Late in the summer of 2003, former senior administrators of American correctional institutions were busy refurbishing the cellblocks at Abu Ghraib. Saddam Hussein’s prison had been a symbol of torture and abuse, and after the U.S. Army routed the tyrant’s forces, American officials set out to remake the prison in our own image. That was the plan: Instead of dungeons and torture, there would be a modern corrections facility, guided by humanitarian values and the rule of law. That was the plan.

The reality of Abu Ghraib was something else entirely: thousands of people swept up in raids because they happened to be “in the vicinity” of attacks against Americans; squalid conditions without attention to our own protocols of prisoner care; a desperate attempt to squeeze information out of people who just might know something about insurgent attacks; soldiers without training guarding inmates whose reasons for being at Abu Ghraib ranged from psychosis to crime, from nationalism to attempts at terrorism. What happened to the plan?

Many of us think we know about this reality because of the images of prisoner abuse that became part of international popular culture after “60 Minutes II” and New Yorker exposes in the spring of 2004. The photographic images of torture and humiliation were especially shocking because it seemed clear that they were taken by people who saw nothing unusual in what they depicted. Standard operating procedure -- the young men and women circulating images via the Internet were just documenting their late nights on the outskirts of Baghdad, much as they might have documented parties on their MySpace pages.


There are no photographs in “Standard Operating Procedure,” a book that Philip Gourevitch has written with filmmaker Errol Morris. Morris has recently released a documentary of the same name, much of it based on extensive interviews with key participants in the Abu Ghraib scandal. Morris made his voluminous interviews available to Gourevitch, editor of the Paris Review and author of the acclaimed account of genocide in Rwanda, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families” (full disclosure: I published an essay by Gourevitch in a volume that I also co-edited). Morris is interested in the reconstruction and reenactment of past events, and he provocatively blurs the boundaries between history and fiction, truth and fantasy. Gourevitch is interested in the aftermath of events, in how people deal with overwhelming occurrences that have come to define their present and future. In “Standard Operating Procedure,” he weaves Morris’ interviews, court transcripts and journalists’ accounts into a compelling story of a prison plan gone wrong.

The absence of photos in this book is crucial for Gourevitch to escape from the framed images that defined Abu Ghraib. “Photographs cannot tell stories,” he writes. “They can only provide evidence of stories, and evidence is mute; it demands investigation and interpretation . . . an invitation to look more closely.” He is a master of looking more closely, which means both more sympathetically and more critically. He introduces us to some of the main characters at the “hard site,” an interrogation center, at Abu Ghraib. We hear accounts from Joe Darby and Sabrina Harman, from Tim Dugan and Jeremy Sivits, soldiers who were involved in the photographing and have stories to tell. And through the transcripts, leaks and other reports we follow the narrative of the unhappy couple at the heart of Tier 1A: Cpl. Charles Graner and Pfc. England.

Graner’s charismatic violence was a powerful attraction on the cellblock. Military Intelligence made Graner their “go-to guy” because of his willingness to do whatever it took to “soften up the prisoners.” All he could see was that he had become an important person, and his romance with Lynndie England became another sign of that importance.

The photographs, especially those of Graner and England, became the news story four years ago. The images were the chief evidence used to indict them and a few others -- proof of the evil deeds of a few “bad apples,” not the administration behind the orders. The photographic frames became the limits of criminal responsibility -- the buck stopped at the “hard site” at Abu Ghraib -- but they cannot contain our shame or indignation for what happened on our watch. “The pictures only show you a fraction of a second,” notes Spc. Megan Ambuhl. “You don’t see forward and you don’t see backward. You don’t see outside the frame.” Gourevitch’s account takes us outside the frame, giving us the chance to understand the dynamic of the unit in which violence and romance were SOP. Ambuhl would replace England as Graner’s lover (and then become his wife) -- though Gourevitch says romance among soldiers in a combat zone is forbidden, we learn it is quite common. The book shows how lawlessness became the law in Iraq, and how “the absence of a code was the code at Abu Ghraib.”

“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. *