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Framed

Standard Operating Procedure Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris The Penguin Press: 288 pp., $25.95

May 25, 2008

"Standard Operating Procedure" tells the story of what happened through the voices of the men and women who worked the Interrogation Unit but who never conducted any formal questioning. Most were quite young; all were untrained in preparing inmates by inflicting pain and humiliation. They had to become creative in their use of stress positions, beatings or psychological abuse. At times, though, the soldiers did wonder why they were being encouraged to violate all military rules for the treatment of prisoners and whether the violations were really producing any reliable intelligence. What Gourevitch says about Sabrina Harman could be applied to many: "When toughness failed her, and niceness was not an option, Harman took refuge in denial." Indeed, after the failure of toughness ("MISSION ACCOMPLISHED"), taking refuge in denial has become the hallmark of administration policy in Iraq.

The photographs from Abu Ghraib did a public service because they revealed something essential about the conduct of the war. But the expose became a cover-up when the images were taken to be the whole story. "There is a constant temptation, when rendering an account of history, to distort reality by making too much sense of it," Gourevitch writes. "Abu Ghraib was bedlam, and the MI block was its sick, racing heart." Gourevitch uses the many voices of our soldiers so that we understand the uncertainty and confusion in these events; he brings their stories together without imposing too much coherence, too much order on the mess that the projection of American force into Iraq has become.

The memory of those infamous photographs, their posturing amateurism, is often evoked in "Standard Operating Procedure." As Gourevitch notes, their amateurism was akin to "slapdash ineptitude" and the incoherence of the war itself. "What had been billed as a war of ideas and ideals had been exposed as a war of poses and posturing." The posing and posturing, the bluster followed by denial, have become mainstays of American policy in Iraq. Although we have punished some, we did remake the prison in our own image. That was the plan. That's the scandal. *

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