As a child, Lynndie England was once hit so hard with a table-tennis bat by her mother that the bat snapped. “I was brought up right,” she told Emma Brockes in an interview for the British newspaper The Guardian in January 2009, shortly after Lynndie was dishonourably discharged from the United States Army after serving eighteen months of a three-year sentence for her part in the Iraqi Abu Ghraib prison sex abuse scandal.

Lynndie was raised in a trailer park in Fort Ashby, West Virginia, a remote Appalachian community where violence against misbehaving adolescents is regarded as part of the proper scheme of things. Lynndie’s early life is entirely nondescript. She grew up, went to school, got a job, was called up by the Army and posted to Iraq. Apart from her mother’s unorthodox stance with a table-tennis bat, the Guardian interview reveals little of Lynndie’s upbringing. Her high school photograph shows a typically – here comes that word again; there really is no other – nondescript teenager staring at the camera, smiling awkwardly as if she senses that her future won’t be as rosy-tinted as school yearbooks like to imply.

Dead chickens

Lynndie worked at a chicken processing plant. She apparently excelled at spotting dead chickens that had fallen off conveyor belts. “I was good at my job,” she spat venomously at her interviewer, as if it was the high point of her life – which it may have been. Contrary to health regulations, the AWOL chickens went straight back on the conveyor belts. Lynndie says her protests were ignored, so she chucked in the job. Lynndie England joined the US Army Reserve while she was still at high school. After the chicken plant she worked as a cashier and was briefly married at age 20. In 2003 she went to Iraq as a Specialist with the 372nd Military Police Company.

None of this gave any warning of what was to follow. That autumn, pictures of Lynndie, giving the thumbs-up and grinning as a naked, hooded Iraqi prisoner is forced to masturbate, headlined the world news. Other pictures show prisoners with leashes around their necks and naked men stacked in human pyramids.

Many of the pictures have a sexual element. A chained male prisoner with female lingerie draped over his face. A man kneeling with his face shoved into another prisoner’s groin. Behind them, other men hide their faces and genitalia from the camera. These were just the images that made it into the public domain.

Poster girl

The outrage was colossal. The US Department of Defence claimed that the abuse was the work of a small rogue element, led by Private First Class Charles Graner. It included at least two other female soldiers, Sabrina Harman and Megan Ambuhl. But it was Lynndie who became both lightning rod and poster girl for the scandal. Emma Brockes described her in the Guardian as looking “like a 14-year-old-boy who shouldn’t have been there in the first place”.

But it was Lynndie who became both lightning rod and poster girl for the scandal

Graner, who had a history of domestic violence, certainly had something going. In addition to the images showing the abuse and sexual humiliation of the Iraqi prisoners, others purportedly show various men and women of the 372nd Military Police taunting their captives by having group sex outside the cells. The images include Lynndie having oral and vaginal sex with Graner. She was in love with him at the time and would do anything to avoid losing him. She had good reason to be fearful: despite fathering Lynndie’s child, Graner later married the distinctly broad-minded Megan Ambuhl.

But as the saga unfolded, the rogue element theory came increasingly into question. Abu Ghraib’s nominal commander, Brigadier-General Janis Karpinksi, revealed that the part of the prison where Graner and Lynndie were stationed was sequestered by military intelligence and thus outside regular US Army jurisdiction. She denied knowledge of the abuses and claimed the methods employed by military intelligence were authorised by her superiors. In a May 2004 television interview Lynndie reportedly claimed that she was “instructed by persons in higher ranks” to abuse and humiliate the detainees. Whether these instructions included staging sex shows is uncertain. Accusations and counter-accusations flew until it was all as clear as President Bush’s exit plan for Iraq.

Chicken fodder

What is clear is that US military intelligence successfully dodged the mud-slinging. Karpinski was demoted to colonel for her part in the fiasco. Other administrative punishments were meted out and various plea bargains made. Lynndie England, Sabrina Harman and Megan Ambuhl received three-year sentences, while Charles Graner was demoted – somewhat symbolically, considering he was only a private to begin with – and given a ten-year sentence. As of 2009 Graner was the only person charged in relation to Abu Ghraib still in prison.

Ultimately, in comparison to the damage done to the US Army’s reputation, the punishments handed down for the Abu Ghraib abuses were chicken fodder (the chicken metaphor seems strangely apt). Most of the men abused at Abu Ghraib seem to have been detained without pretext and later released. One wonders how many peaceable Iraqis were driven to violence against the occupying forces by the inhumane, senseless abuse and humiliating sexual behaviour of Charles Graner and his gang.

If the images of Iraqi men being abused and sexually humiliated angered the Arab world, even more inflammatory were the abuses perpetrated by Graner and others in the US military against female prisoners. Little in the way of photographic evidence exists in the public domain, and probably just as well. The best-known picture, found on Graner’s camera, shows a young Iraqi woman forced to raise her blouse and expose her breasts. One former soldier claimed that such images circulated amongst US troops in Iraq like baseball cards. General Antonio Taguba, who first investigated the Abu Ghraib abuses, reported seeing a video of an American soldier sodomising a female prisoner.

The fog of war

The fog of war has obscured much. What is known (again, courtesy of Graner’s camera) is that Graner sodomised Lynndie. If the claims of forced sodomy against Iraqi female detainees are true, what does it tell us about Lynndie England that she submitted to the same act in the same humiliating circumstances? Why did she willingly carry out these macabre sex acts and abuses, whether the instructions came from Graner or from US military intelligence?

The question must have vexed the psychologists who interviewed Lynndie during her lengthy pre-trial custody. From the Guardian piece it appears that they found some symptoms but no particular cause. Lynndie was noted as being afraid of authority, along with its corollary behaviour, being easily led. Aside from that, the finest psychologists available to the US Army seem to have drawn a blank. The white space can be filled in with a single word: shame.

Reading between the lines of Emma Brockes’ interview, the jigsaw pieces are there to assemble for those who understand the mechanics of institutionalised shame. The given symptoms – the fear of authority and ease of manipulation – are clear-cut clues; the table-tennis bat incident is another. Even more telling is the one-word description of Lynndie from one of her former teachers at Frankfort High: “invisible”. Invisibility is one of the hallmarks of shame. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the word ‘shame’ derives from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning ‘to cover’.

Brought up right

Shame stems from a sense of worthlessness acquired during adolescence. In West Virginia they call it being “brought up right”. Brockes’ interview doesn’t delve into the sexual values of remote Appalachian communities in general and Lynndie England’s family in particular. If it had, it would have revealed a deeply entrenched negativity towards sex. This negativity was enforced with violence throughout Lynndie’s adolescence. This has to be present: no one who placed any kind of value on their own sexuality would commit the abuses that occurred in Abu Ghraib.

A person suffering from acute shame unconsciously tries to keep their head below the parapet of life. Lynndie’s entire existence revolved around making herself invisible to the table-tennis bats of authority. The initial authority in her life was her mother; later it was the school, then the Army, and finally Graner. The sex acts and abuses were externalisations of her own shame, masked by her love for Graner. Her feelings for Graner were not accidental: only by believing she loved him could she submit to his sordid demands. Lynndie England was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. As someone who would do anything to please the current authority figure in her life, prior to Abu Ghraib, Lynndie was no doubt an ideal soldier. How she must have loathed herself when Graner’s camera shamed her before the world.

Lynndie England must not be consigned to history as a monster. She was – and still is – a vulnerable human being, raised with the stick when the carrot would almost certainly have served better. Lynndie England was caught in a difficult situation. Due to her deep sense of shame, she lacked the clarity to see what was right and defend it.