Errol Morris' Semantic Fog of War
20 years after the start of the Iraq War, two Errol Morris documentaries, 'Standard Operating Procedure' and 'The Unknown Known,' have a cumulative power.
“Are you saying stuff just happened?” — Errol Morris to Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known
In Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris’ 2008 documentary about the fallout from the notorious photographs of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004, Janis Karpinski, the former commander of the forces that operated Abu Ghraib and a network of other prisons in the country, talks about getting a visit from then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “Any trip out there by anybody included a trip to the torture chambers and the hanging facility,” says Karpinski, and it’s easy to see why. These were the rooms where the cruelty and evil of Saddam Hussein’s regime were most obvious, whistling with the ghosts of thousands murdered under his watch. But Karpinski notes that Rumsfeld abruptly stopped the tour there, choosing instead to retreat to a photo-op with the various American military men and women serving in the area. Rumsfeld, who was a famous stickler for the right language, was writing a pristine narrative for himself, one in which he’s overseeing valorous troops answering the barbarity of the enemy.
Hold that image in your head.
Later in Standard Operating Procedure, Morris goes deep into the process of putting together the thousands of photographs that emerged from Abu Ghraib, chiefly from the digital cameras of three different service members. The process wasn’t easy, because the dates on the cameras themselves were out of alignment, requiring investigators to use metadata to create a more accurate timeline. And as that timeline came together, it was clear that the images would overlap at certain moments, as different people took shots from different angles. That’s how movies work to tell stories, of course, and that’s how we can arrive at certain truths, when we can see an event from multiple perspectives and appreciate the full dimensionality of it.
So when Morris made 2013’s The Unknown Known, a documentary built around a conversation with Rumsfeld, he was completing the picture that started with Standard Operating Procedure. The same Rumsfeld who had done that abbreviated tour of Abu Ghraib before the damning photos were released was now defending his legacy a decade after the Iraq War started—long after he surely understood that he was the architect of this colossal failure.
Having Rumsfeld in both films gives them the cumulative and cohesive power that they can’t have on their own, and in a month that we’re acknowledging the 20th anniversary of a war we’ve strenuously attempted to forget, Morris’ two films deserve another look. The arrogance, incompetence and abuse that defined America’s misadventures in Iraq are already clear as day, but with the Rumsfeld of Standard Operating Procedure and The Unknown Known, Morris underlines a galling lack of accountability at the top.
Rumsfeld cutting his tour of Abu Ghraib short is the perfect metaphor for an administration that couldn’t square up to the mess it had made—and could even pretend it wasn’t happening at all.
The Reveal is a reader-supported newsletter dedicated to bringing you great essays, reviews and conversation about movies. While both free and paid subscriptions are available, please consider a paid subscription to support our long-term sustainability.
Neither Standard Operating Procedure nor The Unknown Known did much box office—as I wrote in a Guardian piece last week, the Iraq War was not a subject that anyone seemed eager to think about—and they also opened to more middling reviews than Morris’ work tends to receive. Yet both were underrated at the time, Standard Operating Procedure especially, and now have an historic importance in sorting out a war so murky that it’s still vexing to explain why it happened 20 years later. That murkiness is a victory for late Rumsfeld, of course, whose genius for obfuscation is the subject of The Unknown Known, and the defining military and media strategy for the entire war.
Asked point blank in The Unknown Known if the “interrogation rules” used on detainees in Guantanamo Bay had migrated over to Abu Ghraib, Rumsfeld scoffs while acknowledging that there were “uncertainties in the field” with regard to which techniques were permissible. (This is what gets Morris, who has said he doesn’t believe in “adversarial interviews,” to offer the rhetorical, “Are you saying stuff just happened?”) But at the beginning of Standard Operating Procedure, Karpinski recalls General Geoffrey Miller, the “interrogation guru” at Guantanamo, saying explicitly that he was going to “Gitmo-ize the operation.” That meant, in her words, “You have to treat prisoners like dogs. They have to know that you are in control.”
For the rank-and-file stationed as prison guards in this hellpit, that occasionally meant “softening up” prisoners for the hard site where the ones with potentially actionable intelligence were questioned. But before getting into those details, Morris keenly softens up the audience by giving us a sense of what it was like to serve there and the stressors that contributed to grave moral lapses—or at least serious errors in judgment.
For starters, there’s just the history of Abu Ghraib and the thousands tortured and murdered by Saddam’s regime within its walls. One MP, Javal Davis, describes the overwhelming stench of the place—a combination of urine, feces and body rot—and the mortar shelling that would pound the facility all day, as it became a natural target for insurgents. Then there was the confusion over the massive influx of prisoners, some of whom were simply fighting-age men swept off the street, held indefinitely without trial.
Under these conditions, prisoner abuse was tolerated if not actively encouraged, and the constant shelling, along with reports of inmates accused of killing Americans in the field, naturally led to extracurricular torture. And it could be argued that the photos that emerged from Abu Ghraib were the most memorably searing of the war, right up there with Saddam’s statue getting toppled in Firdos Square or the man himself emerging bedraggled from a rural hideaway. Morris gives context to all of most notable images: A female guard, Lynndie England, holding a naked prisoner by a leash; a snarling attack dog lunging at a terrified captor; a hooded man standing on top of a box with wires attached to his hands; and various inmates forced into humiliating sexual positions, including a human pyramid. Incredibly, those shots were just the tip of a very large iceberg.
The only clear rule that was being violated here—the one that led to multiple court martials, prison terms, and dishonorable discharges—is that no one was supposed to take photographs. That’s the difference between a seasoned political operator like Rumsfeld, who knew how to maintain plausible deniability, and the dozen or so young, inexperienced military police members who would become the “bad apples” of the bunch. The interview subjects in those photos are a bit cagey about their moral culpability here, given the obvious sadism of pulling faces against this horrific backdrop. But which is worse: Smiling and giving the thumbs-up sign next to a prisoner’s corpse or the fact that the prisoner died during a torture session and was being hidden in an ice-packed body bag before he could get smuggled out in a Weekend At Bernie’s scheme two days later?
The basic plea Morris is making here, suggested by Standard Operating Procedure’s title, is that many of the torments depicted in the photos were not out of bounds. We just weren’t supposed to see them. In an astonishing montage near the end of the film, Morris goes through a series of photographs and marks the ones that depict legitimate criminal acts and others that are merely “standard operating procedure” for a unit that was asked to prepare inmates for questioning through sleep deprivation, stress positions, and other “softening” tactics. Putting somebody into sexually humiliating positions, like the human pyramid or forced masturbation? Those are criminal acts. But the single most damning image out of Abu Ghraib, the Christ-like pose of a hooded man on the box with the wires attached to his fingers? That’s standard operating procedure. As were the many images of naked prisoners cuffed in their cells, because they weren’t being prepped for interrogation.
Higher up the food chain, reaction to the Abu Ghraib photos mirrored Captain Renault in Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” And perhaps the sheer grotesquerie of specific shots were a shock to higher-ups who expected certain undefined lines not to be crossed, as if some forms of torture were too gauche for the “enhanced interrogation” specialists at Gitmo. Standard Operating Procedure was dinged in some corners for the ethics of Morris paying his interview subjects—a no-no in journalism, but not uncommon in documentaries—but that felt like an effort to minimize the film’s impact, too, especially given how difficult it would be to argue that the money affected their testimony. The key fact is reserved for the very end of the film: “No one above the rank of Staff Sergeant has served time in prison for the abuses at Abu Ghraib.” Such was the cost of service.
For Donald Rumsfeld, the reputational damage caused by Abu Ghraib was substantial but not fatal, because President Bush wound up rejecting his brief, handwritten letter of resignation. This was a common and effective political strategy in the Bush administration: Stay the course. Never admit any mistakes. It won Bush/Cheney a second term in office, and it accounts for the stonewalling Rumsfeld does in The Unknown Known, which is built around a playfully combative conversation with Morris. The two talked for 33 hours over 11 separate sessions, and Rumsfeld goes to impressive lengths not only to avoid culpability for his mistakes, but to admit there were mistakes at all. The Iraq War was not over yet. Who’s to say how it might turn out?
The Unknown Known was understood as a spiritual sequel to The Fog of War, Morris’ superb 2003 documentary about another former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. The contrast between McNamara and Rumsfeld could not be more stark: While McNamara reflects on the “lessons” of modern warfare he gleaned as the failed architect of the Vietnam War, Rumsfeld shows absolutely no interest in introspection whatsoever. As a result, The Fog of War is the richer of the two films, because McNamara is a more honest and substantive person with a genuine interest in examining the mistakes of the past so they’re not repeated in the future. Of his 11 lessons, #8 is one that could never apply to Rumsfeld: “Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.”
Yet The Unknown Known wasn’t fully appreciated for all the things it didn’t do—that it couldn’t do. Though Morris pushes back against Rumsfeld a bit harder than he’s temperamentally inclined to do, the entire point of the film is that Rumsfeld is creating a rhetorical fog of war as a cover for his false assumptions and failed strategies. Throughout his time as defense secretary, Rumsfeld was often praised for his mastery of the Pentagon news conference, when he would glibly deflect hard questions with sarcasm and semantics, which the media would then admire as performance. After blowing off reports of chaos immediately following regime change in mid-April 2003—“Freedom’s untidy,” he said at the time—Rumsfeld could then hold court three months later by parsing the Pentagon dictionary definitions of “guerrilla warfare,” “insurgency” and “unconventional war.”
As with The Fog of War, Morris covers the full breadth of Rumsfeld’s life and career, which included stints as an Illinois congressman, various roles under Richard Nixon such as ambassador to NATO, a Chief of Staff gig for Gerald Ford, and two terms of defense secretary, one for Ford and the last for George W. Bush. (Rumsfeld’s sour relationship with George H.W. Bush underlines the Shakespearean nature of the Bush father-son dynamic.) Rumsfeld’s political caginess is the through-line here, as he was untouched by the Watergate scandal and the dysfunction under Ford, and, in The Unknown Known, he still flashes the Cheshire Cat grin of a man who knows he’s getting away with something.
But is it correct to say that he’s schooling Morris here? That’s the sort of meta-commentary that helped buoy Rumsfeld for five years, before the Iraq War became so deeply unpopular that his ineptitude could no longer be obscured. We should be disturbed by his arrogance and his “gift” for hiding behind language that seeks to do the opposite of clarifying. Morris does everything he can to support that point, from the visualization of “snowflakes,” Rumfeld’s term for the thousands of memos he’d sent out while in office, to the deceptive wordplay behind the film’s title, which is about what we know, what we don’t know, what we think we know that we don’t, and what we don’t know that we do know. That’s the opposite of accountability. Antithetical to wisdom. Horseshit, in other words.
With these two films, Standard Operating Procedure and The Unknown Known, Morris asked us not to get walled in by the language that made scapegoats of Abu Ghraib prison guards and shielded Rumsfeld from accountability. Men like Rumsfeld counted on news fatigue and political performance to distract from the truths on the ground. The waging of a seemingly endless war is proof of their success.
If these two films are being reevaluated (and for the record, I never thought they were anything short of excellent), I wonder if time will also be kinder to American Dharma. I recall that received a lot of pushback at the time of its (non-)release, with critics deriding Morris for giving Steve Bannon the attention.
For a similar double feature, i highly recommend The Fog of War followed by The Most Dangerous Man in America.