Published in:   Asian Journal of Women’s Studies, vol. 10, No. 3, September, 2004


Cynthia Enloe

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Bio: Cynthia Enloe is Research Professor of International Development and Women’s Studies at Clark University in Massachusetts. She teaches and writes about women, feminism and international politics. Her recent books include Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (2000) and Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives (2000). Her newest book is The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in A New Age of Empire (2004).




Wielding Masculinity inside Abu Ghraib :


Making Feminist Sense of an American Military Scandal



          by Cynthia Enloe


In April, 2004, a year after the US government launched its massive military invasion of Iraq, a series of shocking photographs of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners began appearing on television news programs and the front pages of newspapers around the world. American male and female soldiers serving as prison guards in a prison called Abu Ghraib were shown deliberately humiliating and torturing scores of Iraqi men held in detention and under interrogation. The American soldiers were smiling broadly. They appeared to be taking enormous pleasure in humiliating their Iraqi charges.


Most people who saw these photographs – people in Seattle and Seoul, Miami and Madrid, Bangkok and Boston - can still describe the scenes. An American male soldier standing self-satisfied with his arms crossed and wearing surgical blue rubber gloves, while in front of him, an American woman soldier, smiling at the camera, is leaning on top of a pile of Iraqi naked male men forced to contort themselves into a human pyramid. An American woman soldier, again smiling, holding an Iraqi male prisoner on a leash. An American woman soldier pointing to a naked Iraq man’s genitals, apparently treating them as a joke. American male soldiers intimidating naked Iraqi male prisoners with snarling guard dogs. An Iraqi male prisoner standing alone on a box, his head hooded, electrical wires attached to different parts of his body. An Iraqi male prisoner forced to wear women’s underwear. Not pictured, but substantiated, were Iraqi men forced to masturbate and to simulate oral sex with each other, as well as an Iraqi woman prisoner coerced by several American male soldiers into kissing them( Hersh, May 10, 2004).


            What does a feminist curiosity reveal about the causes and the implications of the American abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib?  Few of the US government’s official investigators or the mainstream news commentators used feminist insights to make sense of what went on in the prison. The result, I think, is that we have not really gotten to the bottom of the Abu Ghraib story. One place to start employing a feminist set of tools is to explain why one American woman military guard in particular captured the attention of so many media editors and ordinary viewers and readers: the twenty-one year old enlisted army reservist Lynndie England.


What proved shocking to the millions of viewers of the prison clandestine photos were several things. First, the Abu Ghraib scenes suggested there existed a gaping chasm between, on the one hand,  the US Bush administration’s claim that its military invasion and overthrow of the brutal Saddam Hussein regime would bring a civilizing sort of “freedom” to the Iraqi people and, on the other hand, the seemingly barbaric treatment that American soldiers were willfully meting out to Iraqis held in captivity without trial. Second, it was shocking to witness such blatant abuse of imprisoned detainees by soldiers representing a government that had signed both the international Geneva Conventions against mistreatment of wartime combatants and the UN Convention Against Torture, as well as having passed its own anti-torture laws.


Yet there was a third source of shock that prompted scores of early media commentaries and intense conversations among ordinary viewers: seeing women engage in torture. Of the seven American soldiers, all low-ranking Army Reserve military police guards, whom the Pentagon charged initially court-martialed, three were women. Somehow, the American male soldier, the man in the blue surgical gloves (his name was Charles Graner), was not shocking to most viewers and so did not inspire much private consternation and or a stream of op ed columns. Women, by conventional contrast,  were expected to appear in wartime as mothers and wives of soldiers, occasionally as military nurses and truck mechanics, or most often as the victims of the wartime violence. Women were not - according to the conventional presumption - supposed to be the wielders of violence, certainly not the perpetrators of torture. When those deeply gendered presumptions were turned upside down, many people felt a sense of shock. “This is awful; how could this have happened?”


Private First Class Lynndie England, the young woman military guard photographed holding the man on a leash, thus became the source of intense public curiosity. The news photographers could not restrain themselves two months later, in early August, 2004,  from showing England in her army camouflaged maternity uniform when she appeared at Fort Bragg for her pre-trial hearing. She had become pregnant as a result of her sexual liaison with another enlisted reservist while on duty in Abu Ghraib. Her sexual partner was Charles Graner. Yet Charles Graner’s name was scarcely mentioned. He apparently was doing what men are expected to do in wartime: have sex and wield violence. The public’s curiosity and its lack of curiosity thus matched its pattern of shock. All three were conventionally gendered. Using a feminist investigatory approach, one should find this lack of public and media curiosity about Charles Graner just as revealing as the public’s and media’s absorbing fascination with Lynndie England.


Responding to the torrent of Abu Ghraib stories coming out of Iraq during the spring and summer of 2004, President George W. Bush and his Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, tried to reassure the public that the graphically abusive behavior inside the prison was not representative of America, nor did it reflect the Bush administration’s own foreign policies. Rather, the Abu Ghraib abuses were the work of “rogue” soldiers, a “few bad apples.” The “bad apple” explanation always goes like this:  the institution is working fine, its values are appropriate, its internal dynamics are of a sort that sustain positive values and respectful, productive behavior. Thus, according to the “bad apple” explanation, nothing needs to be reassessed or reformed in the way the organization works; all that needs to happen to stop the abuse is to prosecute and remove those few individuals who refused to play by the established rules.  Sometimes this may be true. Some listeners to the Bush administration’s “bad apple” explanation, however,  weren’t reassured. They wondered if the Abu Ghraib abuses were not produced by just a few bad apples found in a solid, reliable barrel, but, instead, were produced by an essentially “bad barrel.” They also wondered whether this “barrel” embraced not only the Abu Ghraib prison, but the larger US military, intelligence and civilian command structures (Hersh, May 17, 2004; Hersh, May 24, 2004; Human Rights Watch, 2004).


What makes a “barrel” go bad?  That is, what turns an organization, an institution, or a whole system into one that at least ignores, perhaps even fosters abusive behavior by the individuals operating inside it? This question is relevant for every workplace, every political system, every international alliance. Here too, feminists have been working hard over the past three decades to develop a curiosity and a set of analytical tools with which we can all answer this important question. So many of us today live much of our lives within complex organizations, large and small – work places, local and national governments, health care systems, criminal justice systems, international organizations.  Feminist researchers have revealed that virtually all organizations are gendered: that is, all organizations are shaped by the ideas about, and daily practices of masculinities and femininities (Bunster-Burotto, 1985; Ehrenreich, 2004; Enloe, 2000; Whitworth, 2004). Ignoring the workings of gender, feminist investigators have found, makes it impossible for us to explain accurately  what makes any organization “tick.” That failure makes it impossible for us to hold an organization accountable. Yet most of the hundred-page long official reports into the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal were written by people who ignored these feminist lessons. They acted as if the dynamics of masculinity and femininity among low-level police and high level policy-makers made no difference. That assumption is very risky.


A series of US Senate hearings, along with a string of Defense Department investigations tried to explain what went wrong in Abu Ghraib and why. The most authoritative of the Defense Department reports were the “Taguba Report,” the “Fay/Jones Report” (both named after generals who headed these investigations) and the “Schlesinger Report” (named after a civilian former Secretary of Defense who chaired this investigatory team) (Human Rights Watch, 2004; Jehl, 2004; Lewis and Schmitt, 2004; Schmitt, 2004; Taguba, 2004). In addition, the CIA was conducting its own investigation, since its officials were deeply involved in interrogating – and often hiding in secret prisons – captured Afghans and Iraqis. Moreover, there were several human rights groups and journalists publishing their own findings during 2004. Together, they offered a host of valuable clues as to why this institutional “barrel” had gone bad. First was the discovery that lawyers inside the Defense and Justice Departments, as well as the White House, acting on instructions from their civilian superiors, produced interpretations of the Geneva Conventions and US law that deliberately shrank the definitions of “torture” down so far that American military and CIA personnel could order and conduct interrogations of Iraqis and Afghans in detention using techniques that otherwise would have been deemed violations of US and international law.


Second, investigators found that an American general, Geoffrey Miller,  commander of the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was sent by Secretary Rumsfeld to Iraq in September, 2003, where he recommended that American commanders overseeing military prison operations in Iraq start employing the aggressive interrogation practices that were being used on Afghan and Arab male prisoners at Guantanamo. Somewhat surprisingly, General Miller later was named by the Pentagon to head the Abu Ghraib prison in the wake of the scandal. Third, investigators discovered that the intense, persistent pressure imposed on the military intelligence personnel by the Defense Department to generate information about who was launching insurgent assaults on the US occupying forces encouraged those military intelligence officers to put their own pressures on the military police guarding prisoners to “soften up” the men in their cell blocks, thus undercutting the military police men’s and women’s own chain of command (which led up to a female army general, Janice Karpinski, who claimed that her authority over her military police personnel had been undermined by intrusive military intelligence officers). This policy change, investigators concluded,  dangerously blurred the valuable line between military policing and military interrogating. A fourth finding was that non-military personnel, including CIA operatives and outside contractors hired by the CIA and the Pentagon, were involved in the Abu Ghraib military interrogations in ways that may have fostered an assumption that the legal limitations on employing excessive force could be treated cavalierly: We’re under threat, this is urgent, who can be bothered with the Geneva Conventions or legal niceties?


Did it matter where the women were inside the prison and up and down the larger American military and intelligence hierarchies – as low level police reservists, as a captain in the military intelligence unit, as a general advising the chief US commander in Iraq? Investigators apparently didn’t ask. Did it matter what exactly Charles Graner’s and the other male military policemen’s daily relationships were to their female colleagues, who were in a numerical minority in the military police unit,  in the military interrogation unit and in the CIA unit all stationed together at Abu Ghraib? The official investigators seemed not to think that asking this question would yield any insights.  Was it significant that so many of the abuses perpetrated on the Iraqi prisoners were deliberately sexualized? Was hooding a male prisoner the same (in motivation and in result) as forcing him to simulate oral sex? No one seemed to judge these questions to be pertinent. Was it at all relevant that Charles Graner, the older and apparently most influential of the low-ranking guards charged, had been accused of physical intimidation by his former wife? No questions asked, no answers forthcoming. Among all the lawyers in the Defense and Justice Departments and in the White House who were ordered to draft guidelines to permit the US government’s officials to sidestep the Geneva Conventions outlawing torture, were there any subtle pressures imposed on them to appear “manly” in a time of war? This question too seems to have been left on the investigative teams’ shelves to gather dust.


Since the mid-1970s, feminists have been crafting skills to explain when and why organizations become arenas for sexist abuse.  One of the great contributions of the work done by the “Second Wave” of the international women’s movement has been to throw light on what breeds sex discrimination and sexual harassment inside organizations otherwise as dissimilar as a factory, a stock brokerage, a legislature, a university, a student movement, and a military (Bowers, 2004; Kwon, 1999; Ogasawara, 1998; Stockford, 2004; Whitworth, 2004). All of the Abu Ghraib reports’ authors talked about a “climate”, an “environment,” or  a “culture,”  having been created inside Abu Ghraib that fostered abusive acts. The conditions inside Abu Ghraib were portrayed as a climate of “confusion,” of “chaos.” It was feminists who gave us this innovative concept of organizational climate.  


When trying to figure out why in some organizations women employees were subjected to sexist jokes, unwanted advances, and retribution for not going along with the jokes or not accepting those advances, feminist lawyers, advocates and scholars began to look beyond the formal policies and the written work rules. They explored something more amorphous but just as, maybe even more potent: that set of unofficial presumptions that shapes workplace interactions between men and men, and men and women. They followed the breadcrumbs to the casual, informal interactions between people up and down the organization’s ladder. They investigated who drinks with whom after work, who sends sexist jokes to whom over office email, who pins up which sorts of pictures of women in their lockers or next to the coffee machine. And they looked into what those people in authority did not do. They discovered that inaction is a form of action: “turning a blind eye” is itself a form of action. Inaction sends out signals to everyone in the organization about what is condoned. Feminists labeled these webs of presumptions, informal interactions, and deliberate inaction an organization’s “climate.” As feminists argued successfully in court, it is not sufficient for a stock brokerage or a college to include anti-sexual harassment guidelines in their official handbooks; employers have to take explicit steps to create a workplace climate in which women would be treated with fairness and respect.


By 2004, this feminist explanatory concept – organizational “climate” - had become so accepted by so many analysts that their debt to feminists had been forgotten. Generals Taguba, Jones and Fay, as well as former Defense Secretary Schlesinger, may never have taken a Women’s Studies course, but when they were assigned the job of investigating Abu Ghraib they were drawing on the ideas and investigatory skills crafted for them by feminists.


 However, more worrisome than their failure to acknowledge their intellectual and political debts was those journalists’ and government investigators’ ignoring the feminist lessons that went hand in hand with the concept of “climate.” The first lesson: to make sense of any organization, we always must dig deep into the group’s dominant presumptions about femininity and masculinity. The second lesson:  we need to take seriously the experiences of women as they try to adapt to, or sometimes resist those dominant gendered presumptions – not because all women are angels, but because paying close attention to women’s ideas and actions will shed light on why men with power act the way they do.


It is not as if the potency of ideas about masculinity and femininity had been totally absent from the US military’s thinking. Between 1991 and 2004, there had been a string of military scandals that had compelled even those American senior officials who preferred to look the other way to face sexism straight on. The first stemmed from the September, 1991,  gathering of American navy aircraft carrier pilots at a Hilton hotel in Las Vegas. Male pilots (all officers),  fresh from their victory in the first Gulf War, lined a hotel corridor and physically assaulted every woman who stepped off the elevator. They made the “mistake” of assaulting a woman navy helicopter pilot who was serving as an aide to an admiral. Within months members of Congress and the media were telling the public about “Tailhook” – why it happened, who tried to cover it up (Office of the Inspector General, 2003). Close on the heels of the Navy’s “Tailhook” scandal came the Army’s Aberdeen training base sexual harassment scandal, followed by other revelations of military gay bashing, sexual harassment and rapes by American male military personnel of their American female colleagues (Enloe, 1993; Enloe, 2000).


Then in September, 1995, the rape of a local school girl by two American male marines and a sailor in Okinawa sparked public demonstrations, new Okinawan women’s organizing and more US Congressional investigations. At the start of the twenty-first century American media began to notice the patterns of international trafficking in Eastern European and Filipina women around American bases in South Korea, prompting official embarrassment in Washington (an embarrassment which had not been demonstrated earlier when American base commanders turned a classic “blind eye” toward a prostitution industry financed by their own male soldiers because it employed “just” local South Korean women). And in 2003, three new American military sexism scandals caught Washington policy-makers’ attention: four American male soldiers returning from combat missions in Afghanistan murdered their female partners at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; a pattern of sexual harassment and rape by male cadets of female cadets – and superiors’ refusal to treat these acts seriously - was revealed at the US Air Force Academy;  and testimonies by at least sixty American women soldiers returning from tours of duty in Kuwait and Iraq described how they had been sexually assaulted by their male colleagues there – with, once again, senior officers choosing inaction, advising the American women soldiers to “get over it”(Jargon, 2003; Lutz and Elliston, 2004; The Miles Foundation, 2004; Moffeit and Herder, 2004).


So it should have come as no surprise to American senior uniformed and civilian policy makers seeking to make sense of the abuses perpetrated in Abu Ghraib that a culture of sexism had come to permeate many sectors of US military life. If they had thought about what they had all learned in the last thirteen years - from Tailhook, Aberdeen, Fort Bragg, Okinawa, South Korea and the US Air Force Academy - they should have put the workings of masculinity and femininity at the top of their investigatory agendas. They should have made feminist curiosity one of their own principal tools. Perhaps Tillie Fowler did suggest to her colleagues that they think about these military sexual scandals when they began to delve into Abu Ghraib.  A former Republican Congresswoman from Florida, Tillie Fowler, had been a principal investigator on the team that looked into the rapes (and their cover-ups) at the US Air Force Academy. Because of her leadership in that role, Fowler was appointed to the commission headed by James Schlesinger investigating Abu Ghraib. Did she raise this comparison between the Air Force Academy case and Abu Ghraib? Did her male colleagues take her suggestion seriously?


Perhaps eventually the investigators did not make use of the feminist lessons and tools because they imagined that the lessons of Tailhook, the Air Force Academy and Okinawa were relevant only when all the perpetrators of sexualized abuse are men and all the victims are women.  The presence of Lynndie England and the other women in Abu Ghraib’s military police unit, they might have assumed, made the feminist tools sharpened in these earlier gendered military scandals inappropriate for their explorations.  But the lesson of Tailhook, Okinawa and the most recent military scandals was not that the politics of masculinity and femininity matter only when men are the perpetrators and women are the victims. Instead, the deeper lesson of all these other military scandals is that we must  always ask:


 Has this organization (or this system of interlocking organizations) become masculinized in ways that privilege certain forms of masculinity, feminize its oppostiion and trivialize most forms of femininity?


With this core gender question in mind, we might uncover significant dynamics operating in Abu Ghraib and in the American military and civilian organizations that were supposed to be supervising the prison’s personnel. First, American military police and their military and CIA intelligence colleagues might have been guided by their own masculinized fears of humiliation when they forced Iraqi men to go naked for days, to wear women’s underwear and to masturbate in front of each other and American women guards. That is, belief in an allegedly “exotic,” frail Iraqi masculinity, fraught with fears of nakedness and homosexuality,  might not have been the chief motivator for the American police and intelligence personnel; it may have been their own home-grown American sense of masculinity’s fragility – how easily manliness can be feminized - that prompted them to craft these prison humiliations. In this distorted masculinized scenario, the presence of women serving as military police might have proved especially useful. Choreographing the women guards’ feminized roles so that they could act as ridiculing feminized spectators of male prisoners might have been imagined to intensify the masculinized demoralization. Dominant men trying to utilize at least some women to act in ways that undermine the masculinzed self-esteem of rival men is not new.


What about the American women soldiers themselves? In the US military of 2004 women comprised 15 % of active duty personnel, 17% of all Reserves and National Guard (and a surprising 24% of the Army Reserves alone). From the very time these particular young women joined this military police unit, they, like their fellow male recruits, probably sought to fit into the group. If the reserve military police unit’s evolving culture – perhaps fostered by their superiors for the sake of “morale” and “unit cohesion” – was one that privileged a certain form of masculinized humor, racism and bravado, each woman would have had to decide how to deal with that. At least some of the women reservist recruits might have decided to join in, play the roles assigned to them in order to gain the hoped-for reward of male acceptance.  The facts that the Abu Ghraib prison was grossly understaffed during the fall or 2003(too few guards for spiraling numbers of Iraqi detainees), that it was isolated from other military operations, and that its residents endured daily and nightly mortar attacks, would only serve to intensify the pressures on each soldier to gain acceptance from those unit members who seemed to represent the group’s dominant masculinized culture.  And Lynndie England’s entering into a sexual liaison with Charles Graner? We need to treat this as more than merely a “lack of discipline.” We need to ask what were the cause and effect dynamics between their sexual behaviors and the abuses of prisoners and staging of the photographs. Feminists have taught us never to brush off sexual relations as if they have nothing to do with organizational and political practices.


Then there is the masculinization of the military interrogators’ organizational cultures, the masculinization of the CIA’s field operatives and the workings of ideas about “manliness” shaping the entire US political system. Many men and women – as lawyers, as generals, as Cabinet officers, as elected officials –  knew full well that aggressive interrogation techniques violated both the spirit and the language of the Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention Against Torture and the US federal law against torture. Yet during the months of waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq most of these men and women kept silent. Feminists have taught us always to be curious about silence. Thus we need to ask: Did any of the American men involved in interrogations kept silent because they were afraid of being labeled “soft,” or  “weak,” thereby jeopardizing their status as “manly” men?  We need also to discover if any of the women who knew better keep silent because they were afraid that they would be labeled “feminine,” thus risking being deemed by their colleagues untrustworthy, political outsiders.


We are not going to get to the bottom of the tortures perpetrated by Americans at Abu Ghraib unless we make use of a feminist curiosity and unless we revisit the feminist lessons derived from the scandals of Tailhook, Fort Bragg, Annapolis, Okinawa and the Air Force Academy. Those tools and lessons might shed a harsh light on an entire American military institutional culture and maybe even the climate of contemporary American political life. That institutional culture and that political climate together have profound implications not only for Americans. They are being held up as models to emulate in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Afghanistan and Iraq. That, in turn, means that the insights offered by feminist analysts from those societies who have such intimate experiences with this US institutional culture and this political climate are likely to teach Americans a lot about themselves.




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