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Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

1 rating: 3.0
Documentary of American Actions during the Prisoner Torture Scandal
1 review about Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib -- "We listened as his soul cracked"

  • Oct 13, 2010

Rory Kennedy directed a documentary on the events at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 and 2004. If humiliation, degradation, and torture make you ill, then you will likely have to watch this 70 minute documentary in pieces (if at all). The information and footage (and pictures) contain far more than was originally shown when the story was exposed and in the aftermath of this discovery.

The documentary starts with the famous Yale study devised by Dr. Stanley Milgram. This was a study to see how compliant people would be if told by someone perceived to be in authority to perform an inhumane act. The inhumane act was to give shocks of increasing voltage to a subject that could not be seen but who could be heard. The results showed that people were by and large extremely compliant when someone in authority presses the issue. Most test subjects sent shocks to the actors who screamed and begged as the voltage was increased just because they were told to do so. The study was done in 1961, just 16 years after the end of the Second World War and the brutality uncovered there. This study has always made me nauseous. It seems that Mr. Kennedy wanted to use this as the motif of what was to follow. I think this is an incomplete choice.

Ten years later Dr. Philip Zimbardo at Stanford created a prison scenario using students as prisoners and guards (chosen at random). In something like 36 hours “guards” and “prisoners” took to their roles and it was just a short time after that the guards began to use sadistic and humiliating methods on the prisoners just because they could. The situation degraded so quickly that a 2 week study only went on for 6 days. Each of these studies are linked because Dr. Zimbardo was a high school friend of Dr. Milgram (

The title of the essay comes from one of the detainees who spent several months, some of it being abused, in Abu Ghraib. The American counterpart to this chilling statement was from Israel Rivera (MP at Abu Ghraib). He said that once you got to a point of seeing the people as objects you went through a door and it was a door you could never come back through. What the more thoughtful MPs realized when they had time to consider their actions understood that they were able to do horrifying things to people without that much encouragement. The studies listed above explain that there is a darker side to all of us but most of us do not live in a stressful situation that would cause it to come out (assuming you don’t do it as a fetish—that is not at issue here).

There is no plot, so I will go through the documentary listing the events and trying to keep my ire at a minimum since this is a film review not an essay for the Writer’s Corner. This is not a story that needs a plot—a plot would actually tend to make what happened more disgusting.

In addition to Mr. Rivera, the documentary interviews the following members of an MP division that was supposed to be support staff elsewhere (they had never been trained to handle prison situations): Javal Davis, Ken Davis, Tony Lagouranis, Roman Krol, Sam Provance, Sabrina Harman, and Megan Ambuh. All but Mr. Israel and Mr. Krol received some time in a military jail (no more than six months) or a reduction in rank. This last action occurred also to Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski. She had been given control over all prisons but was not given enough trained personnel so she took the fall for a situation that there is likely no one who could have made successful. Each of these members of the military explains their situation plainly and clearly. They all admit their culpability. As I mentioned in my review for Iraq for Sale if even just 10% of what they say is true (and we know more than that small percentage is true) then what we learn is disgusting for reasons that all of us have decided for ourselves (unless you see that sort of treatment of mostly innocent people as just collateral condition of war).

The film shows pictures and some grainy film footage of the events that took place in the 1A section of Abu Ghraib. The men and women who had been involved in the incidents describe them. The two women are stone faced and slow to answer; this does not mean they are dissembling or anything (I think) but it is interesting. This is especially true when compared with the men. The men were expressive and openly confused in many cases about why they did what they did. I am unqualified as either a sociologist or an expert in the modern American military, but I couldn’t let this go without comment.

The reason this group (including Charles Grainer㬆 year sentence—and Lindy England—three year sentence) was put in a position for this to happen, in addition to total lack of training for the situation and a prisoner to guard ratio that would scare the most sanguine among us comes from well up the chain of command and includes one person well outside that chain.

Mr. Kennedy explains that it was essentially 3 people who made the abuses at Abu Ghraib not just possible but likely. The first was John Yoo, actually interviewed for the documentary. He was the deputy attorney general that helped draft the memo that “redefined” the Geneva Convention’s prohibition against torture. The convention bars severe pain or similar treatment. According to Mr. Yoo, the word severe is “ambiguous and vague.” So his memo allows stress positions, simulated drowning, sensory deprivation, and sensory overload (not to forget the psychological tortures specific to the culture with regards to dogs, nudity, and shame). That is part one.

Part two is former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. He allegedly got very angry, according to the film, that there was little useful information coming out of Iraq but tons coming out of Guantanamo Bay detention center. His solution was to send in the third part. He reassigned Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller (former overseer of Guantanamo Bay) to oversee prisons in Iraq.

Part three is Maj. Gen. Miller. His mission was to “Gitmoize” Iraq. This is a word that needs to be dropped from any consideration as an allowable word—that is huge coming from me. Mr. Yoo explained the definition of severe to fit his needs; his definition applied and was used. Maj. Gen. Miller used the anti-cultural techniques at Guantanamo Bay and brought those to Iraq.

Mix all parts equally (oddly enough that is the way a Molotov cocktail is made, equal parts vodka, oil, and gasoline). The untrained MPs in a hostile situation beyond their understanding is the rag fuse put in the neck of the bottle containing the cocktail.

What is missing? Yes, the flame. Dr. Milgram and Dr. Zimbardo explained how the flame would come into the scene. This strange recipe is not intended to forgive those who perpetrated the abuse, they have answered for that to some extent and will likely continue in one way or another. It is simply an explanation for the path to it. (I have the 1300 page The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib and I intend to finish it, but it is not an easy slog, by golly.)

The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib isn’t an exposé we already know about it. This film seems to be a tacit warning that, if care is not taken into consideration, any soldier or paramilitary or contractor can turn into a sadistic overseer. It is uncomfortable because it is impossible for me, at least, to sit on my sofa and think about what I would do in any of the three situations (the Yale study, the Stanford study, or being an MP at Abu Ghraib). I can stand at Mr. Rivera’s metaphorical door . . . but then what?

The documentary is well made and is as balanced as something as the kind can be—it is hard enough to justify torturing people who really do have information about an impending attack of a massive kind; it is impossible to explain torture of people who were just in the wrong place and had no information at all. The information isn’t totally new, but it is presented in a new way that leaves the viewer standing at this door. If that is more frightening to you than something like Saw then stay far away from this documentary.


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