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PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: just war theory, torture, moral responsibility

CHARACTERS: The key interviewees are as follows:

Charles Graner (specialist, mustache and glasses, boyfriend of Lynndie England, 10 year sentence)
Ivan Frederick (staff sergeant, eight year sentence)
Javal Davis (black sergeant, six month sentence)
Lynndie England (private first class, girlfriend of Charles Graner, three year sentence)
Megan Graner (specialist, guard, wife of Charles Graner, curley blonde hair)
Sabrina Harman (sergeant first class, short brown hair, took photographs, six month sentence)
Janice Karpinski (Brigadier General)
Roman Krol (military intelligence, threw nerf football at prisoner, ten month sentence)
Jeremy Sivits (specialist, MP, “friendly to everyone”, relatives fought in Vietnam, one year sentence)
Tim Dugan (contract interrogator, dark brown hair and goatee)
Brent Pack (army specialist agent criminal investigator, analyzed photographs, light brown hair and goatee)

(For images of interviewees see

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR ERROL MORRIS: Gates of Heaven (1978), The Thin Blue Line (1988), A Brief History of Time (1992), Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (1997), Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (1999), The Fog of War (2003)

SYNOPSIS: "Standard Operating Procedure" provides an examination of the unintended consequences of the Iraqi war with a focus on events at Abu Ghraib prison which began to appear in global media in 2004. The prison quickly became notorious for the shocking photos of the abuse and torture of terror suspects by military men and women. Ultimately, it is the story of soldiers who believed they were defending democracy but found themselves plunged into an unimagined nightmare” (promotional synopsis). “I think of the film as a nonfiction horror movie. The imagery is designed to take the viewer into the moment the photographs were taken, as well as to evoke the nightmarish, hallucinatory quality of Abu Ghraib” (Interview with Errol Morris).


1. Which of the participants in the Abu Ghraib offenses seemed to be the most or least worse among the group?

2. What were some of the justifications that the prisoners offered for their conduct, and do any of them lessen their responsibility?

3. What responsibility did Brigadier General Janice Karpinski feel that she had for the Abu Ghraib offenses?

4. During the film Sabrina Harman commented several times that she took the photos as proof that the U.S. Army was doing things that she felt were morally objectionable. Is this claim credible, and, if so, does it justify her participation?

5. One of the convicted soldiers said that the real torture took place by the interrogators, and the Army guards were just psychologically wearing the prisoners down for interrogation. Is there any merit to this?

6. The beating death of the Iraqi prisoner was attributed to a group of Navy SEAL sailors, none of whom were convicted. What does this suggest to you?

7. At the close of the movie, contract interrogator Tim Dugan goes through the list of actions at Abu Ghraib and indicates which were criminal and which were standard operating procedure. Should any that he designated as standard operating procedure have been criminal?

8. Sabrina Harman stated the following about the hooded prisoner on the box: “I knew he wouldn’t be electrocuted. So it really didn’t bother me. I mean, it was just words. There was really no action in it. It would have been meaner if there really was electricity coming out, and he really could be electrocuted. No physical harm was ever done to him. . . . He was laughing at us towards the end of the night, maybe because he knew we couldn’t break him.” The hooded prisoner has become a symbol of the Abu Ghraib abuses. Does Harman’s account alter how you think about the hooded prisoner incident?

9. A philosophy essay by Nancy E. Snow titled “How Ethical Theory Can Improve Practice: Lessons from Abu Ghraib” states the following: “Abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq confront us with the question of how seemingly ordinary soldiers could have perpetrated harms against prisoners. In this essay I argue that a Stoic approach to the virtues can provide a bulwark against the social and personal forces that can lead to abusive behavior. . . . that character formation drawing on Stoic values can provide soldiers with the inner resilience to resist the situational factors that press them to unwarranted aggression.” Is this realistic for young soldiers, such as those depicted in the film with limited life experience and a low socioeconomic background?

10. Did Morris’s interrotron interviewing technique have a special how you as a viewer related to the participants and their stories? That is, would your reaction have been the same if it was filmed in standard interview format?


Standard Operating Procedure is both a shocking and appalling movie dealing with the prisoner abuse scandal at an Iraqi prison and interrogation center at Abu Ghraib. The movie was based around a group of lower-level military officials who were, not necessarily blameless, but were used as scapegoats when the unorthodox means of punishment and interrogation was leaked to the media. The prisoners were physically abused, sexually abused (including sodomy), and even homicide (in which they were told to cover up). The main theme comes to us as a philosophical question which asks us when integration turns into torture. (Something our government says it does not do) and a second philosophical question is when is it right to disobey orders for what is morally right? The U.S military officers who took part in these abhorrent acts of torture do bear some blame; however, they were following orders from their commanders in most instances. For example, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski was demoted to Colonel due to her part, even when she denied knowledge of the abuses, and said that the interrogation was authorized. She claimed that she was kept aloof of what was going on behind closed doors; such has the apparent homicide of one prisoner, Manadel al-Jamadi. This homicide cover-up does seem to cross the line in ethical military procedure, as well has the sexual positions the prisoners had to perform while smiling officers stood by. The integration-torture is supposedly done in order to save the lives of the soldiers in the field, but Army Special Agent Brent Pack questions the reliability of these confessions given under duress. Standard Operating Procedure makes us think about the morality in war and the consequences of going along with the status quo. — A.V.

Standard Operating Procedure was crafted with near perfection. When these photos first reached national networks, the coverage was nonstop, and the photos of humiliated Iraqis and grinning American soldiers embarrassed me. My father spent twelve years in the military and fought in Desert Storm. I still remember watching dozens of helicopters land on the base at Fort Campbell, Kentucky and seeing my father finally come out of one (I was three years old). Because of my experiences, I want to feel sympathy for these young men and women who are far from their families. After seeing these photos on television, I was angered and horrified by what these people had done and seemed to enjoy. Standard Operating Procedure was excellent because it gives identities to both the prisoners and the soldiers. Morris manages to show these disturbing images while revealing the soldiers as normal people. He wants his audience to get to know these men and women instead of judging them. He humanizes the soldiers without alleviating their wrongs. The “Interrotron” interviewing technique was important in this film. It seems as if the interviewees are talking to me and want me to understand their sides of the story. The pictures, however, don’t lie, and Morris does not sugarcoat the heinous acts done to the Iraqis in the prison. Janice Karpinski, the Brigadier, especially moved me because she did not hide the pain and anger she felt about being relieved from duty. This film shows the Abu Ghraib photos alongside the stories behind them and gives both the Iraqis and soldiers a bit of humanity, something the news media was wont to do. — C.R.

Standard Operating Procedure was the very first time I have seen any documentaries on the prisons in the Middle East. This was a very shocking film to watch. I made me really sad some of the times. The males really used their female counterparts in some very negative ways. Every person who was there knew everything that was going on. None of them wanted to do anything to help the prisoners, other than taking pictures. These pictures in no way, shape, form, or fashion helped do anything but cause trouble. These were the main reasons of why the people in charge got into trouble. There are no morally correct reasons why those officers did what they did. They were simply told to do something and they never questioned their authorities. They all said that this was a part of their everyday routine and that this was normal activity. They never seemed to have a conscious while they were torturing these prisoners. Then when it was all said and done, they wanted to blame each other. No one never stepped up to the plate and took responsibility for their actions. I think every last one of them should have had to answer for their parts in the dehumanization of these prisoners. Some of the officers made me feel sorry for them and what they were being made to do. I would recommend this movie to the general public; so that they can see how the government spends our taxpaying dollars on these run down insufficient prisons and the many cover up stories. — C.J.

Standard Operating Procedure was an excellent movie. It forced me to see things from the point of view of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib. Initially I was surprised that the directors had decided to interview the soldiers. These were people demonized by the press for their abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners. However, once the story was told from their perspective things seemed different. A person might get in trouble simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One soldier was told to move a prisoner into an uncomfortable position forcing the prisoner to remain standing. Is this really torture? I can understand why some might say it is. But whatever abuse perpetrated by the people in this film, it is clear that their commanding officers must have known about what was going on. They should have been on trial not the people at bottom. Before watching Standard Operating Procedure I believed that Lyndee England had acted out of sadism. But while watching it I couldn’t detect any trace of sadism in her. Instead she seemed to have acted the way she did for several reasons. Her actions seemed to be caused by boredom, extremely unusual norms and a desire to please her older boyfriend. It was shocking not just that she did those horrible acts but that she allowed him to photograph her. People who commit acts of violence tend not to take pictures of their crime unless they believe they will never be caught or punished. This seems to say volumes about the environment at Abu Ghraib. The Abu Ghraib scandal is reminiscent of the Stanford Prison experiment in which guards quickly turned on prisoners in a controlled environment. That experiment was stopped about halfway through since the volunteers were starting to experience psychological trauma. The “guards” were coming up with ways to psychologically intimidate and harass the “prisoners” even though they had to follow certain rules and were being monitored. This is widely regarded as one of the most unethical experiments in science. Yet it must pale in comparison to what trained military personnel can do in an environment free of rules or monitoring. — N.T.

Standard Operating Procedure: This movie demonstrates that our government never learns lessons in history. When humans are thrown into intense violent, scary situations they do not always make the correct decisions. This movie illustrates the varying degrees of human response to violent situations. The film reveals the culpability of the American government in the Iraq War violence, especially against prisoners of war; but the film also reveals the strains American service men and women face while serving their country. This film portrayed multiple levels of society facing the use and response of violence in a hostile environment. These men and women represented a cross section of society in America and this film shows all humans have a tendency for violence. Even those soldiers that stood on the sidelines allowed the violence and that makes them guilty. This film made me see both sides of this issue though; because the interviews shed light on the human side of the soldiers. The interviews especially portrayed the soldiers as being caught up in war and their duty to their country; they all served for an honest reason and had to make tough decisions. Morris’ style is perfect for this documentary; it brings the audience in touch with the interviewees. The emotions on the soldiers faces showed the strain of the experiences they endured. I feel that this movie and especially the interview techniques of Errol Morris tell the human side of war; even if that human side has blemishes. — L.T.

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