Standard Operating Procedure

Issue section: 

Director: Errol Morris; Release date: 18 July

Standard Operating Procedure sets out to examine the infamous photographs of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse which were taken by what the media at the time described as a few "bad apples" within the US military.

The film aims to unearth their context "outside the frame". Although it encourages the idea that the photographs constitute evidence of systematic abuse by the military, whereby soldiers act merely as pawns, the film disproportionately portrays individual soldiers as the victims, without providing a single voice for the real victims of Abu Ghraib.

Despite deserving credit for bringing the reality of the "war on terror" to the doorstep of the West, and for not allowing the Bush administration to bury it along with every other atrocity it is responsible for, it fails to explore the events that took place at Abu Ghraib in any depth. As a consequence, it struggles in its attempt to enlighten or provoke original thought in those already critical of the motives for invading Iraq.

At times the choice of imagery makes it difficult to distinguish between real life and re-enactment. Moreover, the tacky production design closely and very disappointingly resembles that of a US crime drama like CSI.

After what seems to be an endless number of accounts given by the soldiers involved, the criminal investigator who was tasked with analysing the photographs makes the distinction between "criminal act" and "standard operating procedure". How this distinction is made can be debated heavily; nonetheless, if these are standard operating procedures, they simply expose the illegal and inhumane operating of the US military. Although the illegality of the war and the random manner in which prisoners are obtained should clear up any ambiguity confronted.

The film does well to expose the scandalous nature of the US military and, especially towards the end, makes a few commendable and rather powerful critiques of the value of interrogation prisons such as Abu Ghraib.

Director Errol Morris draws attention to the pressures imposed on the soldiers from above, as well as those imposed as a result of the poor conditions of the prison environment. This is an attempt to ask the viewers what they would have done if put in the position of the soldiers. It is an interesting question - a question more usefully answered on a societal, rather than a personal level. It implicates the failure to adequately equip and train the armed forces, wider failings within society and, most importantly, the control mechanisms so unremorsefully employed by those at the top. Morris proclaims the conduct of the soldiers and the extent to which the photographs are classified as depicting standard operating procedures to be a reflection of "our [US] values, our society". It is worth remembering whose "values" currently dominate our society; certainly not ours - the ordinary majority.