Explaining Lynndie England

What made Lynndie England, patriotic, pixie-ish tomboy who joined the army reserve to pay for college, become the poster girl for sexual humiliation and degradation at Abu Ghraib? Her sister, Jessica, describes England as "very kind-hearted, dependable, strong-minded and idealistic." And yet the photos show her calmly holding a cringing naked man on a leash.

Typically in a plane crash, not one thing, but several things go wrong all at once. In Abu Ghraib, the source of degradation seems to be an "all of the above" answer to a sick multiple choice exam. The causes appear to be at once banal and evil, specific to the individual and as broad based as all of society. Everyone and no one was to blame. Why did England sink so low?

The higher chain of command. That's England's explanation. She told a Denver TV station that she had been ordered to perform such sordid acts as pointing for the camera at a detainee's genitals while signaling thumbs-up. England sometimes felt "kind of weird," she said, but "to us, we were doing our jobs, which meant we were doing what we were told."

No one in charge. Other witnesses describe a complete breakdown of military discipline and authority. Inside the prison, none of the men and women of the 372nd Military Police Company bothered to salute their superiors. Badges of rank disappeared; authority was confused. Everyone, CIA, military intelligence, private contractors, wore indistinguishable fatigues. England, a "paper pusher," would wander over to the cells at night, where her boyfriend, Cpl. Charles Graner Jr., a former prison guard stateside who was accused of beating and stalking his ex-wife, seemed to be running a grotesque fun-house. Graner would order the prisoners to undress and stack them on top of each other. One guard would run and jump in the mass of flesh, like a kid into a leaf pile. Striking one detainee unconscious, Graner "was joking, laughing, like he was enjoying it," said fellow guard Spc. Jeremy Sivits.

Her wretched environment.

England's company came to Iraq to work as traffic cops; they expected to go home after a couple of months. Instead they were put to work standing guard 10 to 16 hours a day, six or seven days a week in a prison filled to three times capacity. Temperatures in the prison soared over 100 degrees; mortar shells rained down on the walls and roof. Under--manned and untrained, the American MPs had to rely on Iraqi guards who sometimes smuggled in guns or drugs or helped prisoners escape.

Basic human nature.

Some have wondered whether England, who came from a poor town in the hollows of West Virginia and lived for a time in a trailer, was the victim of a deprived or degraded socio-economic background. But her parents appear to have been loving and her childhood innocent. In any case, social and educational pedigree don't seem to have much to do with the proclivity to torture. In a famous study involving students pretending to be prison guards, most of the subjects were willing--even eager--to employ humiliation and extreme pain. The students in the study were from Stanford.

American pop culture.

The guards gave their prisoners innocent-sounding nicknames from TV. There was "Gilligan," a tiny, active guy, and "Mr. Clean," who bathed obsessively, and "Froggy" with Marty Feldman bulging eyes, and "Big Bird," who was tall. But then there was "S---boy" who smeared himself with excrement. He was the one forced to pose naked with a pair of panties over his head. The leering casualness of the humiliations seen in the photos has the feel of a reality TV show--"Fear Factor" for Iraqi inmates.

The final, and all encompassing, explanation is the nature of war. "War was once glorious and squalid," Winston Churchill said in 1946. "Now it is just squalid." Certainly at Abu Ghraib.