For women in the military, Abu Ghraib is a very personal disaster—even if it shouldn’t be. In an era when a gender-integrated military is still a charged proposition, in a war that ostensibly seeks to bring the wonders of the West to a backward Middle East, the image of Private First Class Lynndie England restraining a naked, prone Iraqi prisoner with a dog leash is the sort of propaganda that cuts at least five ways.
Anti-Amazons are now emboldened by the conspicuous presence of women in the Abu Ghraib scandal. “While some advocates of women in the military have argued that women’s presence would improve behavior, in fact there is much evidence to suggest it has had the opposite effect,” conservative columnist Linda Chavez wrote last Thursday. “For years now, the military has ignored substantial evidence that the new sex-integrated military interferes with unit cohesion and results in less discipline.”
But the abuse at Abu Ghraib raises more subtle questions about what happens when gender, violence, and the military collide. Our basic assumptions are upended. Were the prisoners victims of sexual assault? If the prisoners had been women, wouldn’t the act of piling them, naked, into grotesque pyramids be considered a kind of gang rape? Are we saying that female guards, like England and specialists Sabrina D. Harman and Megan Ambuhl—who face charges ranging from dereliction of duty to indecent acts—can’t commit rape? Should we be shocked that female soldiers were involved in the atrocities? If we are, what does that say about what we think of women?
“My first reaction is to say the obvious—that sadism is an equal-opportunity employer. But I’m not entirely sure,” says Mary Katzenstein, a professor of women’s studies and government at Cornell University.
Katzenstein emphasizes that the true culprit is a systemic lack of accountability in the military. But as to the question of gender difference, she’s less sure. “Certainly one can find some women who will be willing accomplices to violent and violating behavior but in a group of 100 women and 100 men, would you find equal numbers of compliant sadists?” she asks. “I wonder.”
You might in fact find more. The dichotomy of military toughness is gender heavy—whining little girls at one end and granite-jawed real men at the other. Caught in that precarious dynamic, the female soldier could feel pressure to prove she isn’t weak—even if it involves a dog leash.
“In a dynamic where language is sexualized, it makes it harder for women to stand up against something that’s wrong,” says Catherine Manegold, author of In Glory’s Shadow, a book about women at the Citadel. “Because then they’re not tough enough, they can’t stand the rigors of war.”
To that end, the soldiers invoke the most debasing torture imaginable—sexual assault. In one case, a detainee was allegedly beaten and forced to masturbate while England reportedly touched her own breast. Had a female detainee been forced to masturbate, it would almost certainly be termed a sexual assault. Yet human rights groups were, at least initially, not sure about how to categorize the abuse. Officials at Amnesty International seemed initially puzzled as to whether the Iraqi detainees had been sexually assaulted. “We’re calling it torture and ill treatment,” said a spokeswoman for Amnesty. “We are concerned that the prisoners were forced into sexual positions and I don’t want to say that we wouldn’t call it [sexual assault].”
After talking to some other officials at Amnesty, the spokeswoman called back and clarified the international watchdog’s position: “There are in fact several aspects of the abuses at Abu Ghraib that are consistent with sexual assault. These are all accusations made in the government’s own report, including sodomy with various objects, forced masturbation, and the threat of rape. All of these are consistent with sexual assault regardless of the gender of the victims.”
Ultimately, the abuses at Abu Ghraib may prove to be an unfortunate argument for humanism. Even in evil, we really are all the same, and in extreme times, we are capable of extreme and unimaginable deeds. “Think about the position of reservists, male or female, put in that position,” says Francine J. D’Amico, editor of Gender Camouflage: Women and the U.S. Military. “They don’t know when they’re going home. The level of frustration, the level of fear, all of these factors contribute to a sense that we need to do something. And these are young adults, at the height of their sexuality, and then you put people far away from their partners. So you have a very sexually charged atmosphere. The hammer has come down about fraternizing and sex, so where’s the outlet? Unfortunately the outlet was very sadistic.”