A classic feminist bumper sticker reads, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people too.” But behind that idea often lurks the assumption that women are a kinder, gentler type of people. So what are we to make of Private Lynndie England, the poster girl for the Abu Ghraib scandal? In her introduction to this compelling but conflicted collection of essays about the role of women in the dark side of America’s war on terror, Barbara Ehrenreich describes how England upended the idea that violence and cruelty are almost exclusively male traits. “[That] kind of feminism,” she writes, “died in Abu Ghraib.”
The soul-searching chapters that follow, however, largely sidestep the reality that women torture for the same reasons men do—stress, groupthink, and just plain sadism. Many of the writers can’t bring themselves to see England as a woman in charge of her own actions. One writes that “England is a disturbing figure because she seems so powerful and free.” General Janis Karpinski, the only high-ranking officer charged in the abuse scandal, offers a laborious excuse for England’s misconduct, arguing that her lover, Specialist Charles Graner, manipulated her into posing for those horrific photos. The existence of violent women remains so mind-blowing that even a female general can’t get beyond the ironically un-feminist explanation that they are merely pawns in men’s dirty games.