Last night when Bill Clinton was rallying Netroots attendies to blog about health care and defending his own record on GLBTQI issues, both of which I will address in a forthcoming post, BBCAmerica was interviewing Lynddie England. The interview forced us to look at the human face of U.S. torture policy in the war against terror and at the woman that many tried to excuse as a victim of patriarchy.
Lynndie England was one of 12 people convicted for the systematic torture of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib military prison that broke open the sad truth about sanctioned abuse in U.S. military prisons. England was working in the administrative offices of the prison but was often in the holding area to visit her boyfriend Specialist Charles Graner. Both were shown smiling in photos where they tortured and sexually humiliated prisoners, the most famous of these image was one in which England held a leash wrapped around a naked prisoner’s neck while she smiled in the camera.
While most are clear that both the government and high ranking military officials authorized the torture as a form of interrogation, Graner is believed to be behind much of the actual physical torture of the prisoners. During her trial, then pregnant England alleged that had she not participated in the violence and humiliation, Graner would have hurt her. This fear was spun by certain feminist groups into a tale of domestic violence in which England was wholly exempted from her participation in the torture of brown people and recast as innocent victim.
This image seldom rang true for anti-imperialist and anti-racist feminists who maintained that both the male-dominant military system and the sexism that often permeates it needed to be critiqued in conjunction with the racism, imperialism, and homophobia that typified everyone’s actions in the prison, including England’s. In the latter assessment, England was responsible for her loyalty to white nationalism as much as she became a victim of misogyny and/or dsv.
The BBCAmerica interview last night, contradicted both opinions by depicting England as an angry woman unwilling to apologize or take responsibility for her actions. For the most part the interviewer couches their discussion in a larger depiction of England’s poverty, age, and ongoing social ostracism rather than a narrative of villainy. Thus Lynndie England’s anger and justifications create an image solely of her own making. (No doubt helped along by editing.)
How She Sees Herself
Lynndie England began her story by championing the idea of herself and her family as victim’s of the media and misguided advocates. She has often maintained that had the media not circulated the pictures from Abu Ghrain, she would never have been punished and “American lives would have been saved.” She does not see the connection between media attention to this story and the call for human and POW rights that the U.S. has always promised to uphold until the Bush administration. Nor, if we are to believe previous interviews, does she think that the criticism of the photos is anything more than media spin.
She spoke about how her mother had received phone calls saying she should kill herself for raising Lynndie and that she should be ashamed of her daughter. I think we can all agree, these phone calls should never have been made. They neither elevate the discussion of war based atrocity that predated England nor help prevent it in the future. They also help provide England with a victim narrative that allows her to continue to distance herself from her actions in Abu Ghraib.
When England faced trial, she was pregnant with Graner’s child. Her son is now 5 years old, and one of her biggest concerns is that he is nearing the age when he will understand what people think of his parents. England says she and her mother are committed to contradicting the image of she and Graner in the media for her son. They have been creating a scrapbook of stories about her service prior to Abu Ghraib and Graner’s career. Not only does their version erase Abu Ghraib completely, but works to create an image of them as hardworking, honest, deeply committed soldiers, in other words “good people” who could not possibly do bad things. While this version of reality could be explained by the basic human impetus to appear decent and good, especially to ones children, England’s commitment to depicting herself, and to a lesser extent Granier, as entirely innocent goes beyond her son.
Key Q & A on Her Actions
- When asked why she participated, she said she did so, b/c she was afraid Graner would “break up with her” and she would “be alone in a war zone.” She tortured people to avoid being single.
Gone is the tale of domestic violence between her Graner. When she speaks of him in prison, she actually tears up for both him and their son.
She now blames the tortures on the administration and the prison policies. She rightly argues that torture preceded her arrival at the prison and was basic policy for the treatment of prisoners. She says that she and everyone involved questioned the tactics when they arrived but that they were told this was standard operating procedure, it is a story that seems to contradict her general reticence to acknowledge what they did was wrong or should not have been done. Nor does it explain the decision to go along with something she claims raised questions for her, especially since she has consistently denied that the actions they took were torture.
Her only connection between Graner and her involvement in the leaked photos has been reduced to not wanting to be “alone in that war zone.” Thus, she came down to the prison cells to be with Graner. He did not call her down or demand that she be there. When torture occurred, he encouraged her to participate as everyone there was involved but had she not been there, he would not have been able to bully her.
The absence of discussion about Graner’s influence over her in the 2009 interview, except to say that she loved him and wants her son to respect him and know he is “a good person” seems to contradict much of the earlier blame she placed on him. However, in a 2008 interview with a German magazine, England also implied that she participated reluctantly because of Graner’s prompting. Her comments to them talked about being in photos she did not want to participate in, where prisoners were forced to masturbate or lay head to groin with other prisoners. These stories, which are wholly absent from her 2009 interview, imply that Graner enjoyed sexually humiliating England as part of the torture of prisoners. While England has failed to make the connection between his desire to see her in these sexualized and sexually humiliating images, they certainly corroborate her original claims that Graner was abusing her.
- When asked if she thought her actions were wrong. England said “no.”
Despite having once plead guilty to “maltreatment of prisoners” and assault, England now argues she did nothing wrong. She was simply following military policy that would have happened with or without her. Many soldiers involved in atrocities across the world have said the same, and the Nuremberg trials established that soldiers who carry out unethical orders are culpable for their actions. Again the idea is one of choice, in which a soldier has a moral duty to protect the rights of innocent people and uphold the law, otherwise all behavior, no matter how heinous, can simply be excused by “we were in a war.”
we did what we were supposed to do. I don’t feel bad about that.
While she is absolutely right to point to a larger system of violence approving the torture of prisoners and the violation of the Geneva Convention, these structural issues do not excuse England’s involvement. England was never meant to be in the holding cells. Unlike soldiers serving on that floor, she had the perfect excuse not to be there, ie she was assigned somewhere else. She made the choice to go downstairs and she made the choice to continue going downstairs after she discovered what was going on. These decisions in no way contradict that her participation may have been coerced by Graner, something she has now inadvertently denied, or by a military culture that tends to frag those who refuse to participate and which is notorious for unchecked physical and sexual violence against female soldiers.
As an administrative worker, England also had the opportunity to leak those photos to the press and act as a whistle blower in the same way that the person who ultimately did leak them had. Unlike military guards, who participated in the prison tortures as part of their jobs, England would be less likely to be suspected first. It takes a lot to be a hero in a war zone when the heroism means turning against your own and/or risking your own life. Whether we believe Lynndie England should have had the strength of a hero or not, we cannot deny that her position insulated her from what was going on and that she made choices to put herself in the midst of it.
- When asked if she thought it was ok to “humiliate and torture people” England denied they had done anything terrible
England was asked repeatedly to give her opinion on “humiliation and torture” during the interview, with the photos of her participation placed in front of her and asked if she thought her actions were ok. After repeatedly pointing to policy, England finally said what they did was not torture:
“Compared to what they do to us, that’s like nothing”
She argued that Iraqi violence against U.S. soldiers justified the violence they enacted on their prisoners. In other words, like many young people in and out of war zones, an eye for an eye equals justice. This mentality has justified violence against largely innocent marginalized people in the U.S. throughout history and is likely only exacerbated in a war zone. What England’s comments tell us is how this attitude is fostered and exacerbated by military service as much as it continues to work against her image of herself as innocent.
Essentially she claims that because they didn’t kill prisoners, U.S. soldiers were kinder, gentler, torturers. An extension of the “good people” argument that permeates our culture.
“this happens @ colleges, in dorms, or whatever her in the U.S. all the time.Or even, maybe not this picture [the leash photo] but similar humiliation tactics and physical exertion, you know everybody goes thru that type of stuff in boot camp in the military.”
She then argued that the abuses in Abu Ghraib, which you will remember includes sodomizing prisoners with light bulbs, forcing them to sit for days in their own waste and vomit, making them simulate homosexual sex acts with strangers/other prisoners or, as some prisoners have alleged, rape their own relatives or watch or listen to them or other female prisoners being assaulted, dragging them around naked by leashes, or forcing them to drink their own urine, as well as refusing them medical care, was the equivalent of being a freshman in college. In many ways, these comments reveal how normal England considers violence to be in her own life.
It may also speak to the level of violence that people on the margins have to navigate in general. For instance, sexual humiliation is often part of homophobic encounters young gay and trans men and women experience on college campuses, but we call those hate crimes and we have federal laws against them. England’s comments seem to imply that we should not and that the use of homophobia to police gender and sex are acceptable behaviors that were simply exported to the military prison.
Her comparison of Abu Ghraib to hazing during basic training also eerily, an no doubt inadvertently, references the assault many female soldiers have reported as part of becoming members of the military. This too is against the law and the sexual assault of women is universally condemned if not in practice in ideology. But again, England’s comments imply that in fact rape and humiliation are ok both in the context of basic training and then in that of Abu Ghraib. If asked outright, would she say so and/or say that is what she meant here? I doubt it. But the fact is that rape and sexual humiliation occured with the prisoners in Abu Ghraib and, according to her statements in other interviews, her own sexual humiliation was a component of those images in which she is depicted.
What emerges from her comments is a picture of a woman who has experienced abuse in her own life and subsequently internalized it, a woman who thinks certain people deserve to be tortured either for transgressing gender and sexuality norms or for being the “wrong color” on “the wrong side.”
Interviewer: These were people caught in bar brawls, regular prisoners most of them. So I ask you again, do you think it is ok to strip people naked and to degrade them?
England: for softening up tactics, if it helps get whatever ahh information they might have, sure.
While her answer again remains part of the partyline that torture is necessary to protect N. American lives, it avoids addressing the very specific charge that she was involved in torturing people who were largely innocent of terrorism. In so doing, it expands the already statistically unprovable military stance that torturing provides useful information to the torturing of people who are largely believed to have had no information when initially imprisoned. Her willingness to justify both the former and the latter speak to a commitment to enact violence based on nothing but difference and difference motivated criminality.
England believes her own innocence. More than that she believes, as do some others, that she is the real victim in a tale of rape, abuse, and torture in which she was one of the participants. In her own words, she claimed again and again that what she did was perfectly acceptable and she is not sorry.
While she certainly has suffered some form of abuse in order to say that the abuse she participated in was normal and happens in every day life, it is hard to find sympathy for a woman who participated in torture when she, unlike other soldiers present, had a perfect excuse not to be there. It would be impossible to deny that some of the revulsion people feel when England’s name comes up is also gendered. For many, she is wrong not only for torturing people while laughing but also for being a woman while doing so. While this sexism certainly colors the way her actions are discussed, to not talk about them or question her resolve to excuse them away, mobilizes gender in a way that makes us all less free not more so. For the people who she helped torture and for the policies she helped uphold that continue to allow people to be tortured, we have to talk about it and we have to interrogate her decision to be in the holding cell area if not also her decision to participate in now infamous “interrogations.” We can do so in a context of gender and class as much as race and nation, to isolate any of these variables, particularly to exonerate her, seems an unforgivable mistake.
England served 1.5 years of her 3 year term. The charges initially brought against her when she plead guilty had a maximum 16 year sentence. Her sentence when compared to others involved, seems equally mediated through racialized gender. She was also dishonorably discharged while both top level military and government officials involved in the orders to torture retain their positions and/or pensions.
She claims she is currently unemployed b/c no one will hire her but in 2007 she was appointed to her town’s recreation board by local supporters. She has also made money off of giving interviews nationally and internationally about Abu Ghraib where she provides no information about the policies in place, the people involved in instituting them, nor generally takes any responsibility for her actions. In each of these, she continues to uphold that her behavior was policy and that it was the right choice to save N. American lives. She believes that both her prison sentence and her social ostracism are unfair and unwarranted. She also admits, that given the same circumstances, she would do it all again.
As her interview came to a close, I found myself wondering about how many other soldiers feel the same way? England is not the exception, she may even be the rule. The Bush administration’s hand in the decision to torture and the Obama administration’s decision not to prosecute those at the highest levels of the military and the government who implemented these policies or who are likely still carrying them out, sent the message that in some ways these behaviors were and will always be condoned. And a culture that paints England as a victim, either because she was “just following orders” or b/c she is a woman, is one that places hierarchies on human life that will also ultimately allow torture to continue. For me, it isn’t about an eye-for-an-eye justice, but rather developing a complex language to talk about violence in our culture, layers of violence in war, and the ability to be both victimized and victimizer. These are not new issues, but perhaps by shining the light on England once again, it will force us to develop the needed to tools to combat all forms of inequality and not just gape at horrendous images and turn away.
you can now watch the whole interview here