Last Thursday I saw Errol Morris’ “Standard Operating Procedure,” an incredibly powerful documentary of the war crimes committed at Abu Ghraib, and the photographs thereof, put into context by the soldiers who were there. (Morris also made the great documentaries “The Fog of War” and “The Thin Blue Line.”) The most striking part of the “S.O.P.” film, aside from the wincing photos of torture and humiliation, is the ‘good kid’ quality of the participants and their bland, almost casual, recitations of how they helped to cause other human beings to suffer greatly sure, some knew it wasn’t right, but they had been ordered to “soften up” the prisoners for interrogation. It apparently never entered their minds that they were committing the same sorts of tortures that caused Iraqis to loathe Saddam Hussein and were used as a justification by the Bush Administration for the invasion of Iraq. The commentary by these young kids, most of them barely of drinking age and without training in interrogation, exudes Hannah Arendt’s oft-quoted line about the “banality of evil” and leaves several questions looming like large dark shadows over the entire farce of justice that sentenced these noncoms to prison terms: Why wasn’t anyone above the rank of E-7 (Staff Sergeant) jailed, especially US Army Col. Thomas Pappas, who was officially in command of interrogations at Abu Ghraib? (Pappas was forced to pay back $8,000 in wages and received a reprimand, but no criminal charges were ever filed.) Why was Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, former commander of Gitmo, allowed to retire honorably, since the abuse of prisoners apparently began when he took over Abu Ghraib? Why weren’t any senior members of the Bush Administration ever held accountable for the Abu Ghraib scandal? And these are just a few of the more obvious questions.
In case you aren’t familiar with the ugly and varied dimensions of these tortures at ‘Abu G,’ as a soldier in the film called it, here is a summary culled from US government and Red Cross reports (.pdf file):
“Soldiers tore out detainees toenails, administered electric shocks, beat detainees with hard objects (including pistols and rifles), slapped and punched detainees, kicked them with knees or feet on various parts of the body (legs, sides, lower back, groin), forcefully pressed detainees faces into the ground by stepping on their heads, purposely exposed detainees to severe heat and sun for prolonged periods, and forced detainees to stay in ‘stress’ positions (kneeling, squatting, standing with arms raised over their heads) for hours at a time.” 
“At least two detainees were forced to sit or lie down on blistering surfaces, causing severe burns that resulted in large crusted lesions and, in one case, three months hospitalization, the amputation of a finger and large skin grafts.”
The perverse sexual humiliation of the prisoners isn’t noted here, but it’s apparent in the photographs, and also not mentioned is the fact that at least one man was murdered as a result of torture, Manadel al-Jamadi. Al-Jamadi died just hours after his capture from abuse by Navy SEALs and torture by CIA personnel.
These are all war crimes according to the Geneva Conventions and US law, and, naturally, among the major reasons the Iraqi people hate our guts.
That brings us to Iraq’s current hero Muntazer al-Zaidi, the 30-year-old TV journalist who took the mild recourse of tossing his shoes at George W. Bush during Junior’s surprise visit to Iraq in December of 2008. (To the profound regret of many Americans, our first President installed by the Supreme Court managed to dodge both pieces of al-Zaidi’s footwear.)
Al-Zaidi was sentenced to three years, but was released in less than one year, ostensibly due to his good record, but probably because his continued confinement had become a P.R. nightmare for the shaky remains of the al-Maliki government.
Watch Morris’ documentary on Abu Ghraib, think about how you would feel if this were done to Americans, and then congratulate al-Zaidi on the forbearance and thoughtfulness of his words that follow:
Why I Threw the Shoe
I am no hero. I just acted as an Iraqi who witnessed the pain and bloodshed of too many innocents
by Muntazer al-Zaidi
September 18, 2009
(Originally published in The Guardian/UK)
I am free. But my country is still a prisoner of war. There has been a lot of talk about the action and about the person who took it, and about the hero and the heroic act, and the symbol and the symbolic act. But, simply, I answer: what compelled me to act is the injustice that befell my people, and how the occupation wanted to humiliate my homeland by putting it under its boot.