There aren’t many instances where I get to write about the meeting of the literary and political worlds, but TPM’s book discussion of Philip Gourevitch’s Standard Operating Procedure is one of them. Gourevitch has his feet in both worlds as both the editor of The Paris Review and a journalist who wrote an excellent book on the Rwandan genocide, and makes him well suited to flesh out the varied stories and narrative strains the make up the abuses at Abu Ghraib .
What makes this book discussion more interesting than the usual fare is the inclusion of poet/memoirist Mary Karr (of The Liars Club fame) as part of the discussion and that fellow poet/memiorist Nick Flynn shows up in the comments section to chastise Gourevitch for not including more Iraqi voices in his account. Gourevitch responds that part of the reason for not explicitly including the words of those Iraqi’s tortured at Abu Ghraib was his focus on the events as a particularly American story–that the abuses at Abu Ghraib, as Gourevitch argues, were not inevitable, and were the result of tacit (and sometimes explicit) support of American officials. This is a story about the policy of torture.
Flynn’s concern is common one among writers: who to include and how to tell the story without distorting the truth or privileging one narrative over another. But it is, I think, a secondary concern here, and one too focused on the (laudable) goal of including voices that were silenced or otherwise appropriated in the media swarm that followed Abu Ghraib. SOP‘s major contribution seems to be the way it examines how the decisions and policy of the Bush administration translated to actions at Abu Ghraib, as Matt Steinglass observes :
What’s really powerful about this story is that it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever seen for examining the way that policy decisions translate into events. Think, for instance, of Jane Mayer’s amazing article for The New Yorker on Alberto Mora. The hardest thing to do in journalism is to draw connections between complex and fuzzy management and policy decisions, bureaucratic political maneuvering and the adoption of one or another document as official policy, and the consequences such documents and management tactics have for the accomplishment of an organization’s mission. The reporting that’s been done on how abuses at Abu Ghraib (and Bagram and Guantanamo) stemmed from the evolution of US torture policy has been probably the best, most gripping organizational reporting I’ve read.
I’m calling this one for Gourevitch because (as Karr also notes) a book that widens the narrative scope to all accounts is a different, though important, book.
Also in torture reporting: Spencer Ackerman goes to the Amnesty Guantanamo protest in DC and talks with former army chaplin CPT. James Lee, who was arrested, and eventually released, for suscpision of espionage.