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While reading Standard Operating Procedure, a compelling but disturbing book on Abu Ghraib, I recalled the PR tour of the prison in September, 2003, some eight months before the Abu Ghraib scandal made international headlines. The tour was led by then-Brigadier General Janis Karpinski herself - at the time the head of prisons in Iraq - and it was a somewhat macabre dog-and-pony show for the international press corps, a concerted effort on the part of the Americans to show that they were kinder, gentler jailers.

  • Standard Operating Procedure, by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris, Penguin Press, 286 pages, $28.50

We never got to see any prisoners, but they were careful to point out the shiny new dental facility. Karpinski herself solemnly lowered the hanging platform in Saddam's old "death chamber," its terrible sound echoing into the dungeons.

In those early days of the occupation, I had gone back to see how things had fared in the "new Iraq." To my surprise, I found the old prison doctor, a former Baathist official who seemed to know an awful lot of detail about torture and executions under the old regime, and who had been rehired by the Americans at three times the salary. But when I tried to probe further about his involvement in the bad old days, he offered the standard "I have no information," and, "I just did my job and left. I know nothing."

The prison doctor's mantra is echoed in the words of many of the soldiers whose interviews illuminate the darkness of Abu Ghraib in SOP, and indeed, the book title itself seems to speak to the same "banality of evil" Hannah Arendt famously named.

But while Gourevitch (who wrote SOP based on the hundreds of hours of interviews Errol Morris compiled for his film of the same name) never quite lets the soldiers who abused the prisoners off the hook, he suggests that the abuse happened with the full knowledge and approval of their superiors. Yet no soldier above the rank of sergeant ever served jail time.

He also suggests that Karpinski, who was sacked from her job and demoted because of the scandal, was "duped." Interviews with soldiers at the prison indicate that her very occasional visits to Abu Ghraib were preceded by frenzied clean-up campaigns, when prisoners were washed, clothed and fed, evidence of torture disappeared, and medical treatment administered. Even a damning report from the Red Cross, as per its standard operating procedure, was only shown to the U.S. military and political authorities responsible for its administration.

Just who bears the ultimate moral responsibility for the atrocities of Abu Ghraib? While Gourevitch maintains that the lawlessness there was encouraged by higher-ups under pressure from then-secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld himself to gather "intelligence" as the insurgency grew (and suggests that the illegal detainment and torture of "suspects" at Abu Ghraib actually fuelled the insurgency), he makes the reader - presumably an American - responsible when he says, "the stain is inescapable and irreversible and it is ours."

But Gourevitch raises the horror of Abu Ghraib to a universal level, even quoting Sartre: "If my friends, fellow soldiers and leaders tear out an enemy's fingernails in my presence, what will I do?"

And yet he does not shy away from the very American specificity of the Abu Ghraib scandal, noting, "Of course America has always run nasty clandestine operations in the name of freedom."

If you fight terror with terror, how can you tell which is which?

Important political insight aside, it is the psychological minutiae of the jailer-prisoner relationship that Gourevitch so vividly articulates that compels the reader to go on, to follow the house-of-horrors narrative that even the author admits is taxing, to the end.

Gourevitch insightfully explores the persecutor/rescuer complex from the book's beginning, which describes Saddam's famous "amnesty" in 2002, when some prisoners being freed still chanted "our blood, our souls, we'll sacrifice for you, Saddam," right through to Charles Graner - he of the manic grin and penchant for trophy photos - who beats a prisoner and then carefully sews up the wound.

And since the author offers Abu Ghraib as a metaphor for the whole occupation, there is also a suggestion that, by extension, a United States that invades in the name of liberation and tortures in the name of freedom shares that complex.

As is appropriate to our televisual age, Gourevitch describes the U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib, who relax by playing violent video games, name their captives after TV characters ("Gilligan" is the name they give to the prisoner whose hooded frame, hands connected to electrodes, became one of the archetypal Abu Ghraib photos) as conflating image and reality.

One relates that he feels just like agent Jack Bauer - Kiefer Sutherland's character in 24, who often pushes the legal limits in his pursuit of "terrorists." A night of torture is played out by Graner and his mates like some deranged reality TV show with a mixture of "rage and clownish jocularity."

And oddly, Gourevitch reveals that some of the soldiers - in particular Graner and Sabrina Harman - begin taking photos as a means of documentation of the abuses, or alternately as a way to "cover" themselves in case of reprimand and, perversely, later on as a way to get caught and reprimanded so that the cycle of abuse in which they are swept up will stop.

Gourevitch seems mildly obsessed with what he calls (quoting Othello) the ocular proof and how it can distort actual truth through the lie of the photo. (The book, it should be noted, contains no images.) Just as the soldiers themselves conflate image and reality, so did the public. The photos of prisoner abuse that were published worldwide were often misleading and never revealed the worst atrocities, the war crimes for which no one has been charged.

Just as the soldiers were amateur photographers, he writes, they were also amateur torturers, with little training, guidance or discipline. And since torture makes for unreliable information, almost no "intelligence" of value was extracted from prisoners, most of whom were later found to be innocent of any crime.

In the end, one is struck more than anything by the sheer waste and despair not only of Abu Ghraib, but what has now become a shared U.S.-Iraqi tragedy - although, as Gourevitch notes, the ratio of deaths is 50 Iraqis to one American.

Ultimately, this important book contains an overwhelming sense of disappointment at the human condition, one that reminds me of my Iraqi translator's comments as we left Abu Ghraib after that PR tour in 2003: "After the Americans, after Saddam is dead, this place will still be standing."

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: A Woman's Journey Through Iraq, which contains a chapter on Abu Ghraib prison. Her next book is on Lebanon/Israel/Palestine.

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