Monday, 9 November 2015

A useful anniversary, as we debate further military action

November 8 was an anniversary worth noting.

It was the 33rd birthday of a woman whose name used to be notorious around the world, but who has faded pretty entirely from view recently: Lynndie England. She was brought up a disturbed child in a poor family in rural Kentucky. In childhood, she was diagnosed with selective mutism, a condition which leaves a sufferer unable to speak in certain situations or to certain people, even if threatened with dire consequences. At 20, she was married, but divorced soon afterwards.

Then in 2003, a decision she had taken while still not out of her troubled childhood, to join the US Army Reserve, transformed her life and that of many others. She was deployed to Iraq. A semi-educated, inadequately trained, part-time soldier, she found herself thrust into a conflict orchestrated by people she didn’t know, and who should themselves have known better.

She was presumably not a candidate for any of the war roles that attract glory, or at least honour, or at any rate respect. Instead she was sent to Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad, as a guard.

Being a prison warder isn’t an easy job. It requires training and then years of experience under the supervision of others who’ve already learned the ropes. England and her colleagues had nothing like that, and they were put to work in a prison where the number of inmates rapidly grew from 700 to 7000 with nothing like the equivalent growth in staff.

Worse still, as the US Senate Armed Services Committee report into the subsequent events claimed, guards such as England served under top leaders – right up to the level of Donald Rumsfeld, Defence Secretary – who “conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees.” Rumsfeld naturally denies the allegation, but he would, wouldn’t he?

Lynndie England fell for her section leader Charles Graner, by whom she later became pregnant. Unfortunately, in this too she was a victim: he was also in a relationship with another soldier in the section, Megan Ambuhl. Graner and Ambuhl are now married.

A very ordinary young woman, with few life skills
She cracked in a situation she was unfitted to manage
England was easily led and poorly equipped for her stressful environment. Her job was one in which it was accepted that behaviour most would find reprehensible wasn’t just tolerable, it was necessary. So she and her colleagues stepped way over the line. Not only did they engage in serious prisoner abuse, they even took photographs of themselves doing it. There could be no doubt of their guilt or of the extent of the abuse. You no doubt remember the pictures of England posing next to a pile of living naked bodies, smiling in satisfaction at her and her colleagues’ handiwork, or drawing a naked prisoner out of a cell by a dog lead.

She was eventually sentenced by court martial to three years in jail. She served half that time. She’s now back home, in her parents’ trailer, where she shares a bunk bed with her son and struggles to find work: many jobs won’t employ felons, and even in the ones that would, existing staff are uneasy about working alongside her.

I’m not attempting to excuse her actions. What she committed was a war crime, and her punishment was lenient. But it’s worth observing that her apparent inability to control base instincts has wrecked her life. That might not have happened had she not been sent to Iraq in the first place.

When it comes to wrecked lives, however, we also need to look at her victims. She, apparently, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Imagine the state of the men she and her colleagues traumatised.

Apart from the individual psychological damage they suffered, there must have been serious consequences on Iraq generally and ultimately on the West too. How recruiters for the movement we now know as ISIS must have loved those photos. What weapons they provided to discredit America and Western commitment to human rights.

Which raises a far bigger question. What were we in the West thinking of, blundering into Iraq, knowing that we would have to rely on the likes of Lynndie England?

It seems we believe it possible to solve agonising political problems by means of military action. Indeed, we believe that the military can do far more than merely win a quick victory on a battlefield, that it can take on the task of rebuilding a civil society afterwards. So we took an organisation designed to deliver extreme violence to defeat an enemy, and called on it to – manage a prison.

By what twisted logic did we think the army was equipped for that kind of work? Worse still, that it could be safely entrusted to disturbed, under-trained individuals? And that no consequences would come back to haunt us? 

Lynddie England spent eighteen months in jail. The father of her child was sentenced to ten years and is still inside. But no one above the rank of sergeant has ever been called to account for what happened out there.

Meanwhile Dubya Bush, Tony Blair and Donald Rumsfeld continue to parade around the world arguing that their behaviour was justified. Far more serious still, their heirs – such as David Cameron – are looking for the authority to launch further military action, this time in Syria.

Well, maybe we should take such action, maybe we shouldn’t. But let’s at least make sure before we do, that we’ve fully learned the lesson Lynddie England and her ilk can teach us. 

There’s not much sign we’ve done that yet.


Charles James said...

The British send our poor and unemployed into harm's way.
One argument for "no exemptions" conscription is that the ruling class and their supporters are reluctant to put their own children into danger.

David Beeson said...

Indeed, Charles. It's been said of so many conflicts that they are "a rich man's war but a poor man's fight." But I also think we need to look at what we're asking armies to do, and what kind of people we're sending in, untrained or inadequately trained, to do it.