In this deeply disturbing interview, the trailer trash torturer who appalled the world by appearing in shocking ’souvenir’ photographs remains utterly unrepentant and says she has 800 MORE torture photos that could rock the White House
Normally, not much happens in Keyser, West Virginia, but today the folks in this quaint little railroad town, nestling in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, are spoilt for choice.
Either they can whoop and holler along to fiddle music at the annual Strawberry Festival or head down to the bookshop, where a local ‘celebrity’ – as her agent-cum-lawyer describes her – is signing first editions of her new biography.
Arriving at Main Street Books to find a young woman – considerably heavier now, but still grimly familiar – loitering self-consciously beside a pile of unsold manuscripts, it becomes clear that the fiddle players have won hands-down.
Degrading: One of the images of U.S. soldier Lynndie England at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Six years on a defiant England claims she was just doing her duty
When the shop closes, two hours later, Lynndie England has autographed barely two dozen copies, mostly for acquaintances such as her old schoolteacher.
For even on her home territory, few people are willing to line the pockets of this fallen girl soldier; who posed for a stomach-churning series of ’souvenir’ photographs that cost countless American lives and brought shame on the nation.
Five years have passed since a U.S. TV station first broadcast those pictures, staged to humiliate and dehumanise Iraqi prisoners – and provide warped amusement for their U.S. Army guards – at Abu Ghraib prison, near Baghdad.
They caused universal outrage, ending any lingering pretence that President George W. Bush was on some moral crusade in Iraq, and sparking a wave of retaliatory beheadings; many of which were videoed to reciprocate the horror and degradation meted out to the Muslim detainees.
Such was their impact that they are still said to be used as recruitment propaganda for Islamic terror groups.
After all, what better way to incite a young fanatic than by showing him a photo of a female American soldier nonchalantly holding a leash, tightened around the neck of a naked and hooded Iraqi prisoner, as he squirms on the floor of his cell?
In another photograph, the waif-like Military Police private casually inspects a line of terrified Iraqi prisoners – again stripped and wearing sandbags over their heads – as they are forced to masturbate.
Grinning broadly with a cigarette clamped in her mouth, England, then just 21 and weighing less than seven stone, added to their humiliation by pointing mockingly at their genitals and giving the thumbs-up sign; a gesture now known as the ‘Lynndie salute’.
One of seven U.S. Army reserves jailed for mistreating prisoners at Abu Ghraib – including her former lover Corporal Charles Graner, a sadistic, camera-obsessed bully who orchestrated the photo sessions – she has served three years in detention and is now on parole.
With a new book to peddle and her appeal against the conviction due to be heard next month, one might have expected the 26-year-old England to express some remorse.
Following Barack Obama’s release of CIA torture files which lend credence to her claim that the ritual humiliation of prisoners was a White House sanctioned tactic during the Bush regime, she even consulted her local senator about petitioning for a Presidential pardon
But ’sorry’, it becomes clear, is not in Lynndie England’s vocabulary.
When we speak, three things strike me: her breathtaking lack of contrition; her unsuitability to have been a serving soldier and her utter indifference towards the horrifically abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib, 90 per cent of whom were later released without charge.
Since no established biographer would touch her life story (it was even dropped by the literary agent who handled O.J. Simpson’s widely reviled book, If I Did It) her biography has been penned by a greenhorn local author, Gary Winkler.
For a man whose two previous works were lilting chronicles of Appalachian life, it has proved a chastening experience. Not only has he fallen out bitterly with his subject and her agent-cum-lawyer and confidant, Roy T. Hardy, but he has patently struggled to get the characteristically withdrawn England to open up.
‘I just don’t think she’s a very deep person,’ Winkler, a white-bearded former musician in his late 50s, concludes miserably.
Disgrace: Iraq detainees appear to be surrounded by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison
‘Lynndie only has two moods: bored and p****d off.’
During our first meeting, when she yawns through my questions, I see what he means.
Two days later, however, perhaps enlivened by the anti-depressant tablets upon which she relies, England is more animated and opens up to describe the background to the photographs in more detail than ever before.
They were taken on three separate nights in late October and early November 2003. At the time, her job was to process the detainees’ admission and release forms.
As a clerical support worker, she had no business in the so-called Hard Site at Abu Ghraib, a block of some 40 cells where the supposedly most dangerous inmates were held.
But she routinely sneaked in late at night to sleep with Graner, a hulking 6ft 3in ex-Marine in charge of the night patrol.
After their arrest, she discovered he had also been having sex with another female soldier who worked on the block, Megan Ambuhl, whom he has married while in prison.
At the time of their affair, England was also married, to childhood sweetheart James Fike, so their relationship was against U.S. military rules.
Even after being repeatedly warned, she refused to break off with Graner and was eventually demoted.
She says she was mesmerised by Graner, who worked in civilian life as a prison corrections officer and had an appalling record for abusing prisoners – one claimed he hid razor blades in the prison food.
‘I was blinded by a fool’s love,’ England says in her cigarette-coarsened south-country drawl, as if this explains and excuses her participation in the pictures.
‘I know now that Graner was manipulating me, but at that point I would have done anything he told me.’
I ask her about one of the most chilling pictures, in which seven naked detainees, brought to the block after allegedly taking part in a riot elsewhere in the prison, were forced to form a ‘human pyramid’.
After instructing the men to pile up on top of one another, Graner proudly draped his arm around England, and the smiling couple posed beside the grotesque tangle of human flesh.
Looking at the image now, it appears that the detainees could not have remained in this painful position for very long; yet England says quite matter-of-factly that they were forced to stay fixed in position for ‘20 minutes or something’.
When I suggest that this must have been excruciatingly painful, she shrugs and replies: ‘Probably.’
So why hadn’t she asked Graner to call a halt? A grin and another shrug: ‘I’m pretty sure he’d have said “No”.
‘There were only three of us and seven of them, and he wanted to contain them by keeping them connected and concentrating on not falling – so they wouldn’t overpower us. That’s how he explained it.’
But surely she must have felt some pity for them? As often, she takes an eternity to reply, then says: ‘In my eyes they were the enemy; the other side. What happens in war happens. They would have done 20 times worse to us.’
Five years on: Lynndie England with her authorised biography
We move on to another hideous image, in which the same group of prisoners – one of whom Graner had punched full in the face – were lined up and ordered to masturbate.
How long had this sick charade continued? ‘You are going to find this ridiculous,’ says England, half suppressing a snigger. ‘One guy did 45 minutes! Freddie [Graner’s fellow prison guard, Ivan Frederick] just wanted to see if they would do it – and all seven of them lined up doing this.
‘Well, six stopped after a few minutes, but the seventh carried on.’
Hearing this account for the first time, even Roy T. Hardy, her lawyer, who had thought himself beyond shock after representing England for five years, is clearly taken aback.
‘But you were there the whole time?’ gasps bespectacled, roly-poly Hardy. ‘I’ve never heard this stuff before.’
‘Yes I was – unfortunately,’ England says, fixing him with her strange, lop-sided smile. ‘I was standing there, like, watching. I was there the whole four hours.’
Hardy, who doubles as a local assistant county prosecutor, clears his throat, as if about to address the bench. ‘Don’t mistake Lynndie’s grin for amusement,’ he implores me. ‘That’s just a nervous mannerism.’
Maybe so, I say, but she caused so much harm. What people want to hear is an apology.
‘Sorry? For what I did?’ she interjects, incredulous. ‘All I did was stand in the pictures. Saying sorry is admitting I was guilty and I’m not. I was just doing my duty.’
She recites her often-rehearsed argument: that the Abu Ghraib guards were tacitly encouraged to ’soften up’ the prisoners before they were interrogated by military intelligence officers.
Given all we know now, this sounds plausible. It is also easy to see how this gullible backwoods girl became the sociopathic Graner’s stooge; as Gary Winkler says: ‘She was his prop; all she was guilty of is stupidity.’
For all this, however, it is impossible to empathise with her, for she is such an unsympathetic character.
The daughter of a railway worker, Ken England, and his wife Terrie, she was two years old when her family moved from Kentucky to a trailer park in Fort Ashby, West Virginia.
There she grew into a tomboy and loner, never happier than when shooting squirrels in the woods. Until her wedding day, she had never owned a dress.
Teachers recall her for saying almost nothing during her school years, and her defence psychologist diagnosed her with speech-related learning difficulty called selective mutism.
However, she was bright enough to graduate from high school with good grades, and set her heart on becoming a meteorologist.
This ambition began, she says, after she saw the film Twister and became fascinated by tornadoes.
To pay her way through college, she took menial jobs, including processing chickens and serving in a supermarket, where she fell for the mild-mannered Fike.
They were divorced after she admitted her affair with Graner, although England insists she still loves Fike, and would like to get back together with him.
‘But I wouldn’t blame him if he hates me.’
They wed as teenagers, but soon afterwards she joined the local reserve regiment, the 372nd Military Police Company – partly because she needed the money, but mainly because she ‘always wanted to serve’, she says.
Never having travelled beyond the nearby states, and not even owning a passport, she hadn’t expected to be sent overseas.
But as operations in Afghanistan and Iraq stretched U.S. services to breaking point, the ‘weekend warriors’ were marched off to war.
By then her affair with Graner had already begun. Having pursued her for weeks at their U.S. base, Fort Lee, the 34-year-old divorce 14 years her senior, checked them into a seedy motel where the liaison was consummated.
She first discovered that Graner got a kick out of taking – and showing his friends – perverted photographs of her soon afterwards, when they holidayed in Virginia Beach.
This was in March 2003, more than six months before the Abu Ghraib pictures were taken.
While she performed a sex act on him, he reached for his Sony and started clicking away, she says.
‘Whoa! Hey, what are you doing? I don’t want pictures taken,’ England says she protested.
But when Graner insisted they were for his eyes only and just ‘harmless fun’, she relented.
She claims she had no idea he was emailing compromising pictures of her to fellow soldiers until after her arrest; hence her lack of caution when he asked her to pose with the prisoners.
However, as her boyfriend had maliciously shown the Virginia Beach photos to her mortified parents during a visit to her family in April 2003 – by ‘accidentally’ slipping them in among some other innocent snaps they were viewing – surely alarm bells should have rung?
Graner and England were deployed to Abu Ghraib in October 2003, and although nothing can excuse their subsequent behaviour, it is possible to see how things happened.
A few months earlier, the prison had held just 700 detainees, but when they arrived the numbers had swollen to 7,000.
Understaffed, undertrained and poorly led, the guards struggled to control this sweltering bedlam.
Though she insists that ‘everyone’ knew about the detainee photographs, a criminal investigation began only some three months after they were taken, when a soldier with a conscience, Sergeant Joseph Darby, handed in two CDs of photographs which Graner had boastfully shown to him.
Hastily airlifted out of Iraq for his own safety, Darby has lived in hiding ever since. Just as well, for England says she would ‘definitely beat the hell out of him if I saw him’, adding: ‘In war, you don’t rat on your buddies.’
Intriguingly, she claims to possess about 800 more unseen photographs from her time in Iraq, depicting scenes which would be highly damaging to the U.S. Army and the White House, if they were ever released.
Roy T. Hardy claims they include pictures of an Iraqi woman bearing her breasts and graphic images of wounded enemy combatants, but declines to go into more detail because, until her dishonorable discharge is finalised, England remains a serving soldier.
It is not clear whether these photographs, which are locked away in a vault, are among the hundreds which Obama is withholding – having reneged last month on his promise to release them when he came to power.
But their very existence constitutes a ticking time-bomb for the U.S. authorities, and biographer Gary Winkler believes she and Hardy will try to sell them to the highest bidder.
The author claims England is being manipulated by her lawyer-agent, and describes Hardy as ‘the new Charles Graner’.
Understandably, Hardy, 39, is incensed by this – though the happily married father-of-two hardly helps himself by constantly joking that he and England are having a secret fling.
Winkler is embittered, the lawyer says, because Hardy and England have criticised his book, which was supposed to have been her first-person story but has ended up an error-strewn exercise in vanity publishing. But she needs the money.
She has applied for countless jobs, she complains, but no one dares to employ her, and so, two years after her release she remains unemployed and has given up hope of working.
Reliant on food stamps and the charity of her family and friends, she lives with her parents and four-year-old Carter, the child she had with Graner, in the same cramped trailer where she was raised.
Her hatred for Graner, who is midway through his ten-year sentence, was compounded when he demanded a DNA test to prove Carter is really his child.
England was pregnant by the time she stood trial and maintains that only Graner could be the father.
The result is not back yet, but one look at the boy would be enough for Graner to realise he is wasting his time.
England, now 26 and without a boyfriend – though she receives marriage proposals from twisted internet admirers – says she is depressed because she feels trapped and has lost her independence.
‘I can’t even hunt squirrels no more, because I’m not permitted to own a firearm,’ she moans.
As a result of post-traumatic stress, she says, she also suffers flashbacks and horribly vivid nightmares.
Do they reawaken memories of those chilling photograph sessions at Abu Ghraib?
‘It’s a whole variety of stuff. You can’t hear somebody screaming their heads off and not dream about it,’ she drawls sardonically.
‘I’ll be watching a movie, or TV, and then something triggers it and, bam! I’m back there.’
This hardly sounds like contrition, but is probably as close as Private First Class Lynndie England will ever come to expressing regret for becoming the unacceptable face of the U.S. Army.