"Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," a new HBO documentary produced and directed by Rory Kennedy, daringly approaches a scandal that hardly anyone wants to see reexamined -- least of all, one can safely assume, the Bush administration and the Pentagon.
The reason is not just that what happened at Abu Ghraib is, to understate in the extreme, unpleasant. The documentary says it's also because this breakdown was not so much nervous as inevitable -- and not so spontaneous, having been sanctioned by the top brass, including former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Skillfully and sparingly told without a narrator, with only occasional on-screen captions to help the narrative along, the film brings to life a sadly shameful moment in recent American history and does it without histrionics. But Kennedy (youngest of Bobby Kennedy's offspring) might have erred at the outset of her film by inadequately establishing the national mood that helped make Abu Ghraib possible: the understandable sense of shock, outrage and violation we all felt after the insane 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The visual reminders of those attacks consist of photographs and footage that show only physical destruction, the ghostly and ghastly remains of buildings. There doesn't appear to be a dead body in sight, almost as if the atrocities committed were extreme examples of architectural criticism. That weakens Kennedy's case. The photos she shows from Abu Ghraib are very explicit and, unlike the versions shown in newspapers and on television in 2004 when the story broke, uncensored.
We see naked prisoners in humiliating situations -- a man tied at the end of a leash, like a dog; a group of naked prisoners arranged in a lopsided human pyramid; men positioned in ways to suggest homosexual acts. Kennedy was right to show these pictures, but she should have been less genteel in what she showed of the 9/11 attacks. America violated the rules on interrogation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and for that, there is no excuse. But one must take into account the fury felt in the aftermath of 9/11 over monstrosities that also violated every covenant of "civilized" warfare.
This discrepancy doesn't really lessen the film's power. And in interviews with some of the men and women who perpetrated the torture, or who posed cheerfully (almost like tourists at Niagara Falls) with the victims, we see them looking anything but furious or consumed with wrath. Instead, they smile in the photos and, in the interview segments, they speak with a kind of numb, casual regret -- but nothing like wrenching shame or sorrow.
Perhaps just as unnerving and dispiriting as the photos is the story told by a former Abu Ghraib prisoner (photographed so as to disguise his identity) about how he begged guards to provide medical treatment for a fellow prisoner: his father.
When the man realized his father was ill, suffering shortness of breath and other symptoms, he says, he repeatedly begged that his dad be taken to a medical facility, only to be rebuffed by guards, told to go back to his cell and eventually threatened with being shot if he protested further. Fighting back tears as he finishes the story, the man remembers holding his stricken father in his arms as he died. The father, however, would not be listed officially as a fatality resulting from torture or neglect.
Kennedy suggests the torture was not an outbreak of lunacy but the direct result of policies handed down by Rumsfeld that were designed to circumvent the Geneva Conventions (which specify that prisoners of war be "treated humanely") and U.N. conventions against torture, to which the United States is, at least technically, a signatory. That was done by, among other things, refusing to classify the up to 6,000 inmates of Abu Ghraib as prisoners of war; Rumsfeld instead calls them "unlawful combatants" at a news conference. Then the term "torture" was redefined so narrowly in government memos that it would be almost impossible to commit it.
When the scandal broke, the administration sent out "conscious disinformation," one former official recalls, including the trivializing assertion that what happened at Abu Ghraib was just " 'Animal House' on the night shift." (Earlier, one of the military police stationed there recalls thinking of the place as " 'Apocalypse Now' meets 'The Shining,' except this is real and we're in the middle of it.")
It could easily be argued that it was the torturers and not the tortured who suffered the most as a result of what happened at Abu Ghraib. The damage done to the reputation of the United States was critical and criminal, and the torture that occurred can be seen as but a symptom of a much larger corruption: the pursuit of the war itself and the fallacious "evidence" fed to the American people to justify it.
The wider moral of the film is simpler and nonpolitical and painfully, poignantly evident: When you treat people as less than human, you become less than human yourself. "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" will haunt those who see it long after the final frames have flickered out.