Lynndie England, the star of the Abu Ghraib photos who won that role with her portfolio of photos that showed her smiling as she held naked prisoners on leashes, is pleading guilty to two counts of conspiracy, four counts of maltreating prisoners and one count of dereliction of duty.
This 22 year old reservist, a file clerk with no training as a prison guard, is expected to get an 11 year sentence to the brig. Her planned defense was that she was just following orders. That defense hasn't worked for any of the other grunts charged in the Abu Ghraib scandal and it likely wouldn't have worked for her. And I don't think it should have.
I do think she had orders to mistreat the detainees. I don't think she came up with this stuff on her own or necessarily acted on her own initiative. But unlike other armies, our military men and women aren't given a pass on illegal conduct simply because they received orders to engage in that conduct.
It's a tall order to insist that our servicemen and women, who are schooled in the necessity of following orders as a fundamental military necessity, be prepared to reject an illegal order. It presumes that they know where the line between legal and illegal is, that they have the spine to stand up to their commanding officers and act counter to the weight of military tradition. And yet that is exactly what we ask of them. And we must. We can't eliminate personal responsibility for the legality, even the morality, of the acts they engage in. We can't remove all fear of consequences under the umbrella of obedience to a commanding officer. And yet to expect a private first class to know what is and isn't legal and to have the wherewithal to stand up and say "NO" in the midst of a war, in the war theater, is almost unrealistic.
Because what we ask is more than so many people could bear, I think there's a real chance that a "following orders" defense might work, even for the Abu Ghraib abusers. If only the defendants, here the diminutive England, didn't seem to be enjoying themselves so much. It's the pleasure they seem to take in their abuse that condemns them, that leaves no room for an argument that says they had no choice. The photos tell us that they didn't want that choice.
I continue to believe that complicity for the crimes at Abu Ghraib and those like them that occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, is shared with officers and senior officials who have been absolved of all blame. But that doesn't mean the folks holding the leash, unleashing the dogs, manhandling and abusing the prisoners are guilt-free. It just means they aren't alone in their guilt.