(What i appreciate about SOP is that it is problematizing our [perceived] direct truth correspondence with images [in particular photographs, videos and films] in an age when we should always be skeptical of that relationship... )
Reframing Standard Operating Procedure: Errol Morris and the creative treatment of Abu Ghraib
Janet Walker, a trauma studies scholar, noted in counterpoint that the discussion might profit if we supplemented trauma studies’ primary focus on victim trauma with a similar focus on “perpetrator trauma”—an expansion that might be linked to the kind of spectator trauma that Nichols touches on in his own paper. Like Sobchack’s comment, Walker’s comment was mainly a response to Kahana’s paper, which posited a tradition of films in which real “soldiers give testimony about their . . . violent actions, carried out in the midst of war,” actions they can never forget. Standard Operating Procedure fits this category, Walker (still alluding to Kahana) noted, in its “presentation of psychologically charged veteran interviews as simultaneously confessional and exculpatory.”
At this point, my own trauma has everything to do with personal experience, not documentary practice. I am a U.S. liberal who lived through the Bush-Cheney era. Like Morris, I feel a great deal of guilt over what happened in those years (and over what may still be happening now, for all we know). It is predictable, then, that after watching Standard Operating Procedure, my own moral center fixed on Morris’ haunting précis: the guards weren’t innocent, but they were scapegoats. No matter how morally superior we feel, the guards had few choices within a machine whose policies standardized abuse and enforced obedience in its ranks. As Kleinhans notes, one “incontrovertibly true” fact of torture is that it is only
“the exceptional person who refuses to torture, especially under the conditions of military organization.”
The guards may not have been exceptional people (do “the best and brightest” typically end up as enlistees in the U.S. military?) but they were people working in a situation not of their own making. They acted badly and were treated badly: they were perpetrators and victims. This means that the greatest responsibility lies with those who created the situation that ran away from the guards: the military higher-ups, the Bush administration, and the electorate.
And if we, as liberals, fall into the trap of not listening to the guards or to Morris, if we refuse to see the guards as people whose “free will” was constrained by the same machine that constrained us all, we may end up simply repeating the actions of the Bush administration, which protected itself by blaming the scandal on a few bad apples. After all, apart from the extravagant abuses—the human pyramid, the masturbating detainees—the actions of the guards were, practically speaking, unavoidable. If the guards hadn’t put the detainees in stress positions or otherwise “softened” them up, how would the guards have been treated? Would they have been demoted, discharged, court-martialed?
And what about us, the symbolic warriors who were paying for all this and increasingly knew what we were paying for as its elements were repeated at “black sites” or outsourced through rendition—what were our choices? We could have stopped paying our taxes and gone to jail or fled abroad. But how many of us could actually have done this? Haven’t we all had responsibilities that have held us in place as investors in the larger machine of the nation? (Henry David Thoreau, we should remember, was unattached, childless, and jobless when he refused to pay poll taxes so as to resist the expansionist Mexican War.) Many of us probably had the same grim, awful sense that I had during the 9/11 disaster: what was happening to us was just a particle of what the Bush administration would do in our name in retribution. And many of us probably wanted to resist this end. But we did not, mostly could not. This is not to exonerate us or the guards. It is to see ourselves in the guards, whose situation we helplessly helped create.
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