Sunday, July 1, 2012


In his brief and strange Nobel acceptance speech, William Faulkner said that humans would "endure" not simply because they wouldn't shut up (his image of a "puny inexhaustible voice" going on and on even as daylight sets forever on this world) but because they have "a soul," by which he meant something that suffered and struggled and showed compassion. Those "eternal verities," said Faulkner, gave meaning to what was otherwise a formless babble. Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris have accomplished, in Standard Operating Procedure, a virtuous act that emphasizes those same verities, by taking more than 200 hours of human talk—the interviews that form the basis of this book and the spine of Morris's film of the same name—and locating within them something like a human soul, a flawed and temporary beast that labors to know itself through its speaking.

I came to the book because of a short story I'm working on, part of my "Old Man" sequence, and the book did give me material to use (as well as a better understanding of how the terrorist prison in my fiction will not resemble the prison at Abu Ghraib). The bookflap oversells the text: "In a tradition of moral and political reckoning, and all-powerful storytelling, that runs from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Fyodor Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor to Normal Mailer's Executioner's Song . . . " Setting aside that Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor scene, part of The Brother's Karamazov, is largely about the failure of institutional Christianity, I don't think you can compare what Gourevitch has done, in distilling Morris's interviews, to the work of Conrad and Dostoevsky. But it's instructive that the publisher makes that comparison, because while the Mailer work is based on real events, the other two are fictional narratives, using broad social contexts as canvasses for imaginary tales. Gourevitch isn't building an imaginary narrative, but each person interviewed provides a different interpretive slant on what was popularly understood to be a set of incontrovertible facts. Not Gourevitch, but each soldier who entered Abu Ghraib is Marlow, the distorting witness, and our unnamed narrator, who sets the darkening scene for Marlow's account, and Conrad, a witness to a chaotic reality that he's attempting to shape into something meaningful.

Gourevitch and Morris provide the context in which these events occur, a horror for prisoner and soldier alike. Everyone is displaced from what they know, reliant on strangers, and living in unfit conditions. Even those who have power know that, in the words of Jesus, that power is given to them from above—yet what exactly that power consists of, they are uncertain, even as they wield it. It's a universe of competing moral systems, the fragile ones the soldiers have brought with them from their former lives, the supposedly rigid one the military gave them but that seems to have been voided, and the new one built of desperation and circumstance and the constant presence of death. Then the writers take us into the events themselves, the events within—and outside the frame of—the infamous photographs; they use the interviews to unpack multiple significant events, giving us, Rashomon-like, different angles from which to understand the meaning of what we've seen. No one has uncomplicated motives; no one is simply doing the wrong thing or the right thing. The soldiers know they've crossed lines, but no one corrects them, and often they're urged by military intelligence to continue or even amplify their questionable actions.

As has been often commented on, the people in the photographs, the people we can see in contact with the prisoners, were prosecuted, but higher-ups largely avoided consequence, and, most horribly, for me, the architects of the Iraq invasion—Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, many others—have gone not only unpunished for the unnecessary and ill-prosecuted war that created these scenarios, they remain, near as I can tell, unrepentant.

The book is an outstanding account of an individual, collective, and national descent into hell. Read it and be enlightened about what it really means to "endure."

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