Two young women have achieved iconic status in US President George Bush’s battle between good and evil currently touring Iraq. And if the administration’s propaganda machine is to be believed, one of them is good and the other one is evil. One the side of good there is Jessica Lynch. When we first met her, in April last year, she was the plucky soldier who had been captured after a “valiant gunfight”, slapped around and then rescued on camera in a “midnight ballet” by a daring posse.
Representing evil is Lynndie England. When we first met her she was smoking a cigarette and giving a thumbs up while pointing at the genitals of a naked, hooded Iraqi prisoner. She appears to be laughing; he appears to be masturbating.
Lynch was lauded as a national hero; England has been lambasted as a national disgrace. While no one has yet to describe England as the anti-Christ they have come close. In the words of one of her neighbours, she is the “anti-Jessica”.
Lynch and England are real people – both young working-class women from West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the union. But in the hands of the Pentagon spinmeisters they are also constructs, rooted in gender and class. Lynch, we now know, never fired a shot and was well cared for while held captive. Of the Pentagon’s spin machine she complained: “They used me as a way to symbolise all this stuff … I’m not about to take credit for something I didn’t do.”
Precisely the same is happening of England and, to a lesser extent, the other soldiers who have been court-martialled as a result of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. They are being used to symbolise not all that is wrong with the war but the only thing that is wrong with it. While all the evidence, including new allegations that the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, authorised physical coercion and sexual humiliation in Iraqi prisons, points to the American political establishment’s active encouragement of the abuse, the White House keeps pointing at England and her six colleagues to bear the moral burden for their immoral war.
England’s brutality is explained away not as the logical continuum of the occupation but as a contradiction to it. Increasingly, Bush’s best hope is to take out the “trailer trash”. They have cast not only the actions as disgraceful but the people accused of carrying them out as dispensable – collateral damage in the propaganda war at home, where the poor don’t vote or contribute to any campaigns.
When Bush went on Arab television two weeks ago, he said the behaviour “does not represent the America that I know”. But then, thanks to his connections, he has never had to serve in the army during a war. And England and her friends were never going to pledge for the Skull and Cross Bones, the elite fraternity to which both Bush and Democratic challenger, John Kerry, belonged at Yale. They are neither wealthy nor well connected – he doesn’t need to know them, although the irony is that if they did vote they would probably vote for him.
So long as the buck stops with England and her colleagues, the whole episode can be reduced to soccer hooligans in uniform – the white working class (one African-American is accused, although he is featured rarely and appears in no photographs) running amok. Like arresting the Watergate burglars and leaving Nixon in the White House, convicting only them would suggest the abuse can be understood as the sporadic acts of a few offensive individuals. The higher up it goes, the clearer it becomes that they were in fact the systemic actions of an occupying institution.
There is no need to fetishise class in all of this. Their class on its own does not carry any moral value, guilt or innocence. But it is relevant to their agency in a top-down military command structure. In the words of one of their attorneys: “Do you really think a group of kids from rural Virginia decided to do this on their own?”
Like Lynch, England and her fellow abusers must, of course, take responsibility what they did and did not do. The beatings, humiliations and possibly murders carried out were vile, depraved and sadistic. Their claim that they were only following orders finds its chilling echoes in postwar Nuremberg. Similarly, England’s defence that she was made to pose for the pictures is only relevant in so far as it implies more senior people were involved. If and when a fair trial determines the extent of their involvement – given the pictures, it is difficult for them to claim they were not involved – they should be given the severest of punishments.
Who they are is no defence for what they did. Indeed, who they are enabled what they did. It is one of the hallmarks of colonialism that the poorest, least powerful citizen of an occupying nation can wield enormous power in an occupied territory. A former chicken-plant worker like England can humiliate virtually any Iraqi she wants precisely and only because she is American in Iraq. Once she returns to America she reverts to the bottom of the pile.
But they have choices, however limited. It was the former car mechanic from rural Pennsylvania, Joseph Darby, who blew the whistle after senior brass had tried to hush the whole thing up by slipping a disc under an investigator’s door.
However, who they are does explain what is now being done to them. Their poverty has made them easier to dis miss. After viewing more pictures and tapes of their actions Republican senator, Ben Campbell, said: “I don’t know how these people got into our army.”
To find out he need go no further than Sabrina Harman, one of the soldiers under investigation. “I knew nothing at all about the military except the fact that they would pay for college,” she told the Washington Post. For the most part they joined to get paid, not because they believed in the war on terror. Indeed the most overrepresented demographic group in the military – African-American women – is the same group least likely to support the war in Iraq.
In the case of England and Harman, their gender has also made them easier to demonise. Last week, rightwing firebrand Ann Coulter told one radio station: “This is yet another lesson in why women shouldn’t be in the military … Women are more vicious than men.”
Others claim that their involvement in sexual abuse is deviant. “Somehow, I could more readily understand women committing physical torture against prisoners of war,” writes Jill Porter for the Philadelphia News last week. “But this kind of sexual oppression? It seems to me like a kind of treason. I look at the smirking women in the photos and wonder: how could they?”
It is a good question. Where did these people get the idea that the Arabs need not be treated humanely, that international law does not apply to them and that humiliation and intimidation are the best way to get what they want? This may not represent the America Bush knows. Sadly, it is the one with which the rest of us are becoming all too familiar.