Interviews with My Lai Veterans (dir. Joseph Strick, 1970) and Winter Soldier (dir. Winterfilm Collective, 1972) gathered together U.S. veterans of the war in Vietnam and gave them the opportunity to admit to the torture, rape, and murder of prisoners and civilians. Veterans in these films gave a series of horrifying performances whose aim was twofold: to provide vivid, first-hand support for the moral case against the war and to corroborate arguments made by veterans’ groups that veterans were suffering from the effects of what they had seen and done even after returning home.

More distant in time but perhaps closer in method to Standard Operating Procedure is an older film about soldiers as victims, John Huston’s 1946 Army Signal Corps film about the treatment of war neuroses, Let There Be Light. Like Standard Operating Procedure, Let There Be Light makes use of both interviews and reenactments, and establishes an equally hermetic world. As with Morris’s film, Let There Be Light uses the combination of staged interview and staged dramatic sequences to suggest that if the actions and affects of traumatized soldiers were abnormal, they could be made sensible to the ordinary moviegoer in the terms of mainstream fiction cinema, giving the semiotics of trauma the currency of a national-popular cultural form.

And Huston’s film, in turn, only translated into the language of cinema the interrogatory and theatrical techniques of military psychiatry: the methods, for instance, of U.S. military psychiatrists working in North Africa during World War II. These theatrics of psychotherapy included group interviews in which individual soldiers recounted their experiences in front of others, and what was called “narcosynthesis,” a drug-induced reenactment of the traumatic events that had led to whatever paralysis or anxiety state their patients were suffering, aimed at allowing the patient to hear himself explaining the source of his symptom, as it flashed up again before him.[9]

Such methods had been in development since World War I, when the innovative talk therapies used on what was then called “shell shock” were frequently combined with physical inducements to “opening up” a blocked area of the body or mind. Along with hypnosis, a relic of the early days of psychotherapy, and so-called “truth serum” drugs, doctors in this period imagined they might literally loosen their patients’ tongues with the application of electric shock to the mouth, tongue, or throat of soldiers who had suffered hysterical paralysis of the organs of speech. One finds almost identical accounts of these methods throughout the twentieth century, wherever the interview becomes a tool of national defense.

This barbaric history of scientific theater is summoned throughout Standard Operating Procedure, but perhaps most unnervingly when the film examines the infamous “Man on the Box” image, a sequence in which Sabrina Harman and Megan Ambuhl explain how the alleged torture of a detainee nicknamed “Gilligan” by the guards was, in Harman’s words, “just words.” Harman and Ambuhl insist that the charade of electrification was “necessary” but also harmless since no current ran through the electrical wires. Harman said that there were so few hard feelings between torturer and victim that “Gilligan” became a kind of “buddy” of the soldiers, given pleasant work that he enjoyed doing, an explanation which is an exemplary case of the confession that functions as an excuse. The women ostensibly reveal unknown, even self-indicting, truths about the ugly images  — more than one photograph was taken of the abuse; the victim was in no danger; he was found innocent of any crime; later, everyone became friends, which allowed the soldiers to exploit “Gilligan” further. However, these admissions are also meant to absolve the women telling the story of blame for what the viewer thinks she sees, a strategy of exculpation operated both verbally and performatively, down to Harman’s appropriately inappropriate laughter about the incident, as if narrating it into the camera brings up mixed and unfamiliar (which is to say spontaneous, or sincere) emotions.

The reenactment that illustrates the story has two functions. Its obvious function is to pointup the fictional aspectof the witnesses’ confessions and excuses by suggesting a parallel between these autobiographical fictions and the cinematic re-presentation of certain details of the historical incident, itself a cruel theatrical fiction enacted upon a naïve and reluctant member of its cast, a man who plays a character with a variety of names: the “Hooded Man,” the “Man On The Box,” “Gilligan,” “Ali Shalal Qaissi,” “Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh” …. Only a couple of these names are spoken in the film, but Morris knows and uses all of them elsewhere.[10] Since the “Gilligan” incident and the mystery of the true identity of the man under the hood were, as Morris has said, the impetus for the film, it would seem reasonable to assume that the highly stylized, even clichéd, use of cinematic technique in the reenactment — slow motion, for instance, or the score’s references to Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” or the mickey-mousing foley effects  — is intended to provoke the questions: what is the true source of this image which “everyone” has already seen “everywhere”? And how do we “unmask” it? Such questions are versions, we might say, of Buñuel’s enduring question (from Land Without Bread), “Why is this absurd picture here? Apparently, as the film has just shown us, it isn’t enough to just ask directly those who created it since, as we hear, they will answer with a confession that is also an excuse. The operative paradox of this dialectical pairing of interview and reenactment is that cinema is not the best medium to teach us how to see behind mass-produced images even though it constantly promises to teach us how to see what is all-too-familiar in new ways.

Like many films in the cycle of U.S. documentaries about the Iraq war and the war on terror, the dark tone of Standard Operating Procedure is a crude measure of its politics, which are, generally speaking, a politics of radical distrust: distrust in officially-stated national prerogatives and distrust in official explanations of the means by which such plans can be judged necessary or effective. And like many documentaries made in a climate of suspicion, Standard Operating Procedure begins from a kind of confessional impulse toward the problem of darkness, seeking to establish what de Man calls “the clarified atmosphere of a truth that does not hesitate to reveal the crime in all its horror.”[11] But de Man also says, of the excuse, that it “ruins the seriousness of any confessional discourse by making it self-destructive.”[12]

And Standard Operating Procedure, likewise, constantly refuses (or fails) to put documentary evidence — whether speech, footage, or photography — on display in a way that could be judged “more true” or more serious than those sounds and images in the film which seem to make it unserious entertainment. When Robert Sklar writes in his Cineaste review of Standard Operating Procedure that Morris’s interview with Brigadier General Janis Karpinski “brings human energy to a film that otherwise seems to concoct its excitement artificially,” he gets to the heart of the distress that the film causes many viewers, although I think the point works even better when stated in reverse. Because Standard Operating Procedure embraces artifice and the cinematic tools of excitation, it is capable of explaining how cinema generates “human energy.”[13]  In this way, Standard Operating Procedure illustrates how easily entertainment and punishment are integrated in the documentary; which is, after all, one of the worst things that one can say about the Abu Ghraib photographs themselves.


1. J. Hoberman, “Errol Morris Lets Torturers Off Easy,” The Village Voice, April 22, 2008.

2. Richard Schickel, “Standard Operating Procedure: Too Much Style?,” Time, April 24, 2008.

3. Bill Nichols, “The Voice of Documentary,” Film Quarterly 36.3 (Spring 1983): 17-30; see also Charles Wolfe’s thoughtful elaboration in “Historicizing the ‘Voice of God’: The Place of Voice-Over Commentary in Classical Documentary,” Film History 9, no. 2 (1997): 149-167.

4. Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood, trans. Rachel Gomme (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009), 93.

5. See, for instance, Stephen Prince, Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism (New York: Columbia UP, 2009); Philip Wegner, Life Between Two Deaths, 1989-2001: U.S. Culture in the Long Nineties (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2009), E. Ann Kaplan and Ban Wang, eds., Trauma and Cinema: Cross-Cultural Explorations (Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 2009); and the introduction to Janet Walker’s Trauma Cinema: Documenting Incest and the Holocaust (Berkeley: U of California P, 2005), which locates her study in the time after the September 11t attacks, although the book touches on these events only in its final pages.

6. Julia Lesage, “Torture Documentaries,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 51, http://ejumpcut.org/currentissue/index.html.

7. Paul de Man, “Excuses (Confessions),” in Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 279.

8. de Man, “Excuses (Confessions)”, 280.

9. Roy R. Grinker and John P. Spiegel, War Neuroses in North Africa (Prepared for the Air Surgeon Army Air Forces by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, September 1943), 153.

10 See Errol Morris, “Zoom,”

11. De Man, “Excuses (Confessions),” 279.

12. De Man, “Excuses (Confessions),” 280.

13. Robert Sklar, review of Taxi to the Dark Side/Standard Operating Procedure, Cineaste 33.3 (Summer 2008): 52.

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