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For many Americans, the recent photographs of prisoner abuse in Iraq evoked shock and revulsion that were compounded by women’s presence among the gleeful abusers. Especially unsettling were the pictures of Lynndie England, leering as she held a leash around the neck of a naked prisoner and observed a pile of naked and dehumanized detainees. A woman also figures prominently in the chain of command responsibility for prison conditions at Abu Ghraib; Brigadier General Janis Karpinski has been suspended as commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade. This is not the role we envision for women in general or women soldiers in particular. Centuries of gender stereotypes have led us to expect more uplifting roles. We want to see women as updated Florence Nightingales, as damsels in distress like Jessica Lynch, or as patriotic casualties of a noble struggle, like the 20 female soldiers who have died so far in the war in Iraq. “I was surprised to see a woman” in the Abu Ghraib photos, acknowledged Retired Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy, the Army’s highest ranking officer. “One would think that women would be less likely to participate in something so completely unfair and really brutal.” If so, the reason is partly that women have seldom had the chance. Until recently, legal restrictions and cultural expectations kept women out of roles most conducive to abuse. Before the 1970s, women constituted less than 2% of the military, and were barred from combat positions and military academies. Today their representation in the armed forces is about 15%, and many limitations on combat have been lifted or eroded by the changing dynamics of warfare. Women now occupy positions of unprecedented power. And as we are now unpleasantly reminded, those positions enable them to become perpetrators, not just victims, of abuse. Three of the seven soldiers facing charges for Abu Ghaib misconduct are women. Their lawyers claim that they were just following orders. Karpinski maintains that she did not know of the abuse. Regardless of the merits of those defenses, the graphic record of women’s involvement in atrocities raises broader, long-standing issues about gender roles in military contexts. Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, puts the question many Americans are asking: “Is it good for civilization and society to try to turn women into men and put them in the traditional role of the male warrior? You have to train people to kill. I think we have to have the debate about whether this is a desirable thing for women.” Old assumptions die hard Yet the assumption underlying such reactions-that women’s traditional goodness is being subverted by their military involvement-also bears rethinking. Contrary to popular wisdom, men have no monopoly on wartime atrocities. Women served as guards in Nazi and Gulag concentration camps. A prominent female politician in Bosnia and Herzegovina recently pleaded guilty to abuses related to ethnic cleansing. Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, Rwanda’s former minister of women’s affairs, is on trial for inciting Hutus to rape and brutalize thousands of female Tutsis. The list could continue. Moreover, a cottage industry of psychological research indicates that the vast majority of individuals, female as well as male, are capable of atrocities under certain conditions. The most discomfiting parallel to the human rights violations at Abu Ghraib was an experiment conducted at Stanford University during the early 1970s. There, undergraduates were randomly assigned roles as guards or prisoners in what was to be a two-week simulation. The experiment was terminated after six days, because the student-guards embraced their role with unanticipated sadism at a level that was comparable to what we have recently seen on display in Iraq. Experts who have studied such abuse believe that it is largely traceable to group dynamics rather than individual immorality. To resist the intense peer pressure present in many military or prison contexts takes an exceptional combination of courage and conscience that is not related to gender. It should come as no surprise that some female guards at Abu Ghraib, who were young, inadequately trained and supervised, and eager to “fit in,” failed to measure up to civilized expectations. What this experience teaches is not that we should rethink the role of women in the military. It is rather that we should rethink the role of the military policies that we are pursuing and the structures of accountability that have failed us. Our unbridled war against terrorism has encouraged a kind of demonization and dehumanization of all potential enemies. And that mindset encourages our embattled forces in Iraq to replicate the brutalities that we ostensibly intervened to prevent. In commenting on the atrocities, President Bush maintained that “This does not represent the America I know.” Would that it were true. Deborah L. Rhode, an NLJ columnist, is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford Law School.

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