Nothing in the Iraq War has done more to undermine America's moral authority than the images of torture and humiliation at Abu Ghraib, the infamous prison where Saddam Hussein once carried out his own systematic abuses and executions. And yet the scandal's aftermath could be called a victory of sorts for the Bush administration: For all the talk about the prison getting razed (it wasn't) and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld losing his job (he didn't until years later), the photos didn't result in a change of policy over the way prisoners could be treated. The blame for Abu Ghraib fell entirely on the shoulders of the "few rotten apples" who appeared in the pictures, mugging odiously for the camera; no one above the rank of Staff Sergeant was convicted of anything, and the grunts were shuffled off into jail via court martial.
Errol Morris' essential documentary Standard Operating Procedure restores some humanity to the scapegoats—who behaved monstrously, but aren't monsters—and provides the blessed context that should have kept the "few rotten apples" defense from winning the day. Morris' most radical suggestion is that the soldiers involved in the photos weren't rogues making up their own rules about what was acceptable. On the contrary, they were ordered to "soften up" prisoners by any means short of killing them, including sleep deprivation, "stress positions," and sexual humiliation. (And when a murder did occur during "enhanced interrogation," the cover-up involved shenanigans of the Weekend At Bernie's variety.) Working from interviews with many of the key players—including Lynndie England, Sabrina Harman, Javal Davis, Janis Karpinski, and others—Morris investigates the Abu Ghraib case with all the rigor of his film The Thin Blue Line, and comes away with an equally convincing argument for miscarried justice.
With his full arsenal of cinematic devices in effect, Morris succeeds particularly well in suggesting the visceral horror of being stationed at Abu Ghraib: The constant barrage of mortars and sniper fire, the unholy stench and rot, the extreme isolation, and the ghosts of many atrocities committed within its walls. And while the film functions as exposé, it's also a brilliant ontology of the photograph—what photos tell us, what they don't tell us, and the complicated world that exists within and outside the frame. These are the gray areas where lies can take hold, and there are whoppers in the official Abu Ghraib story that make the planting of the flag at Iwo Jima seem quaint by comparison. With Standard Operating Procedure, the Iraq War finally has its Hearts And Minds.