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We've come a long, and wrong, way

By MARY JO MELONE
Published May 7, 2004

It's the picture I can't get out of my head.

In the photo, published in the online edition of the New Yorker, a naked Iraqi man has a hood over his head. A woman soldier poses for the camera, cigarette dangling out of her mouth in a tough-guy Ernie Pyle style. She gives a thumbs-up sign as she points - the photo is blurred - toward the man's genitals.

The soldier is a 21-year-old Army reservist, Lynndie England. Her family has said what you'd expect them to say, that this is not the Lynndie they know, that she is being scapegoated for the terrible prisoner abuse carried out by American soldiers in Iraq.

I can't get that picture of England out of my head because this is not how women are expected to behave. Feminism taught me 30 years ago that not only had women gotten a raw deal from men, we were morally superior to them. When it came to distinguishing right from wrong, the needle of our compass always pointed to true north.

Our thinking was hardly radical. Victorian was more like it: Men were competitive and dangerous, women cooperative and comforting. Men were brutish, women gentle.

Jessica Lynch, blond and brave, rescued from an Iraqi prison last year, seems on the surface to fit this stereotype. England shatters it, if the picture is worth a thousand words. The only thing the two women seem to share is that they're both from West Virginia.

There have been many explanations for why these terrible events occurred at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere. Bad apples did bad things. Management was poor or nonexistent. Intelligence officers demanded that the prisoners' wills be broken so they would talk, no matter the cost.

All or any of those may apply. But this still leaves open the question of why women (there are two others, at least) allegedly went along.

Was the prison atmosphere so poisonous that they didn't feel it was safe to speak up?

Did having a conscience make them appear soft and they wanted under no circumstances to appear soft because it was not, for want of a better word, manly?

Were the women so well-trained in the need to stick together as a unit - a battlefield necessity - that it didn't occur to them to break ranks?

Were they simply enjoying the power that as women they had often been denied?

Or am I just making excuses, unable to believe that women are capable of this?

The military has worked hard to get women up in its ranks. On the eve of the war, last year, 15 percent of active military personnel were women. Women can serve in most capacities, except those that involve direct front-line combat.

Ironically, the only female commander in Iraq until the prison scandal became public was Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski. She oversaw the prisons, but she has been sent home.

Lynndie England joined the service for the reason so many do, to see a world they can only imagine in the confines of their home town. She signed up for the Army Reserves when she was still in high school. She hoped to eventually go to college and become a meteorologist. In Iraq, her mother has said, England was assigned to fingerprint inmates and perform other administrative tasks.

England has not been charged with a crime, but she is being detained at Fort Bragg, N.C. Reports from other news organizations say she is pregnant. Her boyfriend is said to be one of the soldiers under investigation.

She told her mother she was urged by her superiors to appear in the pictures. She was told they'd make good souvenirs and could be used to threaten prisoners who were desperate to avoid humiliation. Otherwise, there is so far no public evidence that she participated directly in the abuse at Abu Ghraib.

One story has circulated about one female guard at Abu Ghraib prison. A former Iraqi prisoner told the New York Times this week that he was urged to masturbate in front of a woman guard. "She was laughing and she put her hands on her breasts," the man said. When he didn't obey, he was beaten and knocked to the floor, he said.

There you have it: evidence, finally, of how far women have come. We have achieved a perverse equality. We have the right to behave as badly as men.

- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or 813 226-3402.

[Last modified May 7, 2004, 01:03:18]


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