Private First Class Lynndie England’s contention that she was ordered to abuse Iraqi detainees, thus justifying her actions, simply won’t wash.
England and some of her fellow Army Reserve comrades are facing court martial for mistreating captured Iraqi soldiers at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison compound where Saddam Hussein’s henchmen once mercilessly tortured and killed inmates. Jessica Klinestiver, England’s sister has stated that she is “outraged” because undue blame has been heaped upon England. “That’s not like my sister to do anything like that at all,” she said.
But the images tell a different story.
Perhaps England was ordered to pose for seamy photographs: One with a cigarette dangling from her smiling lips as she points to a naked prisoner’s genitals, the other as she holds an animal leash attached to a collar on another prisoner. But how could a 21-year-old mother-to-be (England is five-months pregnant) deemed responsible enough to work in an enemy prisoner facility in a war zone obey such an order? And then act is if she’s enjoying it?
Twenty years ago, I was in a position not unlike England: Similar in that I was a Marine lance corporal–equivalent in rank to an Army PFC–and my duties carried with them a great deal of responsibility for a young man. Dissimilar in that I made a flash decision far different from what England made even when she had more time to consider it.
I was with a Marine Detachment aboard a ship sailing somewhere off the eastern seaboard when a security-violation alarm was sounded throughout the ship.
Whenever such an alarm was sounded, the sailors knew to stop work and stand fast. The Marines then raced to all of the weapons spaces to ensure that none had been breached.
Any member of the ship’s crew–officer or enlisted–caught moving in any of the spaces was immediately detained, handcuffed, and taken to the primary Marine post where he was questioned. Once the ship was declared “secure,” the detained-and-questioned sailor was reminded in no uncertain terms why he must obey the rules of the ship during a security violation, whether a drill or not. The sailor was then released to an officer in his assigned department, where he usually underwent a second dressing down for failing to follow ship’s rules.
During this particular violation, however, one of the sailors was caught running through a passageway and he physically resisted the Marines when he was confronted. He was quite a large lad, and it subsequently took two Marines to wrestle him to the deck in a prone position. There he was searched, cuffed, helped to his feet, and hurried to the primary Marine post.
That’s where I–armed with a .45 automatic and a nightstick–was stationed as the acting Corporal of the Guard. When the two Marines brought the big sailor in, I directed them to remove the cuffs and hold him standing against the bulkhead, his legs were spread and his arms were splayed out from his body and above his head. It was just as we had been taught to do.
Being angry, the sailor cursed a few of the junior Marines who began taunting him. I directed everyone to “shut up,” while I phoned his department.
Within minutes, another Marine–the Sergeant of the Guard–strolled into the post. He began shouting at the sailor and then directed me to break the sailor’s hands with my stick. Stunned, I turned to the sergeant and asked why.
“Don’t you dare question me, Smith,” he snapped. “Break his f***ing hands.”
I flatly refused. There was no need to break bones. The sailor had been completely subdued and was incapable of resisting further. Not surprisingly, the sergeant began shouting, inches from my face, and threatened to punish me severely for not obeying the order. But I had no choice in the matter. The order was simply wrong: It was immoral and thus unlawful. The incident was never brought up again.
Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are bound to obey orders, even if there is a high probability that they may lose their lives. But no one is ever bound to an unlawful order. To do so, as England and her fellow soldiers say they have done, and then to dismiss their own responsibility in carrying out those orders is technically no different than an SS camp commander supervising the shoveling of humans into ovens, and then justifying his actions as those of an obedient soldier.
So how could a group of Americans in the 21st-century participate in the abhorrent behavior we’ve seen in the Abu Ghraib pictures? Some conspiracy theorists argue that PFC England’s military-police unit was directed to soften-up the prisoners for forthcoming interrogations by some black-ops unit operating outside the rules and regulations of the U.S. Army. Others have suggested that orders came from the CIA or perhaps even high-ranking officers in England’s chain of command.
If so, the softening procedure went far beyond what it was supposed to be. If nothing else, England’s apparent glee and the fact that photographs were taken clearly illustrate that it was nothing more than a series of stupid, sophomoric abuses of power by a few bad Army apples. The entire Abu Ghraib ordeal smacks of a lack-of-supervision, not orders from the top.
Soldiers and Marines weren’t perfect in my day either. On my ship, the abuses young leathernecks endured at the hands of senior Marines was far worse than anything seen in the images from Abu Ghraib. Hazing and other martial rites-of-passage ran the gamut from severe beatings (sometimes to temporary unconsciousness), being stripped naked and shackled to pull-up bars, backs and legs whipped with belts and the flat edges of swords, and bare heads smacked with belts and steel helmets. Blooding winging (a ritual wherein newly graduated Marine parachutists had their jump wings pinned directly into their chests). In one case a Marine private was severely burned–the result of his genitals and abdomen being painted with highly flammable boot-edge dressing and then ignited with a cigarette lighter. This incident nearly resulted in punishment for the Marine commander (who was not present during the incident). But no one ever accused or even suggested that President Ronald Reagan, as commander in chief, had any connection to any of it.
Though the abuses at Abu Ghraib made public thus far, are less severe than what I remember from my hitch on sea duty, they are far worse in the sense that they have been publicized globally, and the victims are enemy prisoners.
Thanks to England and her little band of degenerates, the proud uniform of the U.S. Army has been stained, and both the terrorists’ and President Bush’s political opponents have been handed an unfortunately effective propaganda tool.
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in a variety of national and international publications. His third book, Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces, has just been published.