Writing in Sunday’s ‘Outlook’ section, Prof. Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert, author ‘Camouflage Isn’t Only for Combat: Gender, Sexuality, and Women in the Military,’ has a novel theory of why the pictures from Abu Ghraib are so disturbing.
‘If Pfc. Lynndie England had come home in a flag-draped coffin, killed by an Iraqi detainee,’ argues Embser-Herbert, ‘we would have been far less shocked than we are at the now-infamous image of this young woman holding a leash attached to a naked Iraqi prisoner. At least then she would have been something we’re used to seeing’a woman as a victim.’

In my opinion, she would have been a victim indeed’but of feminists, who are willing to send women to the front lines, where they don’t belong, to score a few points in the gender wars.

Unlike Embser-Herbert, I’m not surprised that women in Abu Ghraib could behave as badly as men (see ‘How Do Women Rule’Just Like Men‘ from the Women’s Quarterly’). Knowing we can all behave badly in the absence of civility, I especially don’t want women in these brutal situations. 

A veteran of Army basic training ‘in a sex-integrated unit,’ Embser-Herbert tells the story of a (female) cadet who was ‘slapped, punched, shaken, had her pants unbuttoned’ in training.

She wasn’t the only ‘victim’ (and, interestingly, not all the ‘victims’ were women), but she was the only one who ‘spoke out.’

Just how much good would ‘speaking out’ do in a real combat situation? Nobody wants to be treated this way, and it’s not acceptable behavior. But in the hands of a real enemy, you can count on even worse things happening.

You can’t file a gender complaint against a hostile captor in a real war.

In assigning blame for the abuses of Abu Ghraib Prof. Emsler-Herbert resorts to the wisdom of The West Wing, the TV show.

‘A young Israeli soldier [in a recent episode], referring to his comrades’ shooting of children said, ‘They are not evil. But when people who are not monsters do this, it’s the situation. The circumstances are to blame.'” In one of those lines you can’t make up, she adds, “Even without Aaron Sorkin, the West Wing writers ‘get it.”

But they don’t get it. The pictures from Abu Ghraib have the look of people running amok, and it is in these situations when someone willing to “speak out” can sometimes turn the situation around.  

In Abu Ghraib there was a breakdown in civilized norms (easier than you might think), but that doesn’t absolve anybody. Not even the women. You can’t blame “the circumstances.”