The Return of Lynndie England

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.

chleEngland/Graner @ Abu Ghraib/ unattributed

Background

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.

Conclusions

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

12 thoughts on “The Return of Lynndie England

  1. Pingback: The Return of Lynddie England | Better Well-Being

  2. really excellent analysis–she is such a complicated figure. she was the subject of a lot of my “creating” for a long time. it was interesting to me when I wrote an essay saying that feminism bore some responsibility for what she did, I got attacked really harshly (surprise).

    I feel compassion for her–as a working class woman–i think feminism created an “option” for her that it would not consider an option for upper class white woman. the army is “good enough” for working class women, right? Where we’re all going to get raped and shot at etc.

    And then on many levels I really hate her–I, like you said, hold her MORE responsible for her shit than I did the men. Because she had a choice to not even BE there. Because she’s a white woman who thinks she can do whatever she wants to bodies of men of color. because men of color then turn around and beat the shit out of *us*.

    but anyway–yes, thank you for giving her and the situation and her role in the situation the analysis it deserves–there’s a lot to unpack here, and you did a great job…

  3. I hadn’t much empathy for England prior to reading your post, but, after reading your post, I have even less empathy for her. Yes, she suffered sexism, but her own white privilege helped contribute to a system and a set of circumstances in which bodies considered less than human were tortured and humiliated. She really disgusts me. Thank you for writing about this, and for presenting a balanced view of the situation.

  4. @bfp – you raise an interesting point about the connection between labor reserved for working class women and the level of tolerated sexual and physical abuse attached to it. All women are targets of abuse bt refract that thru the lens of class & suddenly you have this list of jobs in which women are routinely targeted for abuse, some times as a matter of course . . . I don’t know why those feminists who attacked that thesis wouldn’t be as intrigued as I am by that thought, as it adds a needed and nuanced layer to women’s oppression.

    For me, I think I am beyond blame at this point. When it happened, she was the villain not just for the reason you outline but also b/c once again her “white innocence” was being championed by a faction of the movement that will never take responsibility for the actions of white women perpetrating against other marginalized people even when they are dragging them around naked by a leash. Now, I think she represents an opportunity to push us all further into a both/and analysis that makes it more possible to talk about the real connections between imperialism, racism, sexism, policing, the military, and [white] nationalism that the “woman in a burka” never did b/c it was too wrapped up in many of the same systems of oppression that allowed abuse in Abu Ghraib to happen. (I’ve also never forgotten that while ppl were morally outraged about the abuse of men, particularly the heterosexist abuses, there was no similar mass circulation and outrage at the images of sexual abuse of female prisoners in that same prison.)

    @misincognegro – I agree its hard to find empathy for her.

    For me, what makes it easier to analyze her situation with hope for change is remembering that while England is guilty of many things, she is just one person. Making her *the* person, as so many have, keeps us from looking at the bigger picture. A lot of ppl are interested in keeping us from widening our gaze.

  5. Pingback: flip flopping joy » Blog Archive » Apologies…

  6. I’ve heard a phrase in the military that is still true today. “Shit always rolls downhill.” Which, excusing the profanity used, is a statement that means, sometimes we all have to do something we don’t want to, but are stuck in a position to carry out because the orders came from a superior.

    And with there being a tightly organized chain of command in our military, there is no room for indecision, hesitance or second-thoughts. When all of this happened in 2004, there was a wide accepted conception, especially in light of televised executions and be-headings of our men and women in uniform on Al-Jazeera that these guys would do the same thing to us if they had the chance. Not to mention that our government at the time, rather informally endorsed the very practice of the things we’re hearing about.

    So, again… instead of making the chess pawns out to be the villains — you should look at the ones giving the orders — sometimes there is a greater fear of retributive action coming from your superiors for –not– following the orders given, when they are .passed to one who finds themselves at the bottom of the totem pole.

    • My quick response is: If no one caught enacted violence is held responsible for their part in the violence then how do you see change happening? Holding England responsible opens the door for larger conversations about who else is responsible not closes it.

      My longer response: It is amazing to me how quick people are to say “well she was just following orders” especially when trotting out the violence done to North American soldiers. I always want to ask two questions: (1) weren’t the people torturing North Americans also following orders? and (2) Have you heard of the Nuremberg trials?

      At the end of the day, there is always a choice. Those choices are not always easy or safe. Sometimes, they are the choice between being tortured and killed yourself or torturing and killing someone else. Sometimes they are not. We do not know what her choices were, we only know the choice she made: to participate in the torture of others while smiling as wide as can be for the camera; at times, doing so when there was no one else around but the person taking the pictures.

      Critiquing her involvement is not akin to excusing the people above her who either gave erroneous orders or looked the other way. When I talk about McDonald’s burgers I am not automatically given Burger King a pass. Critical thinking means you can look closely at one thing while holding space for the vast world and contextual meaning around them. Lyndie England made a choice to torture brown men in homophobic, sexist, and sadistic ways and in the moment her eyes were lit up and her face full of smiles.

      I also want to get back to the issue of race and gender explored in this post. England was and continues to be defended by people when their is no doubt in anyone’s mind that she was a participant in racist, homophobic, sexist violence. Yet where are these same people’s outrage for the torture victims? For the brown men and women who have been tortured and imprisoned for as much as 11 years on trumped up charges that have been dismissed and they still have not been released? When you talk about accountability and change, these questions cannot be ignored, because ultimately what holds the system in place is the willingness to ignore the responsible parties from the top down in service to whiteness while perpetually pointing the finger at brown folk, which is also in service to whiteness.

  7. A little late, I know, but I never paid much attention to the incident at the time, and only just read this…

    I can find a lot of empathy for her. Not that that means she did the right thing, but obviously she was at the very least under heavy social (and military) pressures and fell for a strong man in a bad place.

    She was brought up in this society, put in a position in the military, where I have little clue but your essay and rumor as to how women are treated.. (however..) and did something that probably anybody else, put in her shoes, would have done.

    We need to get rid of those aspects of society and circumstances that lead to this sort of thing and stop trying to lay blame on some individual who got caught in one of the cogs of the machine.

    • While I agree that we need to address larger social issues (which this post actually talks about through the lens of England’s choices), I disagree that “anybody else, put in her shoes, would have [tortured and raped chained men with light bulbs and taken photos of themselves laughing about it for keepsakes].” The willingness to excuse England’s part not only robs her of her agency (however truncated it may be, see my comment above) but also once again moves us from the specific acts of torture done by specific people to this all encompassing “system” in which no one is responsible for their choices and no one really has to change. England made a choice to torture people, perhaps because she may have been tortured in their stead, perhaps because in that moment she enjoyed it, we will never know. There were hundreds of soldiers on that base that made different choices, including the one who leaked the photos. Looking at England’s crimes and the response to them, actually helps us look at the larger structures surrounding her including the people who gave the orders, the government that allows torture, the white people willing to defend “white womanhood” even when the guilt is visible to everyone rather than the potentially innocent people lying bloody in a heap on the floor, etc. Change starts from real conversations about real people and the real choices they make and why not from pointing at the monolithic, faceless, thing out there and excusing all the players as mindless “cogs”.

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