Though it took more than two decades for him to finally win an Oscar—2004's The Fog Of War was the film that finally caught the Academy's attention—director Errol Morris has long been considered one of his generation's premier documentary filmmakers. Morris' first feature, 1980's Gates Of Heaven, documented the owners and denizens of a California pet cemetery with humor and profound insight. Ever since, he's been drawn to the fringes of society, whether he's following the eccentric iconoclasts in A Brief History Of Time; Fast, Cheap, & Out Of Control; and Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., or the scapegoats of The Thin Blue Line and his revelatory new film about Abu Ghraib, Standard Operating Procedure. Long after the photos of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib became yesterday's news, Morris continued to pursue the story vigorously, interviewing many of the people involved in producing those infamous shots. Standard Operating Procedure both defies the official line about the scandal and explores the very nature of photographs—what they tell us, what they don't tell us, and who gets to fill in the context. Morris recently spoke to The A.V. Club about Abu Ghraib, the film, and the difference between information and knowledge.
The A.V. Club: A picture is supposed to say a thousand words. But when it comes to wartime photographs like the ones from Abu Ghraib or the flag planting at Iwo Jima, how many of those words tend to be lies?
Errol Morris: It depends, of course, on context. The chance that any given sentence is a lie, rather than a truth, I think, is fairly great. An intentional lie, a self-deception, a misconception—there are lots of categories of untruth, not one grab bag. Photographs can reveal something to us, and they can also conceal things. Part of what I have been writing about, part of what this movie is about, is actually how these photographs played both roles.
AVC: Then it becomes a war over the context, doesn't it? In this case, the "few rotten apples" defense vs. what you're hearing from the people who are actually taking the photographs, and appear in them.
EM: It's been interesting to me. Both left and right see these guys as monsters. They're not different in that respect. I think we all have this great need for scapegoats. Everybody loves a good scapegoat—a good monster, if you like. They serve and satisfy, I think, a deep need. The left will say they're monsters because of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. The right will say they're monsters of their own devising, they're rogue soldiers, et cetera, et cetera. Everybody sees them as bad, and the movie is an attempt to make them people again, to show who they are, to address the question of why the pictures were taken, and what they show.
AVC: No one ranked above Staff Sergeant served any time, but when the story broke, there was talk about razing Abu Ghraib, and a major backlash against the Bush administration. None of that happened. How was the response to this scandal so limited?
EM: I think it's one of the central questions, one of the central mysteries about this story. The photographs come out—this was April, May of 2004—Sy Hersh publishes his article in the New Yorker and 60 Minutes II does its program on the photographs. And then all of a sudden, it's spun. We live in such a polarized society. And it's one of the remarkable things about America today. Everything is political football. And the photographs very quickly became political football. Whatever evidence was contained in those photographs was lost in arguments about who was responsible. It became very quickly a blame game, and the attempt to really look beyond the photographs and to Abu Ghraib, to the reality of what was happening there—lost. I find it utterly amazing. I mean, when you ask me this question, I think, "Uh-oh. I better come up with an answer. I should have an answer to this." I don't have an answer to it. I think one of the possible answers is that it became politicized so quickly that people argued about it rather than investigated it. And the investigations themselves, all 13 of them, from the military and from Congress, to me were more attempts to obfuscate than to actually investigate anything at all. They seemed like some extended filibuster.
AVC: Doesn't it take time to contextualize stories like this properly? Maybe the problem is that the story goes dead before you know the story. It took you quite a long time to make this movie, and certainly you didn't know everything that you now know about what happened.
EM: No, I knew very, very little. And my conception of all of these events changed as I was making the movie. Most certainly. It's just a weird time. It's a weird time with respect to our desire to investigate stuff. You poke around in the recesses of The New York Times and The Washington Post, and The New York Review Of Books, and you can find this article and that article. But connecting the dots has been something… See I think that looking at the bad apples is a way into a story that everybody thinks they know, but they don't know. The minute you start to see them as people, you see them as wrestling with ethical questions themselves. You see them in the middle of this place which can only be described as bedlam. You realize that everything at Abu Ghraib was a violation of Geneva.
AVC: The location is a violation of Geneva, for one. You're not supposed to have prisoners of war in the middle of a war zone.
EM: That's correct. You're also not supposed to kidnap people's children in order to make them talk. You're not supposed to engage in all kinds of humiliation, sexual and otherwise. You know, it's a long, long, long, long list. I would sit and I would read The New York Times, not so many months ago, people rallying against the destruction of these two CIA tapes, involving the interrogation of [Guantanamo detainee Abu] Zubaydah. And I would ask myself, "Do people not know that they destroyed all the evidence in a prison of 10,000 people?" It's strange. We have more information—a glut of information—than ever before, and perhaps less knowledge. That's what's peculiar. And the only way you can deal with it, I suppose, is to make fun of it. I would rather watch Comedy Central for the news than I'd like to watch any other program on television. Maybe that shows you the state of affairs.
You could say that Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report are cynical, but I think in a way, they're the least cynical news shows on television, because they actually have standards. They are willing to speak up, in their own unmistakable way, about stuff that they think is just unbearably stupid and criminal. Not cynical. I think quite the contrary.
AVC: How did you first start constructing this documentary?
EM: My stuff always starts with interviews. I start interviewing people, and then slowly but surely, a movie insinuates itself.
AVC: Was it difficult to gain access to the soldiers involved, or were they eager to tell their story?
EM: Really difficult. That's the hardest part of doing an investigative movie, is getting people to talk to you, which was a nightmare in this instance. There's a kind of code of silence in the military. First of all, many of the people involved are career soldiers. By speaking out, they risk careers, pensions, future employment, etc. Very, very difficult to get people to talk. It's getting a little bit easier now that I've made the movie. Now I get phone calls from people that I wanted to talk to that wouldn't talk to me, now interested in talking for the first time. [Former Brigadier General Janis] Karpinski, of course, was the easiest because she was a public figure, she had been making the rounds of various public forums, and she had appeared on C-SPAN. Not so hard to get her to agree on an interview. She is incredibly angry.
I used to work as a private detective years and years ago. And my boss gave me this one very simple piece of advice about trying to figure out who to interview first in any investigation. His recommendation: Always pick the people who were fired. Pick the people who are pissed off. And Janis Karpinski is a woman who is very, very, very angry. Another scapegoat, I believe. Just so we're clear, when I say this person is a scapegoat, am I at the same time saying they're lily-white? That everything they did was absolutely correct? Are they utterly blameless? I don't think that's true of any of these characters, and I wouldn't make that argument. But Karpinski and others were scapegoated. Make no mistake. We all play this kind of crazy blame game. Maybe reality's just too goddamned complicated, that we need to grotesquely simplify it in order to make it manageable, otherwise we'd all go mad. You know [contract interrogator Tim] Dugan, one of my very favorite characters, says at the end of the movie that there are two alternatives: We can stay and they'll kill each other and us, or we can leave, and then they'll just kill each other. It's a bleak, despairing assessment of it all. [Laughs.]
I wish they'd just get it over with and make [Iraq] the 51st state, because I think it's the perfect red state: religious fundamentalists, lots of weaponry. How could you go wrong? We're already spending a significant fraction of our gross national product on the infrastructure; such as it is, on Iraq. Make it the 51st state and get it over with. [Laughs.]
AVC: So what about some of these other figures? You talk about going to the people who are fired first. Some of these, the Sabrina Harmans, the Lynndie Englands, these are people who were fired, in a way, because they can't rely on the military as a career anymore.
EM: Well, they're one step beyond fired. They're fired and incarcerated.
AVC: Right. Presumably the incarceration part presented a roadblock for you.
EM: Well, when they were in prison it was a roadblock, because the military wasn't giving any access to any people when they were in prison. It's still not. I have no access to [reservist and alleged "ringleader"] Chuck Graner. [Staff Sergeant] Ivan Frederick got out very late in the game, too late to be included in this movie. I would love to interview both of them at some future time. You know, I've invested enough in this story, I'm curious enough in this whole story, that I would love to talk to them in the future. I want to set up this whole archive with all of the information that I've gathered. I think there's a lot of interesting stuff that I've been able to dig up. The question is, what do I do with it? I mean, the movie is one thing, and so is the book, which comes out in May. I have my whole array of Abu Ghraib products. I feel like the Fuller Brush guy, with a whole number of things in my sample kit. [Laughs.] But I think I've been able to unearth really interesting stuff, and I would like to make all of it public. My first step is putting this movie into distribution.
AVC: Much has been written about how prisoners held at Abu Ghraib were not treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. When you talked to these soldiers, did they say anything at all about the limits being placed on them? Were they told anything about how they were supposed to be treating these prisoners, or was that completely left up to their discretion?
EM: I don't think either A or B. I think they were given instructions to abuse them. It's not that I think they were given instructions to abuse them, they were! They were told "Do anything to this guy short of killing him. Soften this person up in this way and that way." There are written reports! I have all of this stuff from military intelligence, telling the MPs what they're supposed to do. "Keep them awake this way. Keep them awake that way. This stress position. That stress position." When they walked on the tier, the infamous "hard site" where most of these pictures were taken, when Javal Davis and Sabrina walked onto the hard site in mid-October of 2003, they weren't the stage managers. They weren't the production designers. They walked in on something that was already in place: people with panties on their heads, Iraqi prisoners stripped naked, stress positions. I mean, this is not something they came up with.
AVC: They just were foolish enough to be within the frame. Or not even foolish: They didn't think anything was wrong with being in the frame.
EM: I actually think it's neither of that. I think they knew it was wrong. Look at Sabrina's letters. She's constantly writing about how this is immoral. That's another misconception about this, that these guys were void of morality. But see, they're all wrestling with morality. I wonder, do people forget that it's the military? You know, they were following orders. Uh-eh-hem! It's the military! What do you think people do in the military?! Sabrina is constantly saying "This is wrong." She also talks about taking the pictures as proof that the stuff is wrong. Here's another irony. You can take a picture thinking you are providing proof that the army is guilty of A, B, C, and D. And that picture can be used to prove that you are a sadist with respect to A, B, C, and D. In many instances, they took the pictures to protect themselves. That's what's sooooo unbelievably bizarre about all of it. And they at least had some rational reason to believe that. Sabrina Harman, on November 4, 2003, gets into the shower where they've stored a corpse for the night. A corpse of the guy who was killed by the CIA. That's what happened there.
AVC: He had a "stroke," right?
EM: They claimed he had a heart attack, a stroke, whatever it is. You look at the pictures of him, as Sabrina Harman herself says, and it becomes pretty clear that he was not a heart-attack victim. If it's a heart-attack victim, it's a guy beaten to shit before he had the heart attack. The cartilage of his nose is crushed, his lip is split, his teeth broken, there's bruises all over his body. This guy has been, what's the technical term, fucked over big time. [Laughs.] She gets in there and takes Graner, Frederick, and she takes all these pictures. Takes the pictures of all of the bruises and damage to the body. Well over 20 of these photographs. They also take these thumbs-up pictures. "Look, ma!" Graner takes a picture of Sabrina. Smile, thumb. Sabrina takes a picture of Graner. Smile, thumb. We look at the pictures and we think "Monsters!" I look at the pictures and I think many things. I've just been writing this essay for The [New York] Times which I've got to finish today, about Sabrina's smile. It's about the Cheshire Cat: The cat is gone, and all that's leering at you from the trees is this grin. We see the smile and we don't see the murder, and that's the whole goddamned story of the war in Iraq.
AVC: Sabrina's an interesting case, because as you wrote in that New Yorker piece [excerpted from the book Morris co-wrote with Philip Gourevitch], she was wrestling with what was right and wrong. She didn't like to commit violence and couldn't stomach violence being committed, but she didn't mind being around a dead body. Were all the soldiers you talked to working within these moral gray areas?
EM: I think it's very interesting that many of them went to their superior officers and complained. Many of them. Think of what Javal says in the film, it's very powerful, he says, "I think I know what I can do and what I can't do, but I see all these guys doing this stuff. It's war." I have all these essays I would love to write about this stuff. Sabrina Harman said something really interesting to me about that whole al-Jamadi deal. [Manadel al-Jamadi was the prisoner who was found dead and badly beaten in an Abu Ghraib shower room.] Captain [Christopher] Brinson, one of the important MP officers and a guy who works for Alabama congressman Mike Rodgers [as his deputy chief of staff], and will never be charged for anything, is the one who tells Sabrina it's a heart attack. Sabrina gets in, takes the photographs, and says, "I trusted this guy. I don't trust him anymore. He lied to me."
I don't know what you do. I was asking the woman who was here just before, "What do you do when you're in this kind of position?" See, I have an easy out, because I can't deal with the thought of authority figures on any level. I would be thrown out of the military immediately. [Laughs.] That's not playing fair. That's not answering the question. I don't know what I would do. You know all your superior officers, the ones that you trust, the ones that you're supposed to trust, the ones that you're supposed to take orders from, are going to cover up—that they're complicit in all of this, that they know perfectly well that's going on. What do you do? And I think one act of defiance, one very strong act of disobedience is… guess what? You take photographs. It's really, really interesting in and of itself. People say, "If I were there, I would have…" Everybody has this fantasy of "I'm Spartacus!" The person who has the courage to stand up. Things unfortunately in life aren't so black and white. They're horribly tangled.
One of the amazing things about Clint Eastwood in that movie that he made, Flags Of Our Fathers—I liked both of the movies, but I thought Letters From Iwo Jima was the more ordinary of the two. It was extraordinary in the sense that he was telling, as an American, the other side of the conflict, but it was a traditional war movie in every other sense. Flags Of Our Fathers was heretical. Because it was telling you that heroism and our need for heroism is manufactured. We may be completely confused about what real heroism is. That film, too, has a good old-fashioned populist idea that the heroes are us, doing our jobs, trying to fight the good fight on some level. This administration has killed off one thing—and I don't know if it's put the nail in its coffin, the final nail—but it's this good old-fashioned idea that you don't punish the little guys, that you let the little guys walk. And I don't think this country can be put right again until the big guys are held accountable, and pay some kind of price for what they've done.
AVC: How do you do that, though? It seems like there's been plenty of instances in which big guys could have and should have been held accountable. Yet it's not as if they've slipped a noose. It's as if they deny that there's even a noose to be slipped.
EM: That's what's so bizarre. You know, there are smoking guns everywhere, and people are being constantly hit over the head with smoking guns, and people simply don't act on them. I tried to wade through the most recent "torture memo" [written by former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo] that was released through the ACLU. Unreadable. Eighty pages of legalese gobbledygook. Fourth Amendment this, Fifth Amendment that, Sixth Amendment something else. Treaties, conventions. You get to the very end, and the last paragraph tells you, "The President can do whatever he wants to do." The last paragraph tells you that you didn't have to read the 80-plus pages that proceeded it. Just read this last paragraph, the last couple of lines, which says the President can do what he damn well pleases. That's the memo. It's not about torture. Torture is the least of it. It's about how we fought a war 200-plus years ago to avoid having a king. We were supposed to be a constitutional democracy, and we've become, 200-plus years after this war, an absolute monarchy. How in hell did that happen, and where are the American people in all of this? I don't get it. It's weird. Everybody has heard the word "impeachment." Let's get on with it! I don't know what people are waiting for.
AVC: There have been plenty of opportunities, but it doesn't even seem like the word has been uttered on Capitol Hill.
EM: Everyone thought this Democratic Congress in 2006 was going to be a watershed. Something different was going to happen. Maybe the hope is that this will pass and there will be a whole new administration soon, people can just pretend it didn't happen. "Hey, do you remember exactly what happened in the last eight or nine years?" "No, I can't really. Refresh my memory. What is it that did happen here?" [Laughs.] I think there's that wishful thinking that it will just vanish. It will disappear. I actually think that we have to in some way deal with what has happened. I feel it's really, really important for the country. I feel it's very important that someone be held accountable. My silver lining of the Torture Memo—I'm a misanthropic sort of guy—is I think that if the President can do anything… if he has that unfettered power to do anything he wants, absolutely anything, than he's responsible for everything. "Okay! Have it your way! If these are all your decisions, I think we should start to hold you responsible for making them."
AVC: But what are the consequences of that? We can hold Bush responsible, and certainly history can hold him responsible, but that's certainly not going to reverse all the harm that has been done.
EM: You know, there's something about the story of Job that's always fascinated me. God capriciously takes everything away from Job. His family dies, he loses influence, wealth… Well, he loses everything. He ends up on the ash heap. Then, of course, God changes his mind and restores Job to prosperity. One of the problems with this story is, what about all those people that are no longer there? The first family? They don't come back, do they? They're gone permanently. You don't get them back. You don't get all that stuff back.
AVC: Your investigation for Thin Blue Line had a very tangible result in that an innocent man was freed. What can you reasonably expect from this film? What kind of response are you hoping for?
EM: You know, maybe I'm just another one of those gnats just buzzing about. I hope that the movie will be seen and thought about. I hope that my investigation into Abu Ghraib itself can make a difference. You don't know what effect what you do will have. When I was making The Thin Blue Line, I keep thinking, "I better get this guy [Randall Adams] out of prison, because I don't want to spend the rest of my life working on this case." I hope it comes to some sort of conclusion. The selfish motive inside all of it is that I just can't do this anymore. Mercifully, it did come to a conclusion. You do your best. You do what you can do. You try to say interesting things. You try to uncover new evidence. You try to make people think about stuff that they may not have thought about before. And hopefully, you make a difference. What else can you do?