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Angel and Whore

Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England--the damsel in distress and the castrating bitch--symbolize our shifting perceptions of the war in Iraq

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The inevitable comparisons have been painted with the simplistic broad strokes that are possible only when we're discussing so-called public people about whom we actually know nothing. Jessica Lynch, who was rescued from her Iraqi captors last spring. Lynndie England, photographed humiliating Iraqi inmates at Saddam Hussein's notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Both of them young, white women from West Virginia who joined the Army to escape the meager circumstances of their upbringing. One a hero, one a villain.

Newsweek calls England "the anti--Jessica Lynch." Time describes her as "a Jessica Lynch gone wrong." England's father, Kenneth, attempted to spin the comparison to his daughter's advantage, telling the Baltimore Sun, "Just like what happened with that Lynch girl, this is getting blown out of proportion, but in a negative way rather than a positive way." On Saturday, England ranked as the number-one "mover" on the Yahoo Buzz Index, beating out The Bachelor. On Monday, a search of Google News for stories referring to both women yielded 171 hits.

Trying to understand what's gone wrong in Iraq by looking at these two women, though, is like peering through the wrong end of a telescope: what you wind up focusing on is very small and hard to make out. Because this is not about them. It's about us.

In 2003, the Pentagon--briefly pinned down on the road to Baghdad and needing a public-relations victory--transformed an ordinary kidnapping into a tale of (literally) unbelievable heroism, portraying Lynch as a gun-slinging Amazon who kept mowing down the enemy even after she'd been injured. The media ate it up, only to back down after those who knew what had really happened--including Lynch herself--expressed their disgust.

In 2004, England--whose star turn in those photographs is admittedly shocking--has overshadowed her fellow prison guards, including her alleged boyfriend, Specialist Charles Graner, who may have supervised some of the torture and who is reportedly the father of England's unborn child. More to the point, England was just a bit player. The International Committee of the Red Cross has reported that U.S. forces had been suspected of abusing Iraqi prisoners for many months. In the New Yorker, legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has made it clear that the abuses couldn't have taken place without the knowledge, even the encouragement, of higher-ups.

The very word "abuse" doesn't do justice to what supposedly took place. Reportedly, Americans beat, raped, and even murdered Iraqi prisoners, making that photo of England holding a naked man on a leash look mild by comparison. But it was England whom the Boston Herald dubbed "Iraq's Queen of Mean" on its front page last Friday. And it was England whom the London Sun proclaimed a "Witch" in a screaming page-one headline, followed by "Evil Soldier Lynndie in New Torture Photo."

"I do think there's some truth to the feminist thinking that we in the media tend to portray women as either wonderful things or terrible sinners--as angels or whores. It could be that what we're seeing is the military portrayal of that," says Geneva Overholser, Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting at the Missouri School of Journalism. "I'm sure Lynndie England has been oversimplified in that it makes her out to be the epitome of this awful chapter. If we are using these young women to symbolize something, they certainly can't be said to symbolize those who lead the troops."

No, they don't. Rather, they symbolize our shifting perceptions of the war in Iraq. Jessica Lynch was the feel-good symbol of a feel-good moment, a brave young woman who, during her rescue, became that hardiest of archetypes: the damsel in distress. Lynndie England is a different symbol for a different moment. The occupation is going badly, American soldiers are being killed on a daily basis, and the Iraqi people seem to hate us--a far cry from the grateful masses whom the White House said would greet U.S. troops with sweets and flowers.

Thus the stage was set for England's arrival on the scene, parading in front of naked men, pointing to their digitally obscured phalluses while giving a thumbs-up sign, even as her own phallic symbol, a cigarette, dangles from her mouth. (Sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette. But not this time.) The damsel in distress has been supplanted by the castrating bitch.

Unaccustomed as we are to women as warriors, women have often played important symbolic roles during times of war. Joan of Arc is France's national hero. During World War I, propaganda posters made prominent use of women--as the symbol of Belgium, being raped by "The Hun" (a German), and as images of death, either from venereal disease or from war itself. In World War II, Rosie the Riveter was a home-front heroine, filling the wartime factory jobs left vacant by our fighting men, and Tokyo Rose was the evil traitor. The Vietnam War was characterized at least as much by the anti-war movement as by the fighting itself, and the two best-known figures were both women: Jane Fonda, the "bad" protester, who visited North Vietnam and spoke out against the United States, and Joan Baez, the "good" protester, who only wanted peace.

Moreover, womanhood--motherhood--is itself an important symbol of war, says Lloyd deMause, editor of the Journal of Psychohistory. War can often be explained, he says, as a way of appeasing a neglectful or abusive mother. In artistic depictions, men are frequently portrayed marching off to war bearing guns, tanks, and other weapons--phallic symbols of the father--while, on high, a female figure (France's republican symbol Marianne, Mother Britannia, Mother Russia) is seen urging them on for the protection of the "Motherland." (Granted, this isn't quite that simple, given the "Fatherland" imagery of Nazi Germany or, for that matter, our own Uncle Sam.) In psychological terms, deMause says, Jessica Lynch was "Mommy in danger: she was under attack, and we'd better go save her." By contrast, the symbolism of Lynndie England is that "Mommy is still bad. She's still torturing us." The degree to which the England images have resonated, he adds, suggests there remains a pent-up need among many Americans for still more war in order to please the "Killer Mommy."

The war in Iraq has brought these archetypes to life, emphasizing just how female the U.S. military has become. Next to Jessica Lynch, the best-known American prisoner of war was another woman, Shoshana Johnson. Lynndie England is just one of three female suspects in the abuse-and-torture investigation. And the head of Abu Ghraib when many of these depraved acts took place was a woman, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski. Thus the reality of our ambivalent feelings about women in uniform and the symbolism we attach to female images have merged, making it difficult to see the actual person behind the psychological baggage. Conservative columnist Linda Chavez revealed perhaps more than she intended when she wondered "whether the presence of women in the unit actually encouraged more misbehavior, especially of the sexual nature that the pictures reveal."

Caryl Rivers, a journalism professor at Boston University and co-author (with Rosalind Barnett) of the forthcoming Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs, says, "Women get packaged as these one-dimensional figures, to package whatever we want at the moment. We wanted a hero a year ago, and now we want a villain. The media always falls for this. It just seems like a good way to make things simple."

And not just simple; satisfying, too. According to Michael Bronski, a visiting professor of women's studies at Dartmouth College and a Phoenix contributor, beneath the revulsion over England's behavior is a rather different emotion. "The whole exercise of the sexual humiliation--no matter who actually set it up: CIA, armed forces, private companies--is to negate the masculinity of Arab men," said Bronski in an e-mail exchange. "I think--as horrible as all this is--it is not going to 'have legs' in the U.S. because on some level Americans still want to see payback for 9/11 and the sexual humiliation of Arab men (no matter what country they are from) does this. Especially if it is by a woman."

Reality intrudes. Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England are not just symbols, not just archetypes. They are actual human beings. Lynch, who continues to recover from her injuries, spoke to about 150 graduating students at West Virginia University Institute of Technology on Saturday, and asked her audience to pray for the families of the Iraqi torture victims. According to the Associated Press, she would not talk about England. When I tried to interview Lynch last week, a family spokeswoman told me she had no comment.

And what do we know, really, about Lynndie England? Now being held incommunicado, she's been portrayed as divorced-at-21 trailer trash and as an ambitious young woman who wanted to go to college and become a storm-chaser; as a tough-as-nails soldier and as someone kind enough to have adopted a cat in Iraq. Most likely she is an ordinary young woman, perhaps more callous than some, who found herself in a dehumanizing situation and let herself get caught up in the moment.

"I think people are obviously disappointed that we're in the limelight for this reason," says Jan Alderton, managing editor of the Cumberland Times-News, the daily newspaper of England's hometown, near Maryland's West Virginia border. "Having said that, though, I think they realize that this is a story that's much bigger than this local region. There's a lot of media here right now, and I guess there's more on the way." I asked Alderton if he thought England's misdeeds had been exaggerated. Rather than summon up some local pride and defend her, his response was surprisingly ambivalent. "I don't know," he told me. "It's awfully difficult when you have something in black and white, like I've seen. While I want to see her have a fair trial, right now it's not looking too good. We'll see what if any extenuating factors were there."

Extenuating circumstances or not, the media should be cautious about treating England as a symbol rather than as a person. She's not the only one under investigation, and she's almost certainly not the most culpable.

"A mother beats up her kids or kills her kids, and she's a monster, like Susan Smith. Men kill their kids all the time," says Belle Adler, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and a former producer for CNN. "I suppose the press can't resist the element of the female being bad."

Of course, what took place at Abu Ghraib was monstrous. But Lynndie England deserves to be judged by her deeds, within the context of what her peers were doing and what the commanders expected and demanded. By herself, she is no more a symbol of a war gone bad than Jessica Lynch was of American triumphalism.

Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television, speaks of "the tyranny of the visual," adding: "Those pictures insist on being reckoned with. They will not be ignored. And people do tend to take little symbolic moments sometimes and see them as representative of much larger things."

To the extent that those images of Lynndie England humiliating Iraqi prisoners help us understand the horror of what took place at Abu Ghraib, so much the better. But if we allow her to stand in for everyone else--to become not just a symbol but the prime culprit, or perhaps even a martyr for the shame-faced pleasure we take in what she did--then we will have done justice a terrible disservice. Ultimately, it is others who must be held accountable--including ourselves, for not doing more to prevent this misbegotten war being fought in our name.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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