Fallgirls: Gender and the Framing of Torture at Abu Ghraib

Joanna Bourke reflects on the role of women in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by the US military

July 12, 2012

A tattoo of a rotten apple haunts this book. It is the tattoo with which Sabrina Harman, as well as some of the other soldiers accused of carrying out abuses and torture at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003, marked her body. As a form of protest against their scapegoating by the military, legal system and media, it was an inspired choice. As Ryan Ashley Caldwell tells us, the prosecution of low-level soldiers for these abuses was part of a conspiracy to exonerate those who masterminded sexual abuse, prisoner interrogation and gendered punishments.

Caldwell's position is clear from the start: she defines herself as a cultural theorist and feminist philosopher. She is also partisan: she was a researcher for the defence, ate meals with the defendants, attended the trials of Lynndie England and Harman, and spoke to numerous attorneys, relatives and friends.

However, much of the evidence and arguments she presents are persuasive, and, in an effort to forestall any doubts, she reproduces lengthy transcripts of court testimonies and interviews. The result is a robust condemnation of the treatment of the "seven rotten apples" from a theoretical as well as a pragmatic perspective. Some of it makes disconcerting reading.

Caldwell is strongest when analysing the gendered underpinnings of the abuses. She is indebted to Judith Butler and Jean Baudrillard, engaging in a provocative discussion of gender simulacra and drag. For the US Army, Harman was a convenient scapegoat because she was "a lesbian in a heterosexist military" and "a female within a masculinist military". Indeed, Caldwell insists, what is interesting about the torture at Abu Ghraib is that it was "ordered and orchestrated by male soldiers" attempting to "reify the masculine role of power".

There are times, however, when Caldwell pushes her argument too far. She correctly castigates certain feminists for failing to examine the complex, highly masculine contexts in which the photographs were taken. As a result, she claims that these feminists were too ready to draw conclusions about women's roles in the abuses. Harman, for instance, took some of the photographs in order to document the abuse. She was a whistleblower rather than perpetrator.

Less convincing is her defence of England. According to Caldwell, England should be seen as a victim, not a perpetrator. After all, she tells us, England had "an overtly compliant personality" and she "looked for power figures to dictate behaviour". Should an alleged personality trait totally exonerate a person from culpability in abuse? I think not. Caldwell also oversteps the line when she accuses some feminists and journalists of assuming that "the act of holding the leash in order to please her boyfriend" should be judged to be "on the same order of aggressive abuse that England's boyfriend exhibited by punching blindfolded prisoners". I know of no one who would assume any such thing. There is also evidence that some female US military personnel were present during some of those punching sessions. This evidence is not presented in this book (perhaps because the identities of the women have not been confirmed, but I am merely speculating).

Fallgirls is a provocative contribution to the debates about Abu Ghraib and US-led torture in the War on Terror. Although flawed and polemical in places, it opens up the debate to some new and exciting ideas about the nature of gendered violence. It is well worth reading.

Fallgirls: Gender and the Framing of Torture at Abu Ghraib

By Ryan Ashley Caldwell

Ashgate, 240pp, £55.00

ISBN 9781409429692

Published 1 March 2012

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