Lynndie England pointing to a prisoner

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–A cigarette jutting from the corner of her mouth, Pfc. Lynndie England grins broadly as she points to the genitalia of a hooded Iraqi prisoner while he masturbates. England, 21, holds a leash attached to the neck of a naked prisoner, who is lying on the ground. England poses, arm in arm with another American soldier, behind a pile of nakedIraqi men.

Since photos of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqiprisoners in Abu Ghraib, near Baghdad, were released two weeks ago, the face of the reservist has been published worldwide. In the process, her face has been fused into a new mental image of cruelty.

It is a face that provokes shock. The face of woman.

“I was surprised to see a woman there,” said Retired Lieut. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, the Army’s only female three-star general. “One would traditionally think that women would be less likely to participate in something so completely unfair and really brutal.”

England is one of three women among the seven suspects named so far in the prison abuse scandal, which came to light late last month when CBS’s “60 Minutes II” aired some of the graphic photos. England, a West Virginian who was reassigned to Fort Bragg, N.C., after becoming pregnant, was charged this Friday with crimes connected to the abuse at the prison.

England, now reported to be in her fifth month, faces penalties ranging from a reprimand to imprisonment and a punitive discharge. England’s attorney was quoted by the Denver Post Sunday as saying England was a scapegoat.

“They have to have someone to blame, and basically she is at the bottom of the pecking order, and so she gets the blame,” England’s attorney Rose Mary Zapor was quoted as saying in the Denver Post Sunday editions.

Zapor said she is working with three other Denver-area lawyers to defend England for free. Zapor said the team expects to meet with England for the first time Tuesday at Fort Bragg, N.C., again according to the Denver Post.

A fourth woman, Brigadier Gen. Janis Karpinski, was in charge of the Abu Ghraib prison and 15 other detention facilities in Iraq. Karpinski, who was admonished and relieved of her command in January, has said she did not know the abuse was taking place. “When I saw the photos, I was sickened by them,” Karpinski told ABC this month.

And now, according to press reports Sunday,the actions or inactions of a fifth woman are likely to placed under intense scrutiny. The top military intelligence officer in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, served as head of intelligence for the U.S. command in Baghdad and thus was in charge of interrogators at Abu Ghraib.

Some Gender Generalities

Investigations are focusing on how pervasive the abuse was and whether England and her peers were acting on their own or on orders from higher-ups in military intelligence, as one of the suspects has alleged. Either way, the very presence of female soldiers has made a disturbing situation even more so, and raises questions about the notion that women are more peaceful than men.

“It doesn’t fit our image of how women act,” said Swanee Hunt, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Retired Brigadier Gen. Wilma Vaught, president of the Women in Military Service For America Memorial Foundation and the driving force behind a national memorial honoring female service members, said she thought women in uniform often behaved differently from men. Women, she said, “were sometimes more thoughtful about how something ought to be approached than men were because men were just ready to charge off.”

Vaught, one of the Air Force’s first female generals, said women were able to stabilize volatile situations more quickly than men. “They have that ability to get the situation cooled down.”

So why didn’t England and others stop the torment at Abu Ghraib?

Vaught said they were too young. “I would say,” she said, “that it’s more a function of youth than of gender.”

Culture of Power

Women veterans and experts in gender issues say the American women implicated in the prison scandal succumbed to a culture of power that they did not create and could not change, though they likely didn’t try.

“Women are human. I wanted them to be better, but that’s not realistic,” said Lory Manning, who studies women in the military for the Women’s Research and Education Institute, a Washington think tank.

“Power corrupts,” she said. “A guard of a helpless prisoner who’s hooded and naked is in a very powerful position.”

Manning noted that some guards in Nazi prison camps were women.

Kennedy said that while she was taken aback by their participation, she generally expected female soldiers to behave like their male colleagues, in part because they remain in the minority.

“They may be trying to be part of the majority groups that they belong to,” she said, “to be like the men they serve with.” Kennedy added that the women in the military police received the same training as their male counterparts and are “reflecting the culture that they’re part of.”

Attaining Critical Mass

In order to change a culture, whether in the military, in business or in government, women and other minorities must reach a certain “critical mass,” generally 30 percent, according to Women Waging Peace, an international network based in Cambridge that advocates women’s participation in post-war recovery efforts.

“On the one hand, we think that women can change things. But on the other hand, if you just have a handful of women in a very militarized system, they aren’t going to be any different, unfortunately,” said Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, director the Women Waging Peace policy commission.

Anderlini said women can effectively change policies when they have large enough numbers to band together, as men traditionally have. In peacekeeping missions, she added, women often interact better with survivors of war and brutality, many of them women and children.

When women are in the minority, as they are in the military police, they are forced to assimilate, said Harvard’s Hunt, who founded Women Waging Peace. Just as working women have learned to engage in office politics and to “dress for success,” women in the military have learned to fit in by toughening up and going along, she said.

Further, she said, without a draft, soldiers are self-selecting.

“Only certain women put themselves in those situations,” Hunt said. “But then, because they’re in such a small minority, you’ve got a tremendous pressure on them to be as tough as the guys or else they can’t survive in those settings.”

Jodi Enda, Washington Bureau Chief for Women’s eNews, writes about government and politics.