The Ghosts of the Iraqi prison scandal continue to haunt

Ghosts Of Abu Ghraib

on January 31, 2007 by Jay Antani
What lingers long after the appalling details in Ghosts of Abu Ghraib fade is a scientific study that director Rory Kennedy uses to frame the documentary. To justify and, more importantly, to discourage demonizing the perpetrators of the torturous acts that were committed in the namesake Iraqi prison, Kennedy harks back to a 1950s psychiatric study that showed that humans will repress their moral conditioning and inflict harm on a fellow human when ordered to do so by an authority figure. It's perhaps the most haunting portion of the film, showing footage of subjects forced to press a button that, so they've been told, sends an electric shock to a victim behind a wall. In spite of the invisible recipient's screams pleading for the torture to stop, we watch the study subjects, however reluctantly, go on pressing the button. Why? Because a guy in a dark suit told them, sometimes harshly, to do so.

It's the perfect analogy for Kennedy's documentary, which traces what happened within the corridors of the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 and how the public disclosure of the situation there via the internet led to a PR disaster for the U.S. government and military. In the words of both the soldiers stationed in Abu Ghraib and, more heart-wrenchingly, some of the prison's inmates, we get a picture of horror and humiliation carried out in the fog of war. Listening to testimonies of since-released Abu Ghraib prisoners, we feel anger not at the soldiers, the literal torturers, but at the monolithic military heads who created a set of conditions in which such behavior was possible and even encouraged.

Kennedy first details how the Bush administration set up the pieces for the Abu Ghraib imbroglio. Before initiating hostilities in Iraq, Bush's legal wolves sought to redefine the treatment of prisoners of war when our opponents were allegedly terrorists. By modifying the Geneva Convention and then incrementally whittling away the rights of those captured in combat, the documentary explains how, with impunity, the U.S. government got away with the summary imprisonment and torture of Iraqi nationals, and, frankly, anyone who it arbitrarily decided was an enemy.

In the thick of all the Iraq-themed documentaries to come out in the past few years, there's nothing illuminating enough in Ghosts to distinguish it from most others — nothing discernible in its attitude, filmic approach or in the information presented. As sober and polished as it is, it's ultimately a casualty of "outrage fatigue" — that gradual numbing of our sensibilities after we're struck over and over with the same shocks.

But, as a dissection of injustice and inhumanity, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is forthright and unsparing, and its message is a worthy one — that, by surrendering our conscience, by switching off our critical faculties and pledging unquestioned obedience to the powers-that-be, we're forever doomed to repeat the madness of Abu Ghraib. More than a political documentary, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is a psychology lesson in herd behavior and our baser instincts, one that we ignore at our own peril. Distributor: TBD
Director: Rory Kennedy
Screenwriter: Jack Youngelson
Producers: Rory Kennedy, Liz Garbus and Jack Youngelson
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 82 min.
Release date: TBD

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