There she is, Miss America for the 21st century: Pfc. Lynndie England, alleged dominatrix of Abu Ghraib prison and evil twin of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, the original poster girl of the Iraq war. However demythologized Lynch's story became, at least she was never seen dragging a prisoner of war on a leash.
England's signature photo-in which she's walking past a line of hooded, naked male prisoners, cigarette dangling from her smirking mouth, one hand giving a thumbs up sign to the camera, the other making a gun shape pointed at digitally blurred genitals-invokes the sort of national shame we haven't experienced since Madonna started affecting a British accent. Of course, England is merely the most photogenic of the captors who have already been dubbed "the six morons who lost the war" by Army wags. She'll have plenty of company in military court.
Whether you're a war supporter or not, the news from Abu Ghraib is grim and dispiriting, gut check time for many of the myths Americans tell about ourselves. And the news is distressingly incomplete: As of press time, the president and the secretary of defense both have warned that the worst revelations-and images -are yet to come. Yes, yes, the vast majority of U.S. soldiers are good and noble people who would never tolerate, much less participate in, such behavior. And it's to the military's credit that last year it began investigating abuse charges relatively quickly and that it seems hell-bent on punishing all offenders, at least if they are of sufficiently low rank.
But there's no denying that the crimes give the press in the Middle East and elsewhere free rein to complain that Bush is "an imperialist, immoral, racist, and crusader president" (Bahrain Tribune) and that the Americans have "no respect for the people of Iraq" (Jordan Times). That the Red Cross believes up to 90 percent of Iraqi detainees have been arrested "by mistake" doesn't give us any reason to stand up and cheer.
The reaction of the some of the domestic punditocracy is almost as embarrassing as the abuse itself. Rush Limbaugh said that what took place at Abu Ghraib was "no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation," as if hooking blindfolded POWs up to electrical wires or sodomizing them with chemical light sticks was the same as a fraternity circle jerk. Columnist Linda Chavez invoked a Girls Gone Wild scenario, fingering gender integration of the troops as the key. Women like Lynndie England, she wrote, "look like they're showing off at some wild party trying to impress everybody with how 'cool' they are." (Unlike Limbaugh, Chavez admitted that the malefactors "dishonored their country and deserve severe punishment.")
The Orlando Sentinel's widely syndicated Kathleen Parker didn't hesitate to collar the real culprits: the sibling auteurs behind the gross-out comedy There's Something About Mary. What we witnessed "was 'The Farrelly Brothers Do Baghdad,'" she wrote. "There's not much difference between what those soldiers enacted in Abu Ghraib for digital cameras and 15 seconds of instafame back home and what America's increasingly debased culture embraces as good harmless fun… How else to explain the giddy photographs of young soldiers mugging for cameras and giving the thumbs-up sign beside humiliated prisoners, naked and masturbating? Another Farrelly movie, 'Dumb and Dumber,' comes to mind."
Hmm, how else to explain the abuse? Take a cue from U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who investigated it for the Pentagon. He told the Senate the abuse was due to "failure in leadership--lack of discipline, no training whatsoever and no supervision."
Or take a cue from Commander in Chief George W. Bush, who dropped by the Pentagon shortly after the scandal broke to conduct an unscheduled employee review with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was slow to read even the executive summary of Taguba's report when it first hit his desk. "You are doing a superb job," Bush told Rummy in front of reporters. "Our nation owes you a debt of gratitude."