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Why did these women do it?

Images of brutality in detention centres such as Abu Ghraib seemed all the more shocking for the involvement of female soldiers…

Images of brutality in detention centres such as Abu Ghraib seemed all the more shocking for the involvement of female soldiers. As a documentary examines their role, the scandals continue to pose disturbing questions about women in the military

Bagram. Guantánamo. Abu Ghraib. Names that remind us of things we don't wish to know, about pictures we cannot forget. Now novelist Alex Carr (the pen name of Jenny Siler) gives us The Prince of Bagram Prison, the fictional tale of Kat Caldwell, a female military interrogator at the American prison at Bagram air base in Afghanistan.

Kat plays by the rules, defends restrictions on the treatment of prisoners because "it's the law", and succeeds so well in winning one key prisoner's trust that he becomes "enamoured of the soldiers". Set as it is in the Afghanistan of 2002, this pabulum bears no reality to the fetid stew that was Bagram.

It's more than five years since stories of torture and abuse began to emerge from US detention centres in Afghanistan, Guantánamo and Iraq. Long enough for literature, art and even the press to start transmogrifying public memory - in what direction depends on the teller's view. Lynndie England, infamous for the photo in which she holds a naked Abu Ghraib prisoner on a leash, last month blamed the press for the fuss. She told German magazine Stern, with only a nod toward remorse, that "what we did happens in war".

The New Yorkermagazine, meanwhile, has run a long and largely sympathetic profile of England's colleague, Sabrina Harman, who took many of the photos that emerged from Abu Ghraib. Harman, England, and their former commanding general, Janis Karpinski, feature in the documentary film, Standard Operating Procedure, which opened last week in the US. In the film, the former Gen Karpinski - she was demoted to colonel as a result of the investigation - maintains her claim that she had no idea the abuse was taking place. Gen Barbara Fast, the highest-ranking US intelligence officer in Iraq at the time, worked with Karpinski and was charged with dereliction of duty. She, however, was found not guilty of the offence, and promoted. A few weeks ago, she was the featured speaker at an event marking National Women's History Month.

Women's History? Let's consider the history of these women and of the atrocities in which they participated.

THE WHIFF OF abuse at Guantánamo wafted from Camp X-Ray soon after it opened in early 2002. Women - and the sexual torment of detainees - were part of it from the start. The use of women to interview and control prisoners was seen as a useful tool precisely because strict interpretation of Islamic law forbids physical contact with any woman other than one's wife.

Word reached the outside world (thanks to FBI agents, who were troubled by what they observed) of female interrogators "rubbing", "straddling" and grabbing the genitals of prisoners. According to the account of a former army sergeant based at the camp, and reported by Associated Press in 2005, one female interrogator questioned detainees in a miniskirt, thong underwear and bra. During the questioning of the alleged "20th 9/11 hijacker", Mohammed al-Qahtani, another interrogator "removed her uniform top, and began . . . touching her breasts, rubbing them against the prisoner's back and commenting on his apparent erection". When the prisoner spat in her face, "she circled around him so that he could see that she was taking her hand out of her pants. When it became visible, the detainee saw what appeared to be red blood on her hand." The interrogator then wiped the "blood" on her prisoner's face. She was not the only female interrogator to use this tactic.

Opened a few months after Guantánamo, the "collection point" at Bagram soon became the principal interrogation centre in Afghanistan.

In August 2002 a young military intelligence officer, Capt Carolyn Wood, was placed in command of the interrogation unit. Under pressure to produce useful intelligence, she expanded the number of permitted techniques to include sleep deprivation, stress positions and attack dogs.

One female member of Wood's command was described by colleagues as "having a taste for humiliation, stepping on the neck of one prostrate detainee and kicking another in the genitals". Within four months two prisoners were dead. One of them, a young Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar, had been shackled to the ceiling and beaten to death by multiple interrogators. Sgt Salena Salcedo, aged 21 at the time, later admitted having repeatedly kicked Dilawar when he failed to answer questions.

Then came the 2003 invasion of Iraq and thousands more prisoners. It was now that Gen Karpinski, a reservist who in civilian life worked as a business consultant, was appointed to head the 800th Military Police Brigade. In her charge would be 15 detention centres in southern Iraq and some 3,400 reservists, including units at Abu Ghraib.

Gen Fast, meanwhile, was responsible for deciding which detainees held for crimes against the coalition should remain in prison and which could be released.

Down the chain of command was Capt Wood, who had been transferred to Iraq. Once again, Wood was involved in drafting rules for interrogation. One US army investigator later concluded that the use of the techniques on Wood's list could well "violate the Geneva Conventions". Wood recommended establishment of a "hard site" within the prison, where the most dangerous detainees could be held. This, wrote the officer later responsible for investigating the affair, "marked the beginning of the serious abuses that occurred".

Those policing the two-storey cinder-block site included a company of reservists, the 372nd Military Police. Lynndie England, Sabrina Harman and a third woman, Megan Ambuhl, all served in this unit. Male prisoners were forced to masturbate in public, fathers and sons to engage in sexual acts. They were stripped naked and interrogated by female soldiers, deprived of food and sleep. Female soldiers beat detainees and fondled their genitals.

On the night of her 21st birthday, Lynndie England visited her boyfriend, fellow soldier Charles Graner, during his shift. A marathon session of violence - described by one of the victims as "a night which felt like 1,000 nights" - followed, much of it recorded by soldiers who took photographs.

The women featured, smiling in some of the photographs, in other episodes. Female soldiers took photographs as an Iraqi translator raped a teenage boy, and when male Americans in the unit sodomised another prisoner with the handle of a phosphoric light. Sabrina Harman, who was pictured grinning beside the battered body of a dead prisoner, took one of the infamous photos of a hooded detainee standing atop a box, arms attached to electrical wire, outstretched as in a crucifixion.

THE BARE FACTS do nothing to explain the actions of the women involved. The military, criminal and media investigations have generated more questions than they answer. Though more male soldiers were involved then female, how to explain the behaviour of the women, the supposedly gentler sex? How did the interrogation process come to be sexualised? Did female interrogators strip off and gyrate on prisoners laps on their own initiative - or were these methods suggested, ordered even, by their superiors? These are unsettling questions, whatever precisely occurred, about women in the US military.

"I have a bad feeling about this place," Sabrina Harman wrote home on her first night at Abu Ghraib. "I want to leave as soon as possible."

Conditions at the base were lousy - and not only for the prisoners. Soldiers had no hot meals and had to shower in cold water. They were exposed to sporadic sniper fire, even inside the compound.

The conditions, the atmosphere of fear, and the sexual tension between young men and women penned in a confined space, perhaps contributed to the jailers' behaviour. Harman, a lesbian, wrote longing letters to her partner back home, and called Megan Ambuhl, her best friend on the base, "Mommy". Ambuhl and Lynndie England were both involved sexually with Charles Graner, another of the soldiers who took part in the abuse. Three months after being charged, Ambuhl wrote in an e-mail to Graner: "Study finds frequent sex raises cancer risk - we could have died last night."

She later married Graner, who had already fathered a child by England.

Lynndie England, who is petite, is often described benignly as a "pixie". Harman has been said to be "too nice to be a soldier", someone who "literally would not hurt a fly". What did these young women feel, surrounded as they were by often half-naked men they believed to be sworn enemies, and macho male American comrades with whom they had to live and work, day in, day out? Were they intimidated? Did they feel the need to prove themselves? Were they afraid the violence could be turned on them? Harman says now that she became inured to the abuse, that as things grew worse, what she saw "didn't seem so bad".

"I felt like this was the job I was given," said Megan Ambuhl, "and I didn't have the luxury to feel anything."

Yet, some of the women, Harman included, at least glimpsed the fact that the abuse was morally unacceptable. Harman wrote in a letter to her lover: "It is awful and you know how f***ed up I am in the head. Both sides of me think it's wrong. I thought I could handle anything. I was wrong."

WHAT THEN ARE we to make of the conduct of the soldiers' superiors? Why did female officers at least tolerate - perhaps encourage - their conduct? The idea that women are kinder than men is not just a general perception; it has long been a plank in the feminist credo. The feminist myth holds that women possess superior levels of compassion, empathy and justice and that, by virtue of these, the world would be a better place if only more women were "in charge".

Thirty years ago, as the first female officers graduated from West Point, Betty Friedan posed a rhetorical question: "Would be grotesque female imitations of the bloodthirsty jock male military stereotype, the heroes of My Lai - their feminine values (the sensitive, tender, intuitive, life- cherishing values that have always been associated with women) deadened, drilled away by the brutal cadences of military command?"

No, Friedan optimistically declared, we could instead look forward to a time when the military would be in the hands of men and women "strong enough to be sensitive and tender to the evolving needs and values of human life".

So much, for now, for that aspiration . . .