"It was never clear to me what was allowed and what wasn't allowed in Iraq."
-- American soldier
Each day brings news of some fresh misery in Iraq -- profiteering contractors, a mounting death toll, accusations of U.S. war crimes in Fallujah and Haditha, escalating violence. It is therefore especially painful to drag oneself back to revisit and dissect one of the conflict's most infamous horrors.
The HBO documentary Ghosts of Abu Ghraib reopens one of the war's nastiest can of worms, the abuse of prisoners at the infamous Iraqi prison. Once synonymous with Saddam Hussein's reign of terror, the prison has become a byword for casual sadism and the misuse of power by the American occupiers.
The photos of prison abuse were initially greeted with justified revulsion. But then, a strange apathy set in as the larger horror of the war continued. Yet this film by director Rory Kennedy (American Hollow) proves these photographs still have the power to repulse. The images of naked prisoners forced by U.S. soldiers to form human pyramids or simulate fellatio, or chained to their cells, remain a crippling defamation to American notions of justice and decency. They also call into question the purpose of our mission in Iraq.
Ghosts of Abu Ghraib suggests that the Department of Justice, President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld virtually condoned torture and the depraved situation at Abu Ghraib by cavalierly disregarding the international standards of proper behavior: both the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention Against Torture. According to Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, it was the highest echelons of the American military and government that provided the puppet masters, the ones who allowed the abuse to unfold. Kennedy's documentary tends to stack its deck quite visibly by making the higher-ups the villains, and tries -- perhaps a bit too hard -- to relieve the soldiers who perpetrated the abuses of any responsibility.
Viewers may have a hard time, for instance, accepting one American soldier's pat explanation, "That place turned me into a monster."
Introductory stock footage of a famous 1961 Yale psychological study in which ordinary people proved their willingness to follow orders by delivering jolts of electricity to an unseen subject suggest that the human brain is deeply inclined to just follow orders in times of stress. The suggestion is that what happened at Abu Ghraib is somehow hardwired into human behavior. Almost as disturbing as the Abu Ghraib photos is the disposition of so many of the soldiers interviewed for this documentary: an emotionless, catatonic demeanor, as if they are still removed from the reality around them. Both during their tours of duty and after, many exhibited an eerie distance from their actions, creating photographs of themselves in crude sexual scenarios or posing like kids with their weapons, or describing their experiences in movie terms: "It's like a combination of Apocalypse Now meets The Shining," says one soldier of Abu Ghraib. "Except this is real, and you're in the middle of it."
But the most shocking effect of Ghosts of Abu Ghraib or a host of other recent Iraq war films is how little impact they may have. It was photojournalism of human suffering that helped stop the Vietnam war, but in our own media-deluged age where every extreme of violence from hangings and decapitations is accessible on the Web, we may have lost our ability to be moved to action by the Abu Ghraib images. We may have more in common than we think with those stunned, emotionally paralyzed soldiers who couldn't find a way out of doing something they knew was wrong.
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