August 2008

David Griffith


The Question of Authorship: Standard Operating Procedure by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris

Philip Gourevitch is an accomplished journalist, so it’s no surprise that he is able to weave the different accounts of what happened at Abu Ghraib prison into a complex moral tale. The characters are rich and dramatic. The themes of Standard Operating Procedure emerge organically and twine around one another in surprising ways, aided by the expert structure.

And yet, it feels like a shadow of the real thing -- in this case the hundreds of hours of interviews (or millions of words of transcripts) from Errol Morris’s documentary of the same name. Morris handed over his tapes and transcripts to Gourevitch (editor of the Paris Review and author of the powerful We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families) and then Gourevitch, with help from Morris, produced this book.

It’s this last fact I’m having a hard time getting over. With the moral and ethical calculus worked out ahead of time by Morris, it seems that Gourevitch simply had to cut and paste relevant lines from the transcripts into a Word document. What results is a story expertly told -- if you’re only going to read one book on Abu Ghraib, then this is it -- but one that feels surprisingly hollow. It seems there was nothing left for the author to discover; Gourevitch’s intelligence seems conspicuously absent.

Let me belabor for a moment this business of the collaboration between Gourevitch and Morris. I think it needs further parsing.

Just past the dedication page is “A NOTE ON AUTHORSHIP.” It reads:

This book is written by Philip Gourevitch. It is a collaborative work, which stems from a year and a half of continuous conversations with Errol Morris about the hundreds of hour of interviews he conducted and the thousands of documents he collected for his motion picture of the same title, Standard Operating Procedure. All speech quoted in the text is drawn from those interviews and documents, and a complete description of these sources appears at the back of the book.

This first sentence strikes me funny -- of course the book was written by Gourevitch. But the rhetoric is intentional -- “Authorship.” Do we need to be reminded of what an author does? 

Yes. In the aftermath of the James Frey and Margaret Wilson frauds, publishers want full disclosure of the nature of the book the reader is about to buy. In this case, with an author working from transcripts, there was probably no fear of embellishment or “misremembering” or even gaps between the “emotional truth” and what actually happened. But it seems there was some worry about representing in a forthright way who actually put words to paper. So we have this demonstrative first sentence telling us that the book “is written by Philip Gourevitch.” 

The next sentence attempts to clarify the nature of the collaboration by explaining there were “conversations” about the interviews. So, it’s safe to say that Morris did not write a word of this book, but he influenced its production by virtue of the questions he asked the soldiers and, one can imagine, his ability to contextualize some of the responses. 

Curiously, there is not a lot of physical description in the book. Perhaps Gourevitch dispensed with the usual expositional tics in order to zero-in on the words. It’s an effective technique, and it may even be ethical -- perhaps he felt that because he wasn’t there and was just watching the interviews on a video monitor or reading them on the transcript page that he could not in good conscience write as though he were. Whatever the benefits, the final effect is that the term “author,” while technically correct, does not seem to me wholly accurate; Gourevitch, in this case, is more of a scribe. 

Not that this is some ethical no-no, but the book loses something in the translation. Gourevitch’s insights -- if you’ve followed the saga of Abu Ghraib at all -- are underwhelming, studied, and not nearly worth the kind of praise being heaped upon the book. This simply isn’t literature of the order the flyleaf solemnly brags: Heart of Darkness, The Grand Inquisitor, the Inferno. Are they serious?

SOP is informative; it’s even “vexing,” as the pull quote on the black dust jacket says. But it’s not concerned with morality in the same way these canonical works are. I suppose the themes are there -- the weight of the conscience, the human tug of compassion, the struggle to remain virtuous while wandering, lost, in the moral wilderness. But it doesn’t involve us in the inner turmoil of the soldiers -- perhaps because the soldiers’ accounts do not exhibit or express much regret, or at least regret that seems genuine. Morris’s film is ultimately more moving and artful because of all the risks he takes as its author: the inclusion of the photos (curiously absent in the book -- another ethical decision?) in addition to the reenactments of the abuses, for example, or even the Danny Elfman score.

Gourevitch, by contrast, has limited himself to mere structural choices, the most important of which was to isolate the soldiers’ attitudes about the role photography played in life at Abu Ghraib. Sabrina Harman, who says that she would like to be a forensic photographer after serving, takes photos as “comfort,” to distance herself from the violence. Lynndie England says she posed for and took many photographs at the command of Charles Graner, her manipulative on-again-off-again boyfriend who, she leads us to believe, emotionally dominated her. And then there is Graner, the so-called ringleader of Tier 1A, a Desert Storm vet who says he took photos so that when he returned home he would have proof of what he’d been through. 

What’s most interesting about these various attitudes is the shared concern for the possible psychological damage caused by what they were seeing and doing while they were doing it, and the unanimous feeling that taking photos would, in the long run, help.

Gourevitch obviously sees this as The Supreme Irony of the Abu Ghraib Scandal -- in fact, that could be the subtitle of the book, since it seems everything builds to this revelation. 

Of course, it is ironic, but it is more disappointing to see such tragedy add up to irony. The soldiers’ views of photography are not unique in the Digital Age. But Gourevitch doesn’t make that connection. As a result, some of the moral urgency of the observation that none of the soldiers felt it was wrong to happily pose with dead bodies or photograph naked detainees simulating sex acts, is shunted, and Gourevitch’s claim that we are all somehow implicated by Abu Ghraib is never quite proven. He implies that the American people are like Othello, tricked by “oracular evidence” that only seems to prove guilt, but it doesn’t completely satisfy the terms of the ambitious claim that “[t]he stain [of Abu Ghraib] is inescapable and irreversible and it is ours, and if we have any hope of containing it and living it down it can only come from seeing it whole.”

Yes, Gourevitch helps us to see it whole, but we are far from seeing it as “our” problem. This would take going off-(trans)script with a bold, artful approach, pointing fingers at American love of porn and the troubling conflation of sex and violence therein, or the way that technology inures us to violence, making it seem like a performance. These are all issues that Morris’s film tackles through the multi-media mingling of interviews, reenactments, soundtrack and actual photos, but that Gourevitch’s book -- after all, he wrote it -- seems unwilling or unable to take. In the end, his Standard Operating Procedure is not the Inferno; it’s True Crime with literary intent.

Standard Operating Procedure by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris
The Penguin Press
ISBN: 1594201323
304 Pages