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A New Lens on Abu Ghraib

Book and Film Focus on The Soldiers Involved

You’ve likely seen photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. But what you may not have seen is what went on outside the frame of the camera lens.

Journalist Philip Gourevitch has partnered with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris to tell a story that is, perhaps, even more unsettling than the images of unconscionable abuse and degradation that circulated the globe four years ago: the story of how the soldiers’ digital pictures came to be.

In their new book, “Standard Operating Procedure,” Gourevitch and Morris look at the scandal through the eyes of the soldiers who lived it.

Their account, which was released May 15, explores Abu Ghraib from the initial planning of a top-of-the-line criminal prison meant to serve as a beacon of American humanity and justice in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, to the complex relationships among young, inexperienced soldiers thrust into a war zone with nothing to follow but vague orders to assist in the breakdown of “security detainees.”

“What compelled me was how these [photos] stood at odds with the story and really told just a fraction of what was going on,” Gourevitch said in an interview. “The whole story that immediately emerged was the broader story of the prison itself.”

This gripping account of Abu Ghraib is the result of hundreds of hours of interviews with the soldiers who served at the prison. Morris conducted the interviews for the book’s companion documentary, which bears the same name.

There are no photos or stills of film footage in the book. Gourevitch instead draws upon Morris’ transcripts, which ended up being 25 times the length of the book; personal materials provided by the soldiers, including letters written at the height of the abuse; and transcripts from prison interviews conducted by Army investigators.

“What I found most compelling was how rich and interesting and important the voices of these soldiers were,” Gourevitch said.

The candid interviews give new dimension to the soldiers who were captured smiling next to a bloodied and beaten dead prisoner, or holding a leash tied to a naked Iraqi seemingly being dragged across the prison floor. They also offer a glimpse as to why these soldiers — among them an aspiring forensic photographer — documented the abuse in what seem, at first glance, to be self-incriminating pictures.

Gourevitch found that the soldiers were not just “creating sensationalistic images for sport.” They were, he said, “people trying to document an experience they’re in, not one they were part of creating.” In that sense, they were removing themselves from the horror they were surrounded with by taking on the role of an observer, he said.

The book does not absolve the soldiers of their actions. In the interviews, the soldiers clearly acknowledge the immorality of the policy they were asked to implement, but also show a desire to preserve proof of the things they saw every day that they feared no one back home would believe.

“It’s possible to think what you’re doing is wrong, but to understand that it’s policy,” Gourevitch said. “They thought, ‘The only way we can show it’s normal is to show everyone there was aware.’”

The book also shines light on the complicity of the high-ranking officials that escaped blame when the images hit the world stage.

“What I also wanted to show is there is a tendency so say: ‘Oh, it’s chaos. Oh, it’s a breakdown. Oh, it’s a mess,’” he said. “But it isn’t — it’s systematic. … People don’t just do these things randomly. It’s not how people behave.”

Gourevitch said he hopes the book broadens the reader’s understanding of the scope of the scandal and the greater implications of America’s military policies.

“I like to think that you can supply your own outrage,” he said. “I wanted you to feel the surprises that they feel … walk in their shoes and realize what they were doing they were doing in our name.”

The documentary, “Standard Operating Procedure,” is playing at the Landmark E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW. Photos from the film set by photographer Nubar Alexanian are featured in an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW, through June 2.

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