... while photos of rape and torture are trivialized as entertainment rather than seen as violations of human rights and international law"By Lucinda Marshall
04 October, 2005
It's almost as if Lynndie England was reprising the role of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. Dog leash in hand, she epitomized the evil of Abu Ghraib. The accused knew what she was doing," said Capt. Chris Graveline, the lead prosecutor. "She was laughing and joking. ... She is enjoying, she is participating, all for her own sick humor." Virtually guaranteed a conviction by a jury of five male officers, the U.S. Military saw in her prosecution a ritual cleansing of the stain of torture and abuse that oozed out of Abu Ghraib.
That Pvt. England had a history of mental incapacity and learning disabilities and was ordered to pose by her lover and superior officer were simply not relevant, she had a dog leash (although ironically, she was acquitted of a conspiracy charge pertaining to the leash).
Reports by members of the 82nd Airborne Division to Human Rights Watch and Congress that abuse and torture were not limited to Abu Ghraib were also considered irrelevant. Judge Col. James Pohl rejected a request from England's attorney to allow testimony by an Army captain about similar abuse at a camp near Fallujah. Jonathan Crisp, England's lawyer had argued that Capt. Ian Fishback's testimony would backup the defense assertion that there was a widespread breakdown of command leadership that would have allowed soldiers to believe that military leaders condoned the abuse.
Making it crystal clear that the whole point of the England trial was to close the book on the torture and abuse allegations, the judge ruled against the testimony on the grounds that abuse elsewhere was not necessarily connected and would not lessen England's guilt. Nonetheless, since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, there have been more than 400 inquiries into detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan with 230 military personnel receiving punishment.
The Bush administration's assertion that Abu Ghraib was an isolated incident, and its attempt to atone for it with England's highly publicized show-trial, was further damaged by the magnanimous gesture of entrepreneur Chris Wilson. Wilson generously offered military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan free access to his porn site in exchange for pictures of the action in the war zone.
It is perhaps fitting that the depravity of war should find it's fullest expression on a site that peddles pornography. The pictures on this site show all manner of mutilated bodies and clear evidence of torture being committed by U.S. troops. It is also clear that many of the soldiers sending in these pictures took great pride in these displays of their handiwork.
Until questioned recently, the military's response to the site was limited to blocking soldiers in Iraq from accessing the site on military computers because of concern about photos of nude female soldiers posing with weapons that had been posted to the site. After the New York Post broke that news last October, Wilson was inundated with media queries about the porn aspect of the site, but it wasn't until recently that any interest was shown in the pictures of abuse and torture.
Officials at the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida told George Zornick of The Nation that they would not comment on the pictures, claiming that military firewalls prevented them from viewing the site. A Centcom spokesman did say that, "Centcom recognizes DoD regulations and the Geneva Convention prohibit photographing detainees or mutilating and/or degrading dead bodies," and that, "Centcom has no specific policy on taking pictures of the deceased as long as those pictures do not violate the aforementioned prohibitions." And in an interview with Eastbay Express reporter Chris Thompson, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Conway said that, "There are policies in place that, on the one hand, safeguard sensitive and classified information, and on the other hand protect the First Amendment rights of service members."
The military has concluded that while some disciplinary action may be taken, at this point there is insufficient evidence for felony charges since the website's postings are anonymous and because it would be difficult to verify the origins and authenticity of the photos (an inexplicable statement since many of the photos show readily identifiable faces of enlisted personnel). The military's position is quite troubling inasmuch as the posting of these photos on a porn site for entertainment purposes would appear to be in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which stipulate that the remains of persons who die for reasons related to occupation or detention as a result of hostilities shall be respected and treated honorably.
What perhaps horrifies and discomforts us the most however is the blatant connection between pornography and the violence of war, which is so graphically illustrated on Wilson's site. One of the pictures Thompson saw on Wilson's site which illustrates the point shows,
" a woman whose right leg has been torn off by a land mine, and a medical worker is holding the mangled stump up to the camera. The woman's vagina is visible under the hem of her skirt. The caption for this picture reads: "Nice puss -? bad foot." "
This is certainly not the first time that photos depicting violence during the Iraq conflict have been spun as pornographic entertainment. When the photos of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib first surfaced, several photos depicting the rape and sexual assault of Arabic-looking women by non-Arabic looking soldiers circulated on the internet. They were immediately discounted as fakes that were made for pornographic enjoyment simply because they had been posted to pornography sites. But as Wilson's site illustrates, criminal behavior can indeed be considered entertainment. It is also important to remember that the use of prostitutes has long been considered legitimate R&R for male soldiers and as a recent report obtained from the Democratic staff of the House Veterans Affairs Committee indicates, sexual abuse is rampant within the military.
Yet anyone who has been to a movie theater lately knows that the combination of sex and violence is a popular form of amusement and eroticized violence is often an element of hard-core pornography. The military arena, where torture and sexual violence are standard fare, simply provides the opportunity to up the voyeuristic ante with actual, rather than staged versions of these acts.
In his closing arguments, Capt. Graveline asked of England's actions, "What soldier wouldn't know that that's illegal?" Yet as Fishback's assertions and Wilson's site indicate, confusion on this point goes far beyond Pvt. England, and is indeed systemic throughout the U.S. military.
The real crime that Lynndie England committed was not that she posed inappropriately but rather that her participation challenged the assumptions of how women are supposed to behave. The military has always been a culture that uses rape as a weapon of war and one that takes a 'boys will be boys' attitude about sexual assault within it's own ranks. That photos of female soldiers posing with their weapons such as the ones on Wilson's site or those of Pvt. England pointing at a prisoner's genitalia are considered morally reprehensible, while photos of rape and torture are trivialized as entertainment rather than seen as violations of human rights and international law, is hardly surprising. They simply represent the continuum of misogyny that is an implicit part of the ethos of militarism.
Lucinda Marshall is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the Founder of the Feminist Peace Network, www.feministpeacenetwork.org. Her work has been published in numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad including, Awakened Woman, Alternet, Dissident Voice, Off Our Backs, The Progressive, Rain and Thunder, Z Magazine , Common Dreams and Information Clearinghouse.