There's an infamous essay about David Cronenberg's first film, Shivers, which was financed in part by Canadian tax dollars: "You Should Know How Bad This Film Is; After All, You Helped Pay For It." A paraphrase of that title rang in my mind as I watched the Sundance documentary Ghosts of Abu Ghraib: We should know how bad this situation is; after all, we've all helped pay for it. Director Rory Kennedy combines interviews, photos and on-site footage from Iraq's infamous prison -- which went from being Saddam Hussein's execution factory to being the site of an American scandal -- to make a potent piece of documentary filmmaking that demonstrates a clear chain of lawless, inhuman cruelty and corruption that went from the gleaming conference tables of the Oval Office and Pentagon to the blood-spattered, shit-smeared halls of a prison in Iraq.
Kennedy's methodology is meticulous and human -- many of the ex-service people who served time for the documented prisoner abuses captured in the infamous photographs speak on-camera about what they did, and why; several Iraqis are interviewed as well. Soldiers talk about how superior officers gave them minimal or conflicting guidance on how much pressure was too much pressure to induce captives to talk; ex-captives of Abu Ghraib talk about how, for example, they watched as their father was beaten so severely it lead to respiratory illness, which led to death -- with medical attention denied every time it was begged for by a weeping son.
Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is only 'liberal' insofar as that phrase suggests a basic level of human decency and kindness; more importantly, Kennedy reminds us that in a war on terror, bad investigatory work is more dangerous than no investigatory work at all. It's possible that one or two of the captives at Abu Ghraib were culpable terrorists; after pictures of them being assaulted by dogs, forced to simulate male-on-male fellatio or threatened with electrocution made it into the world media, it's far more probable that those inflammatory images inspired dozens, hundreds, thousands of young men and women to take up arms against the nation-state responsible.
Most of the time, we see torture in movies like Hostel or Turistas -- we like to imagine torture as the work of foreign psychopaths, not as a cornerstone of foreign policy. But as we watch Donald Rumsfeld dance around the language of the Geneva Convention's proscription against torture, it's clear that the entire administration is complicit in a colossal enterprise of hideous cruelty -- and if Bill Clinton can be nearly impeached over parsing " ... it depends on what the meaning of what the word 'is' is. ..." then why hasn't George W. Bush faced impeachment for allowing his direct advisors to play a similar game with the phrase "severe pain?" The Geneva Convention prohibits torture that results in loss of bodily function, organ function or death; the Bush administration made a high-level decision to figure out how far they could go, and how long they could torture people, before those three things happened. Anyone who thinks this is an acceptable use of American resources is invited to contemplate being locked in a room with a group of people who can do anything they want to you, for as long as they want to, as long as it doesn't result in death or organ failure or a crippling injury.
It's an ugly thing to imagine. It's an uglier thing to see. Several Army higher-ups referred to the Abu Ghraib photos as capturing nothing more than "Animal House on the night shift." The film systematically destroys that glib evasion. The Deltas snuck a horse into Dean Wormer's office; they weren't beating people until they died, denying them sleep, threatening their wives and children. And Ghosts of Abu Ghraib also brings home another sad legacy of the Bush administration: There's no better way to get horrible results than asking people to do the impossible with no resources. At Abu Ghraib, 300 guards watched 6,000 prisoners; the worst of the worst, the 1,000 prisoners kept in the 'hard site' at the prison were watched by as few as six or seven guards. Watching Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, we see how under-paid, under-supported people in their teens and twenties wound up going to jail for their actions; we also see how the higher-ranking civilian and military leaders who set their tasks and objectives avoided prosecution, earned promotions, stayed on in their jobs and positions as lesser functionaries paid for carrying out their wishes.
Over and over we're told that "the gloves are off" in the fight against America's enemies. Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is an essential declaration of the truth behind that cliché: Taking the gloves off is no guarantee the job will get done; it is a guarantee that you'll get your hands dirty. I can only hope that as many people as possible can see Ghosts of Abu Ghraib before April 15 and tax time roll around: This is what we have paid for with money, this is what American soldiers will pay for in blood, this is what our children will pay for as nations around the world perceive that America has gone from a defender of liberty to a swaggering thug. This is what Ghosts of Abu Ghraib shows us: lost lives, lost honor and fascist brutality in the name of democracy and freedom.