Female Soldiers as Perpetrators
Lynndie England, a private first class in the US army, gained sad notoriety in the scandal surrounding Iraq’s Abu Ghraib military prison in the spring of 2004. Photos smuggled out of the prison showed her in sexually charged poses, with a naked Iraqi prisoner on a leash, or laughing and pointing at the genitals of another prisoner. The cliché of the peace-loving woman explains why the media doubly scandalized the Lynndie England case: Not only does a woman inflicting torture and apparently enjoying it defy human rights conventions, it also defies common notions of femininity. According to the New York Times, Lynndie England testified in a hearing, “We thought it looked funny. That’s why we took pictures.” The torturer, low in the military hierarchy, was condemned to a relatively high three-year prison sentence; her friend, the ringleader Charles Graner, got ten years in prison, and there were more convictions of soldiers in the lower ranks. The only officer accused, Lieutenant Colonel Steven Jordan, was sentenced to an administrative reprimand. All attempts to prosecute former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have failed up to now. The higher and highest levels of the military, those who were co-responsible and had ordered the abuse directly or indirectly, remained unpunished, as did the soldiers who used “common” sexual violence to rape captured Iraqi women.
The pornographic photos have provoked debates in the media as to whether it is particularly demeaning for an Arab man to be tortured by a woman. Heide Oestreich, a journalist for the German newspaper die tageszeitung, pointed out that the very idea confirms the subjugation fantasies of those who order or commit this type of torture. Only those who believe that wearing pink underwear is humiliating for a man would think of forcing prisoners to wear pink underwear, as is common in some US prisons. Therefore, the pictures reveal more about US soldiers’ violent pornographic fantasies concerning Arab prisoners than about the prisoners themselves. Above and beyond this, the culturalist perspective can be dangerous: Wellintentioned presumptions concerning sensitivities undermine both the universality of human rights and the universal applicability of the Geneva Convention.
Lynndie England’s symbolic emasculation of the enemy, as she smilingly pointed to the genitalia of an Iraqi prisoner, with a cigarette in her mouth, is a common military topos. Feminization as a form of abuse and degradation is a feature of all systems of militarized masculinity. Allowing a woman to sexually humiliate an Arab man leaves US masculinity intact. The Arab prisoner is rendered impotent, but not the American soldier, despite the pictures’ portrayal of male fear at the hands of a powerful female. The portrayal of a “reverse” rape affirms the military system, which is based on degradation of the “feminine.” Sexualized violence need not necessarily emerge from this system, yet it does, time and time again. This includes, for example, the enormous red-light districts that regularly form around US bases throughout the world.
- Cilja Harders (2004): Moderne Kriegermütter und die neue Weltordnung, in: Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, No. 9, Vol. 49, pp. 1001-1111