The Other Charlotte and I have been ragging on the dismay of the doctrinaire feminists when they discovered that female as well as male U.S. soldiers abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Women in combat were supposed be nice, you see, brimming with kind feelings for their Third World opponents. Then it turned out that women were just as capable of moral misdeeds as men–what a surprise! (See TOC’s A Time to Speak Out, May 16, and my Feminist Illusions Revamped, May 17.)

One of the feminist commentators we nailed was Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert, a sociology professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., and author of Camouflage Isn’t Only for Combat: Gender, Sexuality and Women in the Military, for her May 16 Washington Post essay, When Women Abuse Power, Too:

I remarked:

“Embser-Herbert was hardly the only feminista thumbsucker to be shocked, shocked yesterday that Lynndie England–one of the sisterhood that’s supposed to be powerful–led a naked Iraqi around on a leash.”

Now Embser-Herbert e-mails from Hamline University to correct me:

“Geez, have I ‘made it’ when the right wing labels me a feminista thumbsucker?

“Perhaps a remedial course in close reading of text is in order. What I said was that I was initially shocked because the visual images are contrary to those with which we are most familiar. Then I went on to say that we shouldn’t be all that surprised and explained why. Of course I disagree with the fact that you are twisting my words to launch into a tirade (or should that be tired tirade?) against women in the military. That’s to be expected. But how ’bout not being so disingenuous in how you characterize my reaction? Thanks, sistahs!”

Oh. It wasn’t what Lynndie England was doing that was shocking. It was the “visual image” of her doing it that was shocking.

But what difference does that make, practically speaking? Most Americans haven’t been to Abu Ghraib, and when they saw the photos they didn’t analyze them like photography critics (“the dog leash arrestingly bisects the foreground space…”); they assumed that they were looking at reality. A reality captured by a camera in a “visual image,” if you will. They were shocked–or at least I was shocked–not because women were leading around tethered naked prisoners or grinning atop stacked buttocks but because American soldiers in uniform were engaging in these shenannigans.

Embser-Herbert maintains that “we” (speak for yourself, kimosabe) were shocked for a completely different reason: Women are supposed to be the victims, of male oppression and all that, but at Abu Ghraib they were the abusers (or rather, they were represented in “visual images” as abusers). She wrote in her essay:

“That’s why I believe that if England had been killed, by an Iraqi detainee — or even by an American soldier — we would have been less shocked. She would, in a sense, have filled the role expected of her as a woman in American society….”

Killed by an American soldier? Are our guys supposed to be murderers, too?

I’m about to launch into another “tired tirade,” but I’ll try keep it brief: Had Lynndie England been been killed in Iraq, by a “detainee” (love that euphemism!) or by a plain old terrorist, I would have been indeed less shocked than I was by her Abu Ghraib behavior–because getting killed, when I last looked, was part of the risk of serving in a combat zone. She would not have “filled the role expected of her as a woman in American society”; she would have filled the role expected of her as a soldier. A lot of women, it seems, think that serving in the military is about something else: getting a free education, meeting guys, striking another blow in the gender wars, whatever. It’s not. It’s about having to fight, to kill, and for some, to die for your country. If you think that makes you a victim, you shouldn’t be there.

I think that Embser-Herbert has been watching a little too much West Wing.