The Ad Hoc Behavioral Laboratory

Photo: Courtesy of HBO

All we have to do is sit there, feeling queasy. Documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy has done the hard work for us. For the first time we get Abu Ghraib in the round, from every appalling perspective, including hindsight. As cameras wander the corridors of the Iraqi prison, Kennedy shows us the infamous candid photographs. She spells out the international treaties and conventions that were violated. She explains sensory deprivation, nudity, dogs, chains, sandbags, Nerf ball, simulated fellatio, the pyramids, “The Vietnam” torture tableau, and electrocution. She interviews, on camera, four MPs who were court-martialed for abusing prisoners; four witnesses to that abuse; several detainees who suffered that abuse; the one military policeman who blew the whistle (and whose cover was blown by Donald Rumsfeld himself, on national television); a rear admiral and a Navy lawyer; authors of books of torture and terror; Janis Karpinski, the Army Reserve brigadier general in command of the prison; and—by far the scariest figure of all: a casuist, a pedant, of other people’s pain—John Yoo from the Office of Legal Counsel in the George Bush Department of Justice.

On the one hand, we have the rationale of the administration and the military-intelligence agents who kept upping the ante on permissible coercion. The need for intel about the insurgency was so great, and the paucity of it so aggravating, that the Donald decided to “Gitmoize the situation” by transferring Major General Geoffrey Miller from Guantánamo Bay to create another “ad hoc behavioral laboratory” in Iraq. Geneva niceties be damned; the limits of “severe” interrogation were redefined to extend to just barely short of organ failure. All’s fair in holy war. These detainees weren’t prisoners of war, anyway; they were “unlawful combatants” and “the lowest scum of the earth.” We could do whatever we wanted to them because Al Qaeda had already broken all the rules. One soldier, new to Iraq, was actually laughed at when he asked for an explanation of “the rules of engagement.” There were no rules. A horrified witness described the atmosphere as “Apocalypse Now meets The Shining.”

On the other hand, military people have a heavy investment in rules against torture, not only because we want to protect our own POWs from reciprocal brutalities, as a former general counsel for the Department of the Navy explains here, but also because war is so terrible that it desperately requires any limits anyone can agree on, any gesture toward dignity, any mitigation suggesting civilized scruple. There isn’t even persuasive evidence that torture makes its victims tell their secrets, instead of saying whatever we want to hear. From an international leader in the cause of human rights and democratic values, the U.S. has turned into an unaccountable bully. And how nimbly quick we were to authorize our own bully behaviors, as if the 300-page Patriot Act had already been written and just waited in a closet for the appropriate occasion to pop out and tap phones, open mail, ditch habeas corpus, and unleash the warrantless shadow ministries to ransack libraries, bookstores, and hard drives.

And there is a third hand. Look into the troubled eyes of these abusers and listen to how they describe the selves who not only played such S&M games but took digital snapshots of them—“normal,” “lost,” “numb,” “surreal,” “robot,” “somebody else,” “just business,” “no big deal,” “monster.” These young people were clearly in over their heads. With no training whatsoever, 300 of them were expected to guard 6,000 prisoners in vile conditions. Their higher command encouraged them to believe that no holds were barred. If the photos hadn’t come to light, there would have been no fuss at all. As usual, courts-martial were mostly restricted to small fry low down on the food chain of command; we can only dream that the higher-ups, the disingenuous Howdy Doodys who ordained such brutishness, will be punished in a special way. (Kafka’s harrow comes to mind.) But the real lesson of Ghosts is that torture coarsens the torturer. We end up screaming at ourselves.

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib
Directed by Rory Kennedy. HBO. February 22 at 9:30 p.m.

The Ad Hoc Behavioral Laboratory