Lynndie, Jessica and us

You can take the girl out of the trailer park …

Photo Illustration by Don Button

Lynndie England has been punished. A couple of years after her crimes at Abu Ghraib prison came to light, the robes of American righteousness have now been cleansed, and Lynndie England is off to jail for three years. She also has been given a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. military.

Meanwhile, Lynndie England’s commander in chief assures the nation that “we do not torture,” and meanwhile, from his dungeon lair, the vice president lobbies for the nation’s god-given right to inflict pain in the interest of fighting terrorism, and meanwhile the United States outsources torture to countries willing to get real medieval on the asses of anyone we might want tortured on the down low. The kind of torture that put Lynndie England away for three years continues as the secretary of defense uses his skills at obfuscation to wink and nod at human-rights abuses. Meanwhile, no male above the rank of sergeant has suffered so much as a word of chastisement for the clear pattern of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, at Gitmo and elsewhere.

No matter. The problem has been dealt with, and Lynndie England has been stopped in her depredations. She was just poor white trash, and she was ignorant.

But Lynndie England knows something most of the rest of us don’t know and, with luck, will never have to learn. She knows what she is capable of doing under duress and under orders. She knows she is capable of a degree of cruelty that surely never occurred to her when she was working in a chicken-processing plant back in West Virginia. Lynndie England knows how low she can go.

Lynndie England is the young woman prominently featured in the photographs of Iraqi prisoners being humiliated and tortured. Her face is now the face of American cruelty; her image is guaranteed to be an enduring piece of iconography on the altar of anti-Americanism for as far into the future as anyone might care to look. Her face will be the face of American shame for as long as she lives.

Remember Jessica Lynch, the hero of a news cycle a few months back? Jessica and Lynndie are the same age. They spring from the same class background; both are West Virginia girls, two sides of the same coin bearing the inscription “In God We Trust.”

But Lynndie England is no Jessica Lynch. Had their circumstances been different, she might have been. As Lynndie England told her mother, “Mom, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Both of them were put where they were by men who remain exempt from complicity in Lynndie England’s guilt, though they are all men ready enough to bask in the reflected light of Jessica Lynch’s media-created heroism.

Lynndie England grew up in a trailer park. In her hometown, there are people who see her as a hero. In a bar there, one local observed, “To the country boys here, if you’re a different nationality, you’re subhuman. That’s the way girls like Lynndie are raised. Tormenting Iraqis, in her mind, would be no different from shooting a turkey.”

Community-college teachers see dozens of Lynndies and Jessicas every semester. They are young women with limited prospects. They have known hardships our president could never imagine. They know what methamphetamine smells like when it’s brewing, and they know what their mothers look like with their lips split and their eyes blackened. They know the smell of clothes purchased from thrift shops, a smell no detergent can quite eradicate.

Their futures stretch before them much like their mothers’ pasts. They have already known the dreariness of dead-end jobs and low pay. They’ve known crummy schools and a culture that has pumped them full of images of cynicism and violence. Many of them have been the victims of abuse. They are inured to disappointments.

In classrooms, they often were treated with indifference. The energies of their teachers seemed better spent on students with better prospects, students from “better” homes, with more-attentive parents.

Though they often have been cheated by the very school systems that label them, they accept their labels without question, and they come to believe themselves to be stupid and less than their peers. They bear deep shame about all of this, a shame masked by feigned indifference.

They are schooled in passivity, in taking orders, in accepting their lot. A sense of defeat hangs over them, and they look for support nearly anywhere they can find it—in group identity, or in gangs, or in the military. That a small group of them would risk the very futures they sought when they enlisted in the armed services by initiating the abuse and torture of prisoners is an absurd idea.

Television pundits who hail from more-privileged classes roll out the vocabulary of invective against these young people, calling them “monsters,” “dim bulbs,” “aberrations.” These Jessicas and Lynndies never heard of Iraq a very few years ago. It was not their notion to invade a sovereign nation in defiance of world opinion. It was not their idea to be shipped far from home to be ordered about by civilian “contractors” who are being compensated for the risks to their safety at rates of pay hundreds of times higher than those paid to these kids who, not long ago, were serving burgers at fast-food joints. And neither they, nor their parents, nor their children will grow wealthy from the oil that flows from Iraq.

If, therefore, our government takes these young people and puts them in positions of power over powerless people, how can we be shocked when bad results ensue? Why would anyone be surprised to find some of those young people doing what they have been prepared to do all of their lives—follow orders, treat other people with cruelty and disrespect, and thus degrade themselves in the process?

Tomorrow morning, thousands of classes will convene filled with people like Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England, young people looking for a way out of bleak futures and equally bleak pasts. Some of them will seek that escape through enlistment in the armed forces. Once enlisted, their fates will depend on the stewardship of people paid to lead them.

Lynndie England knows things many of her teachers have yet to learn. By the grace of fortune, they will not find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and will not be tested in the ways Lynndie has been tested. While we rush to condemn her acts, we’d best remember the confluence of forces that put Lynndie England in Abu Ghraib prison, carrying out American foreign policy in all of our names.