Abracadabra at Abu Ghraib: the Tragic Story of Lynndie England, Charles Graner and Megan Ambuhl

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A reader, Martha, a former Air Force enlisted, who has been following the thread on women in combat with concern, writes to explain the “Abracadabra” issue:

I have heard horrid stories from deployed friends about the attitude toward women in the ranks. Even unattractive girls have a throng of men around them all the time when they are in “Bad Guy Land”. The names they give those women is crass. “Golden P**sy Syndrome” and similar things.

Then, on the flight home, “abracadabra” they are ugly again. The rejection is as sudden and violent as an IED attack. How can men be allowed to treat fellow soldiers like this, then turn around and treat them with respect on the battlefield?

Sadly, I didn’t have to go further than today’s New York Times to get a real-life illustration of why this kind of thing is no small matter. In an article, Behind Failed Abu Ghraib Plea, a Tangle of Bonds and Betrayals about Lynndie England, Charles Graner and Megan Ambuhl, the reporter, Kate Zernike lays out a tragic story that puts an even sorrier twist to the already sordid tale of Abu Ghraib.

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Lynndie England and Charles Graner

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Credit: L.M. Otero/Associated Press

Megan Ambuhl,

Graner’s new wife

The short version of the story is that Charles Graner was treating the United States Army like his own personal harem, carrying on overlapping affairs with both Lynndie England and Megan Ambuhl. Then, when Lynndie got pregnant, and sent home, they broke up. Graner sent an email to his father: “I stopped seeing her back in january but when all this garbage came out i started seeing her again,” he wrote. “chances are very good that it is my child….o well….daddy what did you bring home from the war????”

That’s some war souvenir.

With Lynndie sent home, Graner focused on Ambuhl. The two co-conspirators recently married at Ft. Hood, a surrogate groom standing in for Graner, who is already in prison.

A few quotes from the NYT piece:

In Iraq, Private England was disciplined several times for sleeping with Private Graner, against military rules. She flouted warnings to stay on the wing where she worked as a clerk, and spent most of her nights in the cellblock where he worked the night shift. . .Ms. Ambuhl had been involved with another soldier in the unit. But by late December, she had ended that relationship and started one with Private Graner. In e-mail messages, the two dreamily recalled their nights stolen away in the crowded prison cells where the military police lived. . .

It’s a sordid tale. But does it have any broader implications? Why talk about it?

Two reasons. First, any time women in combat comes up, supporters scoff at the argument that fraternization is a problem. But the question has to be raised: the “abracadabra” syndrome is rooted in the wildly skewed female-male ratio on deployment. If it’s a challenge in a secure rear-area, how much more so when the going gets really tough? Do we want those kind of complications when lives are on the line?

Second, we also often hear denials that sexual relationships among colleagues causes “complications.” Turn a blind eye, live and let live.

But then you get Abu Ghraib. Even without the prisoner abuses, the NYT article highlights the discipline problems that arose with England, Graner and Ambuhl having multiple partners in the unit and sneaking around to have sex.

Not to mention Lynndie’s pregnancy which resulted in her being sent home. SOP. Non-deployable. From a military readiness perspective, she’s a “casualty.” Friendly fire.

And there’s not a woman alive who doesn’t read this story without understanding instantly the formerly incomprehensible actions Lynndie England took that embarrassed our nation at Abu Ghraib. She was competing to keep him; she did it to hold on to him, the father of her child.

That’s why it matters.

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2 Responses

  1. kyer says:

    Excellent commentary.

    Let me start off by saying it is a privilege to have such a distinguished scholar as yourself comment on, (let alone stumble upon!) my humble blog. I did a little background check and your credentials are impressive. (I especially admired the fact you worked in the Reagan administration). Anyhow, flattery aside, onto the show.

    Wary as I am of the NYSlimes (NYT), I did indeed miss that article you blogged. The story of a manipulated young private with tattered emotions resulting from a sickly love triangle is a far cry from the “oxygen-deprived-at-birth” position some were trying to fly during the trial.

    No one can truly claim innocence or victimhood in this situation.

    The seedy love affairs in themselves were a disgrace enough for those wearing the U.S. Army uniform. A true breakdown in individual and unit discipline. While some (including myself) might raise the point that “this wouldn’t happen if women weren’t permitted in the military…”–the bottom line is–they are–so, unfortunately, we have to deal with the reality as such.

    As for Graner, this guy is a real piece of work. While rejoining the armed forces after 9-11 out of a sense of service and patriotism is admirable—turning his unit into, as you so appropriate put it, “his own personal harem” is reprehensible.

    You raised the question, “…does it have any broader implications? Why talk about it?”

    “First, any time women in combat comes up, supporters scoff at the argument that fraternization is a problem. But the question has to be raised: the “abracadabra” syndrome is rooted in the wildly skewed female-male ratio on deployment. […] Do we want those kind of complications when lives are on the line?”

    Again, while I agree whole-heartedly with you on this concern, just what exactly can we do to change what you describe as the “wildy skewed…ratio”? We both know balancing the ranks with recruitment ads targeting females is not the answer. So what can we do to address this disruptive fraternization?

    I’m sure you’ve heard of the recent stories involving female soldiers involved in near-nude mud wrestling while their male comrades cheer ’round them in a hollering circle–one such female soldier was dishonorably discharged while the men who organized it were disciplined much less harshly. While it’s not exactly luring young female soldiers into acts of torture, what’s to be said and done about other such instances of the “abracadabra syndrome”???

    It is difficult to isolate which element resulted in the breakdown of military discipline (for our purposes). While Graner’s Casanova chirade played a significant role in England’s downfall (as a soldier and an individual)–England’s motivation(s) for mistreating the prisoners were very different than those of the other soldiers involved. While England’s face is the one most recognizable to the world thanks to those photos, what accounts for the behavior of the other soldiers involved?

    To quote the Assoc. Press article I cited on my blog, Graner fielded this lame justification, “Graner said he looped the leash around a prisoner’s shoulders as a way to coax him out of a cell, and that it slipped up around his neck. He said he asked England to hold the strap while he took photos [so] that he could show to other guards later to teach them this prisoner-handling technique.

    Now do we believe Graner was developing “prisoner-handling techniques” to teach his fellow soldiers in his unit–or was he simply letting England take the fall?

    If only we could just say “abracadabra” and then *poof*, this problem could be resolved…

    P.S. You need to toggle “allow line breaks” somewhere in your blog settings—I had to manually code my post with html so it had paragraph breaks instead of ending up as one big blob. 🙂

  2. It is only the teaching of core values, and requiring service members to commit to those core values, that will avoid the abuse of prisoners in the future.

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