September 27, 2008 -- “Ghosts of Abu Gharib” is a documentary that shines a light on dark deeds done to prisoners in Iraq and Cuba by their American captors. Noble in intent, the film falls short in locking up the facts on how the torture was authorized within the chain of command, which is the key contention. Was the torture done under director order of President Bush or Donald Rumsfeld, as the documentary claims, or was it just allowed to develop in a way that allows top officials to retain plausible deniability? That question remains unanswered.
The film opens with a famous psychology experiment in which subjects of the experiment are persuaded to administer lethal doses of electricity to people. It is an instructive experiment, but not as instructive as the experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo. Known as the 1971 “Stanford Prison Experiment,” student test subjects played the roles of prisoners and guards. According to the Wikipedia article, “The experiment quickly grew out of hand. Prisoners suffered — and accepted — sadistic and humiliating treatment from the guards. The high level of stress progressively led them from rebellion to inhibition. By experiment's end, many showed severe emotional disturbances ... Some prisoners were forced to go nude as a method of degradation, and some were subjected to sexual humiliation, including simulated homosexual sex.” The two week experiment was cut short after only six days.
What happened in the Stanford Prison Experiment also happened at Abu Gharib, but it was much worse because no one stopped it from happening and it went on for a much longer time. Just like the Stanford experiment, the same sorts of sexual humiliation, nudity and emotional disturbances resulted. These are the sorts of things that happen in unsupervised prison settings with untrained, inexperienced prison guards. According to the documentary, untrained personnel were told to “use their imagination” to psychologically soften up prisoners for interrogation. That is a recipe for disaster. The documentary concentrates on some of the people who were convicted of wrongdoing. Tellingly, none of the interrogators come forward to talk about what they did. None of the private security personnel came forward, either, just the military grunts at the bottom of the food chain.
It was evident to me, and many other people from the beginning of the Abu Gharib scandal that the people charged and convicted of crimes in this matter were mere scapegoats. The real villains in this matter are higher up in the chain of command. The documentary alleges this, but proof is scarce. Documents are produced which authorize wide latitude in the treatment of prisoners, much wider than conventional interpretations of the Geneva Conventions, which have long governed prisoner treatment. This explains some, but not all, of what happened at Abu Gharib. Did the highest levels of military command specifically authorize torture and murder, or did they just turn a blind eye to what was happening? Murder and torture have taken place at Abu Gharib and at Guantanamo, and probably elsewhere. This is not the behavior one expects from the Bush administration, which claims high moral authority, if not divine guidance, for everything it does. At the very least, the documentary points out willing neglect, lack of supervision and loose standards in the care and treatment of prisoners. At worst, the government engaged in torture, murder and negligent homicide.
As one would expect, this documentary includes some graphic violence and disturbing photos of nude, abused prisoners. A number of former prisoners are also interviewed for the film, including one Iraqi who tells the heartbreaking story of seeing his father die in prison after guards refused medical treatment for him. Abu Gharib is one of the many reasons the Iraq War did more harm than good in terms of America's leadership position in the world. This film rates a C+.
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