The leash shot is the one that will make its way into high school history textbooks, the diminutive Pfc. Lynndie England holding a naked Iraqi prisoner by a strap tied around his neck. The piles of naked Iraqis, the Iraqi standing naked with women's underwear placed over his head -- the images are sickening enough, but even creepier in the context of hundreds of other snapshots of military life in Iraq.
Based in Cresaptown, Md., the 372nd Military Police Company includes soldiers who grew up in Centreville and Springfield, in cosmopolitan Alexandria and in rural West Virginia. As we learn about the abuses these soldiers inflicted at Baghdad's largest prison, we search their pasts for clues to their behavior.
But to look at all of the photos is to focus less on individual soldiers and more on the chain of command.
I don't know who took these pictures, but they went everywhere with the 372nd: to markets, the swimming hole, historic sites, inside Abu Ghraib prison.
Life in the war zone is a disorienting blend of American pop culture and alien existence. The snapshots show soldiers watching sports on TV, drinking American soda, hanging out in those white plastic garden chairs that go for a song at Target. The snaps show the men and women of the 372nd doing what tourists do: checking out local foods, making friends, savoring spectacular sunsets, capturing natural beauty to wow the folks back home.
But the same photographers who focus on cute children -- here's a shot of two Iraqi boys, perhaps 9 years old, their arms slung over each other's shoulders, reveling in the absolute bond boys share -- also document Iraqis' bloody wounds in gory close-ups.
There are pictures of blood-saturated car seats and a blood-spattered dashboard, and then the sunshine of a desert landscape. Reptiles and palm trees give way to a young Iraqi woman -- a prisoner? -- in come-hither poses. Finally, she lifts her shirt to reveal her breasts. She does not smile.
There is talk now about bad apples, rogues who besmirched the name of our military. But to see how casually soldiers watch acts of abuse, to see Pfc. Sabrina Harman, who played softball at Robert E. Lee High in Springfield, deliver a hearty thumbs up as she poses next to a decomposing, gray-black Iraqi on a slab -- all this reveals itself not as a spasm of inhumanity, but as a deep vein of dehumanized and apparently sanctioned behavior.
Five soldiers stand around in the now-famous image of naked Iraqis piled into a pyramid. The soldiers do not look wary or scared. These are not rogue underlings who fear being discovered. These people are not "just following orders."
Rather, the humiliation of the Iraqis seems of a piece with photos depicting a baby cat whose head has been severed and burned. Everybody seems to be having a ball as the cat head is posed stuffed into a bottle of Clorox; atop a can of Fanta with a cigarette in its mouth (the caption reads, "Pothead Cathead"); with containers of Off! over the words, "Cathead Hates Flys."
Here is both the appropriate gallows humor common among cops, doctors or morticians and the dehumanized behavior of violent youth gangs.
Years ago, while prosecuting members of the 8th and H Crew for the unspeakable murder of a Northeast Washington woman who was sodomized with a metal pole, my wife tried to figure out what drove those boys to murder Catherine Fuller. My wife read "Lord of the Flies," the disturbing story of boys who leap into collective savagery. After finishing that book at 2 a.m., she moved right on to "A Clockwork Orange," Anthony Burgess's novel about gangs of boys who share a secret lingo and revel in cruelty.
These novels teach us that soldiers in Iraq, thugs on the streets of the District, any people subjected to brutal conditions will find ways to defend themselves. They will build barriers against normal emotional responses to pain and terror. They will burn a baby cat or abuse prisoners because it is something they can do to feel a sense of control, to cement their bonds. It is their means of dealing with horror.
It is nonetheless inexcusable. It is not inevitable. It requires punishment. But these pictures say abuses were, at the least, condoned. And those who let it happen have not yet been charged, or even named.
Join me at noon today
for "Potomac Confidential" at