Last Saturday’s episode of “This American Life” was all about fall guys (and girls). The show’s website explains, “Sometimes when things go wrong, parsing out who all is to blame and taking them to task is just too complicated and haaaard! What’s easy is pinning it all on one person and watching them go down in flames.” One of the stories was about former Army reservist Lynndie England, who served half of a three-year sentence for mistreating prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and now lives back home in Fort Ashby, West Virginia. She claims employers aren’t willing to give her a job and neighbors shun her.
England’s description of the atmosphere at Abu Ghraib conjures up images of a rowdy frat party. But she’s the one whose face and name are most recognizable. I’m sure more people know her name than the name of Specialist Charles Graner, who fathered England’s child and was pictured in a number of other Abu Ghraib photos. She’s not a sympathetic character; don’t get me wrong. But I am unable to condemn her as evil without condemning her comrades, her chain of command, or the entire U.S. military. No officer higher in rank than a sergeant was convicted of wrongdoing at Abu Ghraib. I see England as a cog in the military machine, which distorted the nature of the prisoners’ mistreatment by blaming a few bad apples for the abuse and letting those individuals take the hits. I don’t see her performance of sexual degradation as anything out of the ordinary; sexualized aggression is an accepted convention of military culture. The military capitalized on England’s sex by using it as a weapon against its enemies. All of this does disturb me but I think England is primarily a scapegoat.
“England’s sense of persecution is so advanced at this stage that the question of whether or not she is contrite has almost no meaning,” wrote Emma Brockes in The Guardian. Seemingly unrepentant – and unreflective – about the role she played in the infamous photos, she explains that “you’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys…” to justify the ritualized humiliation. But isn’t that how members of the military are supposed to approach their missions? Isn’t that how a lot of American civilians feel about their place in the world? A majority of Americans approve of torture. They just don’t want to see the pictures.
I wonder who’s sending England hate-mail. To those who opposed the war, England is a symbol for the illegitimacy of the entire operation. She’s an easier and more vulnerable target than Donald Rumsfeld. But that’s not fair. And what about those Americans who advocate torture? Don’t any of them have a job they can offer her?
All of which is to say that whilst I’m not a fan of Lynndie England, I am more upset by the culture that allowed the abuses at Abu Ghraib to happen, and that continues to punish the low-ranking England for crimes she didn’t orchestrate – at least not on her own. No, it’s not OK if “everyone else is doing it,” but I won’t pretend that England had the option to refuse. Her obedience made her a good candidate for military service in the first place, and ironically, would make her a good candidate for some low-skill, low-profile job now.