This week’s New Yorker features an astonishing profile of Sabrina Harman, “the woman behind the camera at Abu Ghraib.” Harman took hundreds of photos documenting the abuse of Iraqi prisoners—some showing her posing with dead prisoners, flashing a winning smile and a thumbs up. Her photographs were the primary evidence used in the courts-martial of several soldiers in her unit, including herself.
From the New Yorker article:
The M.P.s on the M.I. cellblock never learned the prisoners’ names … A prisoner who made a shank and tried to stab someone was Shank, and a prisoner who got hold of a razor blade and cut himself was called Slash. A prisoner who kept spraying himself and his cell with water and was always asking for a broom was Mr. Clean … There was a man they called Smiley, and a man they called Froggy, and a man they called Piggy. There was a man with no fingers on one hand, only a thumb, who was called Thumby—not to be confused with the enormous man called the Claw or Dr. Claw, because one of his hands was frozen in a half-clenched curl …
The nicknames made the prisoners both more familiar and more like cartoon characters, which kept them comfortably unreal when it was time to mete out punishment …
Sabrina Harman [said] she felt herself growing numb at Abu Ghraib, yet she kept being startled by her capacity to feel fresh shocks. “In the beginning,” she said, “you see somebody naked and you see underwear on their head and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty bad—I can’t believe I just saw that.’ And then you go to bed and you come back the next day and you see something worse. Well, it seems like the day before wasn’t so bad.”
Writer Philip Gourevitch and documentary filmmaker Errol Morris collaborated on the article, which captures both the surreal lunacy of the prison environment and, through Harman’s interview and excerpts of her letters home, a soldier’s struggle to make sense of her own involvement in the abuses. You couldn’t find a better match of the minds for telling the story of Abu Ghraib than these two. Gourevitch, best known for his award-winning book on the aftermath of genocide in Rwanda (We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families) and Morris, who won an Oscar for his film The Fog of War (about the chaos of military planning in Vietnam) are both masters of conveying how conditions of war can warp the human mind and spirit.
Morris’s new feature documentary Standard Operating Procedure, opening in theaters in late April, takes a closer look at Harman and other soldiers based at Abu Ghraib. Excerpts from the doc are posted on the New Yorker‘s website, and the trailer is spectacular. Gourevitch and Morris are co-authoring a book by the same name, due out this May.