USA Today, May 12, 2004
Vilified soldier shouldn't be prejudged—
just ask her mom
By Bruce Kluger
Last month, my 5-year-old, Audrey, raised
eyebrows in school when she scribbled on a
classmate's drawing, then cut it with scissors
and crumpled it into a ball.
When her teacher presented the evidence to
me, I was astonished. "That's simply not my
kid," I said.
"I know," she responded. "That's why I'm
showing it to you."
That evening, Audrey told me the back-story—a saga that began as a
misunderstanding, then escalated into an argument, hurt feelings and the
aforementioned arts-and-crafts desecration.
Even so, I'd never known Audrey to be capable of such fury. Thankfully, the
incident was an anomaly. But multiply my alarm by several hundred thousand, and
we might begin to understand the shock and incredulity of Terrie England, whose
daughter, Pfc. Lynndie England, appears in the shameful scrapbook of photos
documenting the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
"Everyone we know is being supportive because they know Lynndie, and this is not
Lynndie that they are showing," her mother told The (Baltimore) Sun.
Despite the damning photos, how can we ignore Terrie England's only-a-mother-
knows defense of her child? In this way, the mystery of Lynndie England personifies
the nation's bewilderment over the whole Abu Ghraib mess.
The dichotomy was never more apparent than last weekend. CNN chronicled
friends' description of England as a good-hearted American, while Saturday Night
Live named her "Dirtbag of the Week."
Why the confusion? Because again, the media are fulfilling the maddening mandate
of modern-day broadcasting by playing fill-in-the-blanks on developing stories. Like
the rest of the U.S., reporters lack concrete facts (thanks largely to the Bush
administration's chronic addiction to secrecy). Yet the images of abuse are
evidently too compelling to pass up. And who can resist the ironic tug of painting
Lynndie England as the evil twin of Jessica Lynch, that other West Virginia soldier
whose actions in Iraq were inflated by reporters in search of the perfect war story?
In the coming weeks, the drama promises to mutate into a perverse reality show
with tangled plot lines and a villainous cast—notably, Pfc. England as the Omarosa
of the torture set. Yet rather than program my TiVo to keep atop the latest
episodes, I find it more instructive to ask: What could cause a decent kid to become
an international symbol of cruelty?
Psychology scholar Philip Zimbardo discovered the answer in 1971. He conducted
a mock prison incarceration in the basement of Stanford University's psychology
building. So quickly did the student-guards transform into sadistic tormentors—
forcing captives to strip naked, wear bags on their heads and perform sexual acts—
that Zimbardo cut short the experiment by a week. "It's not that we put bad apples in
a good barrel," he recalls. "We put good apples in a bad barrel. The barrel corrupts
anything it touches."
That warfare can poison otherwise healthy minds is not new. Eric Dean Jr., whose
1997 book, Shook Over Hell, explored the psychological suffering of Civil War and
Vietnam combatants, says the Iraqi prison fiasco was inevitable. "War is so uniquely
horrible that citizens cannot comprehend the brutality of it," Dean says. "So
governments must create fictions to justify it. In this case, the administration says
most soldiers are honorable, then it heaps brutality charges on the few.
"That's unfair and inaccurate," Dean continues. "This is a systemic problem that
began with the denial of legal and human rights at Guantanamo Bay (Cuba). The
administration created a green light for what we see in these photos, and they're
scapegoating Lynndie England and the others."
Whatever the real story, one thing is certain: Lynndie England is now a changed
person. Her mom says Lynndie, who dreamed of becoming a "storm chaser,"
recently ducked for cover at the sound of lightning, fearing it was mortar fire.
Lynndie is now at Ft. Bragg, N.C., pregnant and facing court-martial.
Until the truth is known, this soldier deserves better than the obfuscation of
information by the government and a rush to judgment by the media.
Her mother deserves better, too.