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Another fine mess

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Ottessa Moshfegh
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Standard Operating Procedure - Philip Gourevitch, Errol Morris My rating may creep higher, but for now my sense of this book is that it just misses classic status, opening with some confusion as Gourevitch (writing from Morris' hours upon hours of interview footage & official testimonies) tries to capture the confusion that comes before Abu Ghraib's eruption into American consciousness. This short history touches on Iraqi prisons, the nature of the prison business, the distinctions between military and civilian imprisonment, the slippery parsing of the Geneva Convention by the Bush/Rumsfeld apparatchiks, the palimpsest of procedural documents thrown at the MPs charged with a confused task in a confused context with most objectives implied rather than spelled out. And while intriguing, these separate narrative strands don't gel fully, occasionally only glancing over issues I wanted more information about, sometimes too tenuously linking from one point to the next.

But soon we turn from "Before" to "During," and the bulk of the book is a harrowing vision of how the infamous photographs came to be. I emphasize the photos of Abu Ghraib, those brutal tableaux, not to deemphasize the horrors of abuse and torture but to zero in--as this book does so damned effectively--on the necessary problem of interpretation. About half-way through the book, Gourevitch notes "a constant temptation . . . to distort reality by making too much sense of it," and the problem with these photos is that they seem to offer certainties (of action, of morality) which allow the viewer--the soldiers taking the pictures, as well as the civilians gasping at them--to resist seeing outside whatever frame in which they've comfortably housed the photographed information.

Gourevitch & Morris tease out how, for instance, Sabrina Harman's smiling thumbs-up in the photos reinforced not some callous disregard for the brutality on display but her narrative of distant innocence -- the fact of "recording" the photos becomes itself a signifier of her own moral judgment, the strange fake smile a register of her own disconnection (putting on the face you put on when you're in a photo, rather than participating in whatever is happening there). By bringing us "inside" the frame with Harman and the other soldiers, we are forced not just to more fully grapple with the events but with our own complicities (not to mention the moral injustice of their actions and the moral injustice of how their actions were read as isolated bad-apple events). The book has no photos, resisting the way the "obvious truth" of a photo can become a neat way to cut off the photographer *and* the viewer from implication in what's being registered.

And the book is full of some amazing insights about how these photos work, how photos generally work in relation to brutality and bodies; I am hesitant to "spoil" such details, which gather force and complexity as the narrative follows the timeline of events up to and then after the public outing of what was going on. I think this book stands up there with the work done by Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, W. J. T. Mitchell on the nature of truth and history in photographs.

Yet, unlike those works, Gourevitch & Morris' account is fully grounded in specific personal histories -- its analysis is not abstract, not a chilly intellectual exercise around the horrors: the moral force of the analysis comes from the empathetic attention to the testimony of these MPs, so that what we come to know about the photos is more fully charged with the moral failings of the war in Iraq and the anxious American approach to the war on terror. The images do not lose their impact, but rather become even more comprehensively meaningful; I feel like the book gave me better eyes for seeing and making sense of the horrors of this war. And as such it's an important complement to the excellent reporting by Thomas Ricks, George Packer, Seymour Hersh, and so many others. But I think what will make this book hold up even longer than those works is its attention to seeing, and how we use the image in the pursuit of and the flight from moral justice.

(I haven't even touched on the interesting fact that this book is a companion to a documentary film -- which I haven't seen, but the relations between the two "versions" will surely tease out even more interesting dilemmas around truth, history, narrative, image, and torture.

I'd also note that Morris' blog on photography at the NY Times is a different beast, but served as another excellent complement to this book: http://morris.blogs.nytimes.com/)