|Interrogating the Project of Military History|
June 7 - The Society for Military History had its annual meeting on May 20-23 in Bethesda, Maryland. The Iraq war hung heavily over the whole affair, partly because the war hangs heavily over the whole country, but mostly because the conference organizers looked deliberately toward the strategic policy-making community. Bethesda, after all, is cheek by jowl next to Washington, DC.
Between one thing and another, I had not attended an SMH meeting since 1997--the meeting, in fact, that I mentioned back in Entry 1. I went this year strictly out of a sense of professional obligation. I wasn't looking forward to it. (I wound up having a far better experience than I expected, but that's for a future entry.) Consequently I took my sweet time getting there, stopping off at the National Road/Zane Grey Museum in eastern Ohio, then at a nearby antique store. I stuck with the Interstate until I reached Washington, Pennsylvania, at which point I decided I'd take US 40--the old National Road--down to Fort Necessity National Battlefield. I'd never been there before. It's the most poorly-chosen military position I have ever seen. I'd read about it, but jeez. You look at it--a tiny stockade in a marshy meadow, too close to the woods and with a constricted field of fire--and you can't believe the guy who selected it wound up winning the war for American independence.
I didn't think beforehand about the route I'd take after visiting Fort Necessity, but it turns out that US 40 dumps you onto I-68 a few miles west of Cumberland, Maryland, which, it suddenly occurred to me, was only a few miles from Fort Ashby, West Virginia, home town of Lynndie England. These days everybody knows Pvt. England by sight if not by name: she's the female MP pointing at the genitals of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib with one hand while giving a "thumbs up" with the other. Even after a day of dawdling down the highway, I was in no hurry to reach Bethesda, so I found the exit to West Virginia's State Route 28 and drove the thirteen miles to Fort Ashby, population 1354.
The community, about a mile square, spreads out from the single major intersection--Washington Street and Green Street-- which sports a solitary traffic light. It has a gas station, a convenience store, a Dairy Queen clone, but no McDonald's (whether a town has a McDonald's is my rough-and-ready way of determining if it's a real town or merely a wide spot in the road). After the prisoner abuse story broke in late April, a flurry of journalists showed up to evaluate Fort Ashby on the theory this would tell us something about Lynndie England, who had immediately become the poster child for all things nasty at Abu Ghraib. Since the easy thing was to portray Fort Ashby as if it were so far removed from civilization its residents had to pipe in daylight, that's the way the media tended to portray it. And yes, there are a few double-wide trailers and maybe the odd junker on blocks in the front yard. Mostly, though, the houses looked like this one:
The house looks remarkably like the split-levels in my own subdivision, except that the shrubs are better pruned.
My plan was to find a diner or, preferably, a bar where I could nurse a drink while eavesdropping on the local conversation. Initially I was disappointed: nothing suitable caught my eye. I was about to leave Fort Ashby when I belatedly realized that at the southwest corner of the main intersection stood a ramshackle building that looked as if it might be a bar and--yep--turned out to be just that. According to a newspaper article I found this morning on LEXIS-NEXIS, the place is called the Corner Club Saloon. But since almost nothing in the article resembled anything I saw, I give no assurances the name is correct.
I was wearing khakis, a button-down shirt, and a sport jacket: much too dressed up for the Corner Club Saloon. But nobody called me a dude, challenged me to explain what I was doing there, or offered to rearrange my face. Instead the bartender served me one of those low-carb Michelob Ultras and said, in response to my question, that yes, he sold quite a few of them. The guys to my right continued to shoot pool. The women to my left continued an urgent discussion of something that very obviously had nothing at all to do with Iraq, Abu Ghraib, or Lynndie England.
As the minutes ticked by and I reflected with each new sip that $1.75 spent on a Michelob Ultra was $1.75 utterly wasted, I hoped against hope that a) the television above the bar from which CNN Headline News silently flickered would yield an image of the prisoner abuse scandal and, ideally, Lynndie England; and b) somebody in the bar would see it and comment on it. No such luck. But there was something homey and comfortable about the Corner Club Saloon. After a while I didn't give a hoot about my original mission. Instead I got another beer, looked over the menu, and ordered some chicken tenders for supper.
About the time that the chicken tenders arrived, the woman at my left turned to me and asked, in a neighborly sort of way that was neither challenge nor come-on, who I was. It was just her way of including me in the group. I gave her my name and said I was passing through on my way to Washington, DC. We must have chatted for five or ten minutes before she asked, inevitably, what had brought me to Fort Ashby. Any story I made up would sound so obviously made up as to be insulting, so I said, "Well, to tell you the truth, it was originally because I knew this was Lynndie England's hometown. But I don't want to speak of rope in the house of the hanged, so we don't need to talk about that."
It turned out that my new friend, whom I'll call Kitty, did in fact want to talk about that--or, more precisely, about the town's recent experience with the media. In fact, she wanted everyone within earshot to talk about it. "Hey, do you know why he's here? It's that Lynndie England story."
The men in the bar didn't immediately pick up on this subject, but the women did, especially Kitty and the Corner Club Saloon's other bartender, whose name was Colleen Kesner. Colleen was married to the first bartender, Randall, and together they had owned the Corner Club Saloon for not quite a year. Kitty wavered between wanting to talk to me and wondering if I was another reporter "out to do a number on us." (A friend of Kitty's even patted me down in a joking-but-serious way, and there was brief consternation when she mistook my cell phone for a tape recorder.) Colleen, on the other hand, gave me the benefit of the doubt and accepted me cordially on my own terms.
Although Lynndie England is far and away Fort Ashby's most famous persona, Colleen was more or less thrust into the role of Fort Ashby's civilian face, thanks largely to the efforts of a reporter named Sharon Churcher. I have now read a number of press accounts of life in Fort Ashby and while they all lean far too heavily on the Appalachia stereotype--Fort Ashby is, in fact, a near-suburb of Cumberland and its population includes doctors, attorneys, dentists and accountants--only Churcher decided to engage in wholesale character assassination.
Here's the article Churcher wrote. It was published originally in a New York tabloid, as I understand; this is the article as reprinted in the Sydney, Australia, Daily Telegraph on May 7:
Good ol' girl who enjoyed cruelty
POINTING crudely at the genitals of a naked, hooded Iraqi, the petite
brunette with a cigarette hanging from her lips epitomised America's shame
over revelations US soldiers routinely tortured inmates at Abu Ghraib jail
Colleen had a copy of the article behind the counter and showed it to me. She said that the reporter had appeared at midnight on a Thursday or Friday night at the height of turkey-hunting season, when the place was full of hunters and so raucous with conversation you could barely understand a word anyone said to you. Colleen had not yet heard about the prisoner abuse scandal, Lynndie England's role in it, and possibly even about the fact that England was a hometown girl. (Others in the bar knew the England family; I'm not sure Colleen did.) The reporter had to explain all these things to Colleen before she could ask Colleen to comment on them.
I doubt if the reporter could hear much of anything Colleen said in response, and in any case she spoke to Colleen only a few minutes. I wound up talking to Colleen for three hours--far longer, she said, than any of the reporters who interviewed her. The impression I had of her was of someone who habitually refrained from passing judgment, who was keenly aware of the complexities of living as a human being in this world, and who had a fundamental sympathy toward pretty much everyone. Kitty, for her part, was emphatically of the opinion that nothing--not orders from a superior, not the transgressions of the prisoners--could justify what England and her comrades had done. "Two wrongs don't make a right." Nobody toasted Lynndie as a hero. No one defended her. The most anyone did was to stick up for the young woman's parents, to say they were good people.
Colleen herself mainly seemed hurt and embarrassed to have been portrayed as saying anything remotely like: "A lot of people here think they ought to just blow up the whole of Iraq . . . . To the country boys here, if you're a different nationality, a different race, you're sub-human. That's the way girls like Lynndie are raised. Tormenting Iraqis, in her mind, would be no different from shooting a turkey. Every season here you're hunting something. Over there, they're hunting Iraqis."
I don't think Colleen said anything of the kind. In fact, I doubt if Colleen said anything quotable at all. Everything I heard her say had a reflective, tentative quality--a sort of principled refusal to draw conclusions before the facts were in--the kind of hesitation that leaves each would-be sound bite still-born. This must have been maddening for a reporter on a deadline, besides which it largely undercut the point of doing a story on Fort Ashby. The fact of the matter is, a visit to Fort Ashby sheds absolutely no light whatever on what transpired in Abu Ghraib, but when your editor has sent you to get a story and you've traveled hundreds of miles: well, if the bar is loud enough and conversation difficult enough, your ears can hear pretty much whatever you need them to hear.
The closest Colleen came to anything quotable was the following: "Lynndie never came in this place. She was underage. But if she came in now I'd give her a hug, I'd buy her a beer, and then I'd ask her, 'What in the hell did you think you were doing?'" Even this quote doesn't get at the heart of what Colleen was trying to say. It needs context. What framed the comment was Colleen's recognition that at 21 years of age, Lynndie had made a mistake from which her young life would quite likely never recover. Most of us screw up, at least once or twice, in a big, big way. Few of us screw up so publicly that the world forever sees us frozen in the worst moment of our lives.
I finally broke away from the Corner Club Tavern around 9:30 p.m. As my headlights lit the highway back to Cumberland, I thought about the story that had brought Sharon Churcher to Fort Ashby: the way in which American service personnel had abused and humiliated human beings in Iraq. I doubt it ever crossed her mind that she, in turn, had abused and humiliated human beings in Fort Ashby.
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