[Editor’s Note: Errol Morris’s latest true-life film project is the Netflix series “Wormwood.” Morris gave this May, 2011, interview even though he had no product to promote at the time.]
Errol Morris makes must-see documentaries, among them The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure. Morris’s films patiently, evenhandedly and deliberately sift through given perceptions and assumptions to unlock core truths of events that have been steeped in conflict.
In the wake of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, Morris spoke to the Skeeve about the ineffectual barbarity of torture, vagaries of memory, and why even the abuses at Abu Ghraib don’t nullify the progress of human civilization.
“If you look at the progress of civilization, we are trying to move toward less barbarism rather than toward more.”
The Skeeve: The Obama White House, when they revised the report of Bin Laden using his wife as a human shield, blamed false details on “the fog of war.” What is the difference between that use of the phrase and yours?
Errol Morris: Memory is a funny thing. When the government gives one account and then follows it with a second account, and a third account, the immediate suspicion is that they’re trying to manipulate people by providing a false account of what actually has transpired. The account may be false, but not intentionally false.
A lot was going on and different people are giving an account of what was going on. It is probably second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth hand. We can hardly know how many people have been involved in passing that account from where it really happened to the newspapers and the radio.
Keep in mind that if you ask five or six different people to give an account of an event, you will come up with five or six different accounts of that event. There is a Rashomon effect—people’s natural tendency to see things, experience things, describe things differently.
“Fog of war” is something different. In the heat of battle, people may lose sight of their objectives—and even may lose sight that there is no clear objective. Regardless, I do not see conspiracy written all over this.
The Skeeve: To what degree is torture intended to punish, frighten and dehumanize as opposed to extract information?
Errol Morris: I don’t think that torture is the best way to extract information. This is something fairly well known. There was a legendary Nazi interrogator, Hans Scharff, who befriended the soldiers he was interrogating. In my own documentary work, adversarial interviewing doesn’t particularly interest me. I adopt a completely different approach of trying to get people to talk at length, and to talk freely, and to reveal something about themselves. Listening.
The Skeeve: Why does this assumption that brute force can bring about the desired result keep coming up?
Errol Morris: People like hard-ass solutions. They like the idea of showing people who’s boss and what’s what. Let’s turn the question around: If the goal really is to extract information, then they’re not going about it in a very good way. If the idea is to show who’s boss, if the goal is to brutalize and dehumanize, torture is the way to achieve that objective.
The Skeeve: Do you see a correlation between standard policies in domestic U.S. prisons and the abuses at Abu Ghraib?
Errol Morris: The situation in American prisons is bad—in some places, worse than others. We have, per capita, a high percentage of our population behind bars—itself a disturbing, problematic statistic. But I don’t think there is an exact parallel to be made. I believe the situation in Iraq was worse than in most U.S. prisons. There’s a war going on.
The Skeeve: Considering all the common and accepted barbarities of war, why is torture wrong?
Errol Morris: Torture as a general policy goes against all of our beliefs. There is no justice and fairness. One can always find the counter-example. People are very fond of ticking atomic bombs, and the one guy who has the answer that can save the planet, but most situations are not like that.
We’ve instituted various rules of war not because war isn’t barbaric, but to make it perhaps less barbaric than it could be. In general, if you look at the progress of civilization, we are trying to move toward less barbarism rather than toward more.
[Torture] is a slippery slope that leads to greater and greater abuses. The purpose of those Geneva Conventions was to avoid abuse, and now we seem to be going backward.
The Skeeve: So does the fact that our barbarism is less horrific than it was before show some hope for human progress?
Errol Morris: I think we can take some comfort in that. But when you see policies that are really retrograde, if not even atavistic, stand up and say that it’s wrong. We can speak up. We can complain. We can make movies. We can write books. We can do a lot of things.
Most fortunately, we live in a free society where we can express ourselves. And I think it’s important. I think that even creating a webpage where you express these sentiments is a very good thing to do.
Recipient of an Academy Award and too much acclaim to aggregate here, Errol Morris also writes online commentary for The New York Times’ Opinionator. His next film, “Tabloid,” will be released in the fall.