Standards of war 

Iraq documentaries let the soldiers speak for themselves

At one point in Errol Morris' documentary Standard Operating Procedure, former U.S. Army reservist Sabrina Harman confesses that she feels awkward when someone takes her picture. She says she automatically tends to smile on camera while giving a "thumbs up" gesture, and in the audience we can identify with that kind of self-consciousness.

Then the filmmaker shows one of the infamous images from the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal, in which we see Harman grinning and giving the thumbs up as she leans into the frame with the body of Iraqi Manadel al-Jamadi, who died during interrogation. We realize we can't come anywhere close to getting inside Harman's head. It's impossible to reconcile Harman's horrifying, carefree demeanor in the photo with the seemingly level-headed woman who comes across in the film's interviews. Morris frequently quotes from Harman's disturbed letters home from Abu Ghraib, in which her conscience seems to be intact, even though she'd participate in bizarre forms of prisoner abuse.

The testimony of soldiers and veterans is invariably an Iraq war documentary's greatest strength. In Standard Operating Procedure, the servicemen and women punished for the abuse scandal persuasively argue on their behalf one minute, then make damning statements the next. Meanwhile, in Body of War, wounded Iraq war veteran Tomas Young and his mother, Cathy Smith, reveal tremendous moral authority in their anti-war movement activities. We may think we already know all about Abu Ghraib and the plight of Iraq war veterans, but both documentaries reveal greater complexities than we expect.

When Body of War directors Ellen Spiro and talk-show host Phil Donahue introduce Young, he's already practiced at recounting his story. In interviews and rallies, he describes how he called his Army recruiter on Sept. 13, 2001, eager to go to Afghanistan, but was eventually deployed to Iraq and received a paralyzing injury after five days. Young struggles with his paralysis and his coping skills, at times being candid and bitterly humorous, particularly when he describes his erectile dysfunction.

Body of War offers devastating snapshots of Young's troubles: His mother helps him with his catheter, his hasty wedding proves premature and he struggles to finish speeches without fainting. In between episodes of Young's life, the film makes a labored framing device of the 77-23 Senate vote on the Iraq war resolution in October 2002, presenting familiar sound bytes both against the war and for it (such as the "smoking gun must not be a mushroom cloud" quote).

Body of War most often revisits the anti-war speech by Sen. Robert Byrd, who later refers to himself and other anti-war senators as "The Immortal 23." If Byrd wasn't genuinely on the right side of history, his self-aggrandizement would be insufferable. Likewise, Body of War's original songs by Eddie Vedder, however angry and impassioned, sound like grandstanding protest tunes. Body of War proves far more powerful when it reveals Young's depressing day-to-day struggles, along with the divided emotions of his mother, who worries when her younger son is deployed to Iraq.

It's easier to wrestle with Body of War's heartbreaking moments than with the uncomfortable questions Standard Operating Procedure poses. In his follow-up to The Fog of War, Morris focuses on the meaning of the notorious Abu Ghraib photos, examining what they show and what they don't show. The title comes from a military prosecutor's distinction between "criminal acts" and "standard operating procedure" in stress positions and other humiliations. Some of the most shocking photos from Abu Ghraib, including the one with the prisoner in the black hood standing on the crate and fearing electrocution, weren't deemed criminal acts.

Morris doesn't want to exonerate the men and women who were court-martialed and sentenced to jail time for such actions, but he does explore the pressures of their situation. Some were extremely young (Lynndie England was 20 years old), without appropriate training or supervision, and living in a building that frequently came under fire. Morris does a remarkable job at getting them to open up, along with such figures as a shaken civilian interrogation expert.

On camera they come across as natural, emotionally transparent interview subjects, frequently angry at being "scapegoated" for following orders that came from higher up. England says she went along with the prisoner abuse because she was in love with Spc. Charles Graner, branded as the ringleader of the "bad apples" at Abu Ghraib. (England had Graner's baby, even though Graner married another former Abu Ghraib guard, hinting at the minidramas the cameras didn't capture). England proves particularly defensive. In the photo of her holding a prisoner on a leash, she points out that the leash is slack – she was "leading" him, not "pulling" him, which sounds like a distinction without a difference a half a world away.

Standard Operating Procedure attempts to reconstruct the facts of what happened at Abu Ghraib. Last year's acclaimed policy-driven documentary No End in Sight takes on the question why by exploring the dysfunctional political and military cultures that led to self-defeating decisions. Standard Operating Procedures' Abu Ghraib veterans never earn our sympathy like Young does in Body of War, but both films powerfully demonstrate that you can measure war's effect on the United States by showing the toll it's taken on our soldiers.

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    • Local band Manchester Orchestra, who provided the soundtrack, probably would have appreciated a shout-out.

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