Abu Ghraib: The Back Story

Reviewed by Douglas Brinkley
Sunday, July 13, 2008


By Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris

Penguin Press. 286 pp. $25.95

Even before the U.S. government seized control of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the correctional facility 20 miles from Baghdad had been a factory of torture and annihilation. Under Saddam Hussein's demented administration, the prison was a death house where beatings and hangings were commonplace. Constructed in the mid-'60s by British engineers with American blueprints, the campus-like penal colony was where Saddam denied human rights with the sadistic flare of Goebbels. Prisoners were subjected to dungeons, electric shocks, sleep deprivation and castration. Arms and hands were chopped off as punishment. Saddam's son, Qusay, acting as chief of the secret police, is said to have ordered mass executions for his own carnival-like amusement.

But in October 2002 the reign of terror at Abu Ghraib abruptly ended. President George W. Bush, brimming with post-9/11 indignation and hubris, threatened to go to war with Iraq, convinced by intelligence reports that Saddam was hiding weapons of mass destruction. The mere threat of U.S. intervention had a salubrious effect at Abu Ghraib: Nearly 10,000 Iraqis descended on the penal camp as if storming the Bastille. Saddam quickly ordered all prisoners released, realizing he couldn't afford widespread anarchy while warring with the Great Satan. Oddly, the fleeing convicts, instead of indulging in pro-American chants, shouted, "Our blood, our souls, we'll sacrifice for you, oh Saddam."

The mass release of Saddam's prisoners is where Philip Gourevitch (editor of the Paris Review and longtime staff writer for the New Yorker) and Errol Morris (Academy Award-winning director of "The Fog of War") begin Standard Operating Procedure, their deeply haunting and brilliantly researched saga of good intentions gone awry. Their project started with Morris interviewing participants in the Abu Ghraib saga for a documentary film, also called "Standard Operating Procedure," which came out earlier this year. Gourevitch then drew on more than 200 hours of Morris's interviews to write the book.

Beginning with the back story of how the U.S. government sent two former directors of the Utah Department of Corrections to establish new prisons in Iraq following Operation Iraqi Freedom, Gourevitch -- with stylistic echoes of Norman Mailer's nonfiction novels on Gary Gilmore and Lee Harvey Oswald -- coolly recounts how America suddenly found itself repopulating Saddam's old dungeons. Writing with a spooky combination of mature historical reflection and a cinematic sense of doom, he amplifies the pioneering reporting of the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh and CBS's "60 Minutes," which broke the Abu Ghraib story almost simultaneously in 2004.

Even though Abu Ghraib had a god-awful reputation during the Saddam years, the U.S. government, unwilling to wait two years to rebuild a new prison, gave the cursed facility a face-lift and went into the incarceration business. The huge Saddam portrait was replaced by a banner in both English and Arabic that read: "America is the friend of all Iraqi people."

Everybody from Ambassador Paul Bremer to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz failed to understand the atrocious symbolism of Abu Ghraib. They scoffed at officials from Amnesty International and the United Nations who wanted the detention center closed. The absence of an Iraqi government had turned U.S. policymakers into daredevil narcissists, gloating over the fact that Saddam's palace on the Tigris River had become an American garrison.

Meanwhile, workers were ordered to speed up the remodeling of Abu Ghraib, and a huge new tented compound named Camp Ganci (named after a New York firefighter killed on 9/11) was erected on Abu Ghraib's grounds. American troops started picking up prisoners in sweeps, and they needed somewhere to put them. The Bush administration's sanctioned interrogations about the al-Qaeda menace were underway. Ignoring concerns that the United States wasn't adhering to the Geneva Conventions, Vice President Cheney told NBC's Tim Russert that America sometimes had to work "the dark side."

Overseeing this anti-Geneva Conventions attitude was then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Rory Kennedy, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, made an outstanding documentary in 2007, titled "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," which strongly suggests that officials well up the chain of command had approved the rough hazing of prisoners. Although Gourevitch and Morris don't focus on Rumsfeld, his indifference to Iraqi culture -- and his inability to shift gears after the U.S. invasion to keeping order and halting a budding insurgency -- hover over the events in this book; bad things happened on his watch.

Anybody looking for a red-white-and-blue "Band of Brothers" lift should not read this book. There isn't a single old-timey patriotic page in Standard Operating Procedure. Members of the Army's 372nd Military Police Company started engaging in jailhouse humiliations at Abu Ghraib, acting without conscience. Inmates were hooded and stripped, forced into sexual acts, repeatedly kicked in the groin. Ferocious dogs barked at them from only one or two feet away, a "black blur of muscle and jaw," in Gourevitch's words. Compounding the tales of horror in Standard Operating Procedure, the U.S. military ultimately found that three out of four Abu Ghraib prisoners had not committed any crime. Even President Bush deemed the prison abuses unacceptable.

Although much of Standard Operating Procedure is about the ghastly photographs taken at Abu Ghraib -- who can forget the hooded prisoner balancing on top of a box with electrical wires connected to his outstretched arms? -- there is not a single image in the book. While I think the lack of pictures was a publishing mistake, it's understandable why Gourevitch and Morris refrained from showing naked Iraqi prisoners being forced to form a flesh pyramid or Sgt. Ivan Fredrick sitting on a prisoner sandwiched between two stretchers. Would our understanding of Abu Ghraib really be enhanced by seeing soldiers Charles Graner and Lynndie England pointing fingers at naked Iraqis' penises? "The photographs have a place in the story," Gourevitch writes, "but they are not the story, and it would be untruthful here to submit once again to their frame."

There are three or four extraordinary set pieces in Standard Operating Procedure. Supreme among them is the story of Sgt. Ken Davis, an MP whose Christian idealism about helping Iraqis turned to hatred for Arabs after his convoy was blown up by an IED. Tasked with driving VIPs to the Baghdad airport and shuttling prisoners out of Abu Ghraib for court hearings, Davis tried to ingratiate himself with the Iraqi villagers by handing out candy and stuffed toys. But that roadside bomb turned him into a monster of rage. "I was in this black, black place," he said. "I wanted to kill. I wanted so bad to pay back."

Sgt. Davis, instead of taking out his frustration on the Iraqi people, turned hostile toward Bush administration policies that placed U.S. soldiers in a "war zone that had been classified as mission accomplished." One afternoon, he watched in frustration as four Iraqi prisoners at Camp Ganci were killed in a riot because guards ran out of non-lethal rounds and opened up with live ammunition. That evening he called his father to say, "Dad, I can't take this. I can't take innocent lives being destroyed by American bullets. I can't do it."

Standard Operating Procedure is a devastating critique of the Bush administration. It inspires outrage at everything and everyone from the Bush Doctrine to former attorney general Alberto Gonzales to the CIA. Yet, Gourevitch laments, "the stain is ours, because whatever else the Iraq War was about, it was always, above all, about America -- about the projection of America's force and America's image into the world. Iraq was the stage, and Iraqis would suffer for that, enduring some fifty deaths for every American life lost: in this, and by every other measure of devastation, it was very much their war." ยท

Douglas Brinkley is professor of history and fellow at the Baker Institute at Rice University. His recent books include "The Great Deluge" and "The Reagan Diaries."

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