What happens in war happens'
In 2004, photographs of abuses at Abu Ghraib shocked the world. Seven people were charged, but the face of the scandal will always be Lynndie England, the 21-year-old private grinning at the camera. Emma Brockes meets her
* Emma Brockes
o Emma Brockes
o The Guardian, Saturday 3 January 2009 o Article history
US army private first-class Lynndie England in 2005. Photograph: LM Otero/AP
The road to Fort Ashby, West Virginia, runs through Mineral County, an area of freezing grey farmland and barrack-style bungalows, where the sign outside the bar - "Hunters welcome" - has an unnerving effect on the passing non-hunter. In Cindy's coffee shop, customers speculate on the whereabouts of a lost cow and tell a weird Republican joke about the noise a chicken makes when its head is cut off: "Barack-Obama!, Barack-Obama!" Lynndie England has lived in Fort Ashby since she was two, but when she appears, suddenly, in the car park, her outline is crooked with self-consciousness. She grew her hair for a while, but people recognised her anyway, so she cut it short again.
The last time journalists came to Fort Ashby in any number, they upset residents by portraying it as "a giant trailer park". There are two bars, two banks, a fire station, a school and a bookshop - the woman who runs the latter says, "I've no sympathy for what she did, but people behave differently in war than they do in their chairs at home, watching it on TV."
It is almost two years since England returned home after serving half of a three-year sentence for maltreating prisoners at Abu Ghraib. In mid-December, a report by the Senate armed services committee concluded that, contrary to the US government's assertion that a few "bad apples" were to blame for abuses at the prison, responsibility ultimately lay with Bush officials, including the defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for policies that "conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees". (A spokesman for Rumsfeld rejected the findings as "unfounded allegations against those who have served our nation".
Whatever the official findings, the face of the scandal will always be that of the then 21-year-old Private Lynndie England. She wasn't the only woman soldier in the photographs - Sabrina Harman and Megan Ambuhl were both court martialled for their roles - but England was the most arresting looking, like a 14-year-old boy who shouldn't have been there in the first place. Her legal defence, that she was unduly influenced by Specialist Charles Graner, the father of her child and the only soldier still serving time for abuses at Abu Ghraib, was compounded outside the courtroom by assumptions about her background; that she came from a place where people didn't know better.
England is now 26 and spends her days looking for a job, caring for her son and trying to avoid running into people she went to high school with. In the frigid air outside the coffee shop, she talks to her lawyer, Roy, and looks away when I approach. Roy is a Gulf war veteran and assistant county prosecutor who, since her release, has acted as England's chaperone and press agent. Roy suggests we drive in convoy to the bar where hunters are welcome and where the interview will proceed.
After her release, England moved back in with her parents. Her sister, Jessie, lives with her family in the trailer opposite. England and her four-year-old son, Carter, sleep in a single bed customised from the bunk beds she and Jessie slept on when growing up.
"Everybody always wants to know about the trailers," Roy says. Although it's midday, the windows in the bar are shuttered and in a couple of hours the patrons will be drunk enough to come over to England and start offering their opinions. Roy shrugs: "For the most part, it's just low-income housing."
"Well, you know what?" England says. "In New York - I've never been to New York, but I've heard people say - there's apartments there where people pay $1,500 a month for something smaller than a trailer. We only pay $200. And they look down on us. It's like, you're stupid."
Her attempts to find a job have so far been unsuccessful. Most of the fast-food joints in the area won't employ felons, and when she goes for an administrative job, she makes it to the second interview before word gets back that the staff would feel uncomfortable working with her.
Her mother works at a manufacturing plant on a shift that finishes at 11.30pm; her father is a maintenance man on the railway, doing nightshifts from 11pm-7am. Her brother, Josh, is a corrections officer at the local prison.
"Isn't that funny?" Roy says and grins. He looks at England.
She is still loath to go out in public. For the first few months after the story broke, England shopped late at night to avoid being recognised. "I was nervous about going into Cindy's and meeting you all this morning. I was sitting there waiting for Roy to turn up." I ask if she got much hate mail and she says that, yes, while she was in jail, fan mail addressed to The England Family, Fort Ashby, piled up at her parents' home. "I opened all of them. I still have them. They came from all over the world. A lot of mail actually came from overseas: Germany, England, France." She smiles and then looks doubtful, as if she has perhaps said the wrong thing.
George Washington took his troops through Mineral County in 1755, and the fort he built still stands, opposite the primary school. It's a historic area, with a proud Appalachian culture that locals resign themselves to being misunderstood. Hunting is a big feature - England shot her first squirrel at the age of 13. I ask what she did with it and she looks at me as though I'm slow. "Put it in a stew." As a felon, she is prohibited from owning or using a gun again. "That pissed me off; made me so mad." What she liked about hunting, she says, was "the going out, being in the woods. Time to think, being out in nature. I love it. Now I can't do that."
The circumstances in which England and her fellow soldiers of the 372nd Military Police Company found themselves in October 2003 are well known by now. They were posted to Iraq from Kuwait earlier that year and first stationed at Al Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad. In the autumn of 2003, they were moved to Abu Ghraib, the prison where inmate numbers had swelled from 700 in the summer to 3,000, and then to 7,000 without anything like the necessary gain in staff. Janis Karpinski, the commanding officer in charge of the prison and 14 others in Iraq, described the situation as "understaffed, overwhelmed and harried".
It would be the testimony of England, Graner and the five other soldiers identified in the photos that when they arrived at the prison, the abusive practices - keeping inmates naked, making them wear female underwear and crawl on the floor - were already established in some form as part of pre-interrogation "softening up" techniques approved by military intelligence officers. In the Taguba report, the official inquiry into abuse at Abu Ghraib, Karpinski was criticised for her poor leadership and demoted from brigadier general to colonel, but no officer higher in rank than a sergeant was convicted of wrongdoing. Karpinski said she knew nothing about the abuse and that those parts of the prison had been removed from her control and handed to military intelligence. She called England an "impoverished, undereducated young woman" whom it was absurd to blame for acting independently. She suggested she had latched on to Graner as a protector and "father figure".
England's sense of persecution is so advanced at this stage that the question of whether or not she is contrite has almost no meaning. In the most notorious photo, she holds a leash with a naked man crawling out of his cell on the end of it. In another, she makes the thumbs up sign behind a human pyramid. In another, she grins at a naked prisoner as he is forced to simulate masturbation.
After the photos came out, people looked at England's childhood for some kind of explanatory episode, an early demonstration of cruelty, or else evidence that she had herself been abused. While Graner, the ringleader and the man who took some of the photos, has had three court orders secured against him by his ex-wife for alleged domestic violence, England, 10 years his junior, barely had a backstory at all. She was, she says, only in trouble at school once, when a boy in her science class talked her into writing a letter making fun of the teacher. "And I apparently left it on the floor in the classroom. She knew the handwriting. I was, like, he made me do it."
She says her mother once hit her so hard with a table tennis bat that it broke, but considers that normal for West Virginia. "I mean, yeah, we were brought up right. If we were out of line, we got spanked. We got privileges taken away. We had to do chores, dishes. Mow the grass."
In her trial, it came out that as a young child England was diagnosed with "selective mutism" and had a learning disability, but she graduated along with the rest of her class. "I was friends with everyone. You get to the teenager thing and you're starting to get into your little groups and stuff, and I was friends with everybody. Each group - goths, alternative - I had friends in every group." A former teacher of England's at Frankfort High said there was only one word to describe her presence in his classroom: "Invisible."
England's first job out of school was as a cashier, and then for nine months she worked at the local chicken factory. She worked in "spray down" and evisceration - "when the blood is let out and they go through the steamer, get the feathers out and clean 'em, all by hand" - and then in marination. "Regular seasoning, garlic and onion. Every time I smell that now..." She makes a face. "Can you imagine a 200-gallon tank?" It paid $9 an hour, with an extra 50 cents for marination, and after three months she was promoted to the role of trainer. "I liked the work, because I could do it well," she says.
Roy interrupts: "They have such a turnover there, that if you can stick it out, you rise quickly."
England looks annoyed. "What are you saying?"
"I'm just saying that if you stick it out..."
"I was good at my job," says England.
At some point she noticed that some of the rules were being broken - when people dropped meat, say, they'd put it back on the conveyor belt. She told her manager, who said he'd look into it. "And a month later, when nothing had changed, I quit."
Whistle-blowing at a chicken factory does not, of course, contradict the basic principles of chicken processing in the way that whistle-blowing in the army might conflict with the training that precedes it. "In war, you don't rat on your buddies. There were only seven of us charged, but believe me, there were a lot more behind the pictures. But we didn't rat anybody out."
She is keen to emphasise how well she got on with Iraqis in the early part of her deployment. "We'd go to the ice-cream shop, we'd hang out there with the locals, learn about their customs, and they were interested in ours. A lot of the stuff was really cool."
When she got to Abu Ghraib, she was assigned to administrative duties and had no cause to be in the cellblocks, except that she was hanging out with Graner. She found the scene down there odd. "When we first got there, we were like, what's going on? Then you see staff sergeants walking around not saying anything [about the abuse]. You think, OK, obviously it's normal." Graner, too, was initially disturbed, and is on record as having raised some objections. "When he first started working on that wing, he would tell me about it and say, 'This is wrong.' He even told his sergeant and platoon leader. He said he tried to say something. But everyone is saying it's OK to do it and getting pats on the back."
There have been suggestions that they wouldn't have treated the prisoners that way if they had been white. England looks extravagantly outraged. Roy says, "That's the first time I've heard that. One of the guys convicted was African-American. I don't remember any overt racism. You're in a war, and you're the good guys and they're the bad guys, and that's how most Americans see the world. And those were the bad guys."
Most of the people in Abu Ghraib were released without charge. Karpinski estimated that 90% of detainees in the prison were innocent. Before England can comment, Roy says, "In the pyramid, all the guys had been rounded up after rioting and shooting an American guard. There were some others who were released, but these guys were bad guys. They may not have been the insurgents, but they'd done some things they shouldn't have done."
England says, "They were screaming, we fucking hate you, we're gonna kill you, blah blah."
Did she see any women prisoners? "At one point we had four. Oh my God, this one, she was crazy. They had to take her to the loony bin. We called her the wolf lady coz she had all this hair." She starts laughing. "She was screaming and whatever."
Did she see any photos with women prisoners in them?
Roy says, "The only thing I know is that someone got in trouble because he had had some contact with one of them."
England snorts and says, "His dick had some contact."
It was in Al Hillah that England and Megan Ambuhl got into the habit of hanging out with Graner when he was on duty and they weren't. At other times, they'd watch DVDs and drink: "Raw drink. They were selling it cheap. We would get like a fifth of whisky, 10 bucks. I was like, get the fuck out of here! I'll tell you what, you could not drink it straight. So what we would do is buy grape soda and mix it in, and after one cup you'd be like ... it was not regular whisky, I tell you. Crazy."
At this point Ambuhl was seeing another soldier in the company and the two of them, with England and Graner, effectively double dated. I say Ambuhl was smart to keep herself out of most of the photos. England snaps: "She didn't plan that. It just happened. She wasn't clever. She's a pothead. She was just there. She wasn't in a lot of photos because she didn't want to be. She would just walk away." At this point a man from the bar staggers over and says to England, "Good going! Damned good thing! When you were in Abu Ghraib, you shoulda cut 'em all off." He makes a castrating motion with two fingers.
England says, "Shit, I don't - " She grins awkwardly. "Thanks."
Roy looks at me and says, "Did you understand that?"
Yes, I say.
"I want that in the interview. She gets that all the time."
England looks depressed.
Why didn't she walk away from the photos? "I didn't want them. But he was so persistent. Go on! Just for me! If you loved me, you'd do it. I'm like, gee, OK just take the damned picture."
There were other pictures Graner took, of him having anal sex with her, of her simulating sex with a drunk, passed out soldier. She says he wasn't ever violent, just manipulative. "They said in the trial that authority figures really intimidate me. I always aim to please. They said that one of the reasons Graner easily intimidated me was because I saw him as an authority figure. So I was really compliant."
Her mother was furious that England was naive enough to have been influenced by Graner. "She used to be a really nice person, really loving. That's gone. The whole thing with me totally destroyed that." Does she feel guilty about that? She looks sulky. "It's her own fault. I mean for real, she reacted like it was happening to her. She was, like, you don't know how I feel. I said, 'How d'you think I feel?' I said, 'This is happening to me.'"
Her father, 49, hasn't spoken publicly. "He didn't tell us how he was feeling. But he took his feelings out in another way and we won't go there." She looks at Roy.
Like what? Did he break something?
She starts laughing. "Yeah. He pretty much broke up a 30-year marriage." While England was in prison, it came to light that her father had been conducting a 17-year affair with a local woman. "My mum's the one who broke her hand on his face. He never hit her after she beat the hell out of him. She took a baseball bat to him and he caught it and took it, but he never hit her."
They got divorced - "Roy was my mum's lawyer" - but are back together again now. What's the atmosphere like in the trailer? England sighs. "I'm glad I'm on medication."
It was only during Graner's trial that England found out that all along he had been two-timing her with Ambuhl. The two of them are now married. (Graner recently asked for a DNA test to prove that Lynndie's son is his, having always denied it. "I said in an interview that he'd never see Carter, so just coz I said that, he probably thought, 'Oh, I'll see him. I'll get visitation rights.' To prove me wrong.")
Graner was sentenced to 10 years. When she was serving her own sentence, did it change her view of how she'd treated the prisoners in Iraq? Did she feel more sympathy for them?
She shakes her head. "I mean, I had a lot of time to think about it after the trial and what I'd learned. Thinking back ... I don't want to say I matured more, but I realised that I was so naive and trusting. But what happens in war, happens. It just happened to be photographed and come out. Of course, a lot of people said if you guys had just shut up or killed them, there wouldn't have been any trouble. I could think of it like that, but ... I mean, I don't even know how to describe it. They were the enemy. I don't want to say they deserved what they got, but they ... um." There is a long pause. "They ... This is my problem. I can't think of words."
England was told by a psychologist that she is a "visual", not a "verbal" person, and has a heightened "visual analytical system". "He said he had never seen that. Maybe 100 kids in the US have this ability. That's one of the reasons I was so good at the chicken plant, coz it's so visual. You're looking for bruises, or feathers or blood. That's why I moved up so quick. I was good with the visual stuff. Hand-eye coordination. Grading everything. That's why I was a trainer so fast. I didn't know anything of that till my trial."
She has a lot of nightmares. She is on antidepressants, for which the military pays at the moment and which she's worried she won't be able to afford after her official discharge. "I probably need to be on something for the rest of my life."
It is England's rather than Graner's face that will be remembered. The photographer invites England to accompany him for photos, but she is reluctant; she lingers at the table and fidgets. Roy jokes, "How about I find you a hood and some wires?"
England laughs, mirthlessly. "You know me too well." We do some shots and then go outside, while Roy stays in the bar. England talks about hunting. We walk on some derelict land behind the bar and look out at the trailer park. She talks about her childhood. "We ran and jumped and cursed, just because we could," she says, in that odd mocking tone. Afterwards, we go back to the bar and England stands, deflecting interest, waiting for permission to leave.