If Pfc. Lynndie England had come home in a flag-draped coffin, killed by an Iraqi detainee, we would have been far less shocked than we are at the now-infamous image of this young woman holding a leash attached to a naked Iraqi prisoner. At least then she would have been something we're used to seeing -- a woman as a victim.

In the past two weeks, I've been asked repeatedly about my reaction when I first realized that some of the soldiers abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib were women. People want to know what I think may have motivated those young women in the photos to participate in such degrading acts. Were they trying to be accepted as "one of the boys"? Was this a way of "fitting in"?

I have to say that initially, like almost everyone else, I was shocked. I somehow thought that women couldn't, or at least wouldn't, act with such disregard for humanity. Like others, I was taken aback, especially when I saw by their smiling faces and "thumbs up" that these women appeared to be having some fun with what was happening around them. But it didn't take me long to realize that, really, we shouldn't be all that surprised. For women, I believe, are just as vulnerable as men to the group dynamics that can make people act in ways they might not otherwise have dreamed possible.

It wasn't that long ago, during the discussion over whether women should be allowed in combat, that I was among those who expressed the view that Americans apparently weren't ready for women in body bags. Yet I now find myself thinking that maybe the average American was far more prepared for that than for a woman at the aggressor's end of what looks like torture and humiliation, especially sexual torture and humiliation. This is what's at the heart of the public response to the photos from Abu Ghraib. In short, the reversal of roles has taken us completely by surprise.

It's hardly possible to watch an evening of television without seeing women as victims. Think "Law and Order: SVU." Watch your favorite news magazine, or look closely at fashion advertising, or pick up the daily paper. Women at the receiving end of degradation and abuse are everywhere in the media. And while women may also be seen in powerful roles, rarely are they seen wielding power in a way that's intended to degrade or abuse, and even more rarely is it directed at men. When women are seen in that light, their victims are children, usually their own. Remember Susan Smith? Andrea Yates? When their victims have been men, the perpetrators tend to be women who are already marginalized and/or victimized by the society in which they've tried to function. Think of serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

Ultimately, the distinction between seeing men as aggressors and seeing women as aggressors is that the women are usually acting as individuals, not as part of a larger, structural arrangement of discrimination or abuse. That, I believe, is why we find ourselves so struck by the military women at Abu Ghraib. I'm not convinced that they are sadistic and perverted individuals. They may really be "the girls next door." But whether as pawns or players, they're complicit in what appears to be an organizational failure of monstrous proportions. And we're simply not used to seeing women in that role.

That's why I believe that if England had been killed, by an Iraqi detainee -- or even by an American soldier -- we would have been less shocked. She would, in a sense, have filled the role expected of her as a woman in American society -- far more so than does a woman in a role as prison guard in a combat zone. I say this as someone who participated in military training with a woman who was later murdered by a man with whom she was stationed. I recall quite clearly how little surprise people expressed. In fact, he seemed to think people would understand his justification. They'd been drinking, he couldn't "perform," and in her own drunkenness, she laughed. So he killed her. End of story. We're somewhat desensitized to women being on the receiving end of violence. And we are, all too unfortunately, just as desensitized to men being on the aggressor's end.

In Abu Ghraib the tables are turned. Men -- men who have been characterized by many as evil, or at the least not to be trusted -- are on the receiving end. And women, long held up by our society as a "kinder, gentler" class of persons, are engaging in abuse and humiliation. As a society that has -- albeit misguidedly -- arranged itself around perceptions of women and men as fundamentally different creatures, we are simply at a loss to understand this role inversion.

This is why we search for something specific that might have "motivated" these soldiers, women and men, as individuals, even if, as some of them claim, they were just following orders. Believing the actions of these soldiers to be the result of flawed individuals lets us conclude that we -- not, of course, being so flawed -- would never be guilty of such actions.

But pathologizing the individual also allows us to maintain the belief that women, as a category of persons, would generally not be a party to such crimes. Surely, we say questioningly, these people, and most assuredly these women, are exceptions. But I don't think so. Individual women in the military do, undeniably, strategize to be accepted as equals by the men with whom they serve, but it's unlikely that the women involved in this chain of events were making intentional choices, just trying to be one of the guys or fitting in.

A far more likely explanation for the behavior of everyone involved is what Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo and others have described as the "power of the situation." Women, it is my guess, like their male counterparts, were largely ill-prepared -- both in terms of skills and emotions -- to deal with what they faced in Abu Ghraib. Does this absolve them of responsibility? No, not at all. Does it mean that there is more to this than a few individuals with poor judgment? Absolutely.

Back in the late '70s, I went through Army basic training and military police training in a sex-integrated unit. Let me make clear, I thought it was a good idea then; I still think it's the only way to train people who will, weeks later, be serving alongside one another. But I did have one experience that, long before I reflected on it as a social psychologist, always stuck with me.

While on a field exercise, we had a mock prisoner-of-war camp in which we were randomly assigned to roles as prisoners or guards. As luck would have it, I was a prisoner and all the "guards" were men -- young men. As the day wore on, they got more and more carried away with their role and started pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior. You know -- where they grabbed, how they grabbed. I recall getting fed up and reminding them that they weren't really guards, that they were crossing a line. I may have learned something about being a prisoner, but they also learned something -- and I don't know that it was good -- about being guards. I believed then, as I believe now, that I wouldn't have acted the way they did. There would have been no "power of the situation"; the other male "guards" would never have tolerated, let alone encouraged, my mistreatment of their buddies. This was, after all, a training situation and they weren't "the enemy." But years later, when similar, but far more egregious, incidents occurred at the Air Force Academy, I wasn't at all surprised.

In the mid-1990s, while undergoing training allegedly designed to prepare cadets for what they might experience if captured, Elizabeth Saum was assigned the role of "prisoner." She was slapped, punched, shaken, had her pants unbuttoned, and then other cadets climbed on top of her to simulate raping her. She wasn't the only victim, but she was the one who spoke out. And, interestingly, the victims weren't all women, but apparently included anyone viewed as more vulnerable than those in charge. Ask those cadets about the use of misogyny and homophobia as tools for humiliation. Ask them about the hoods placed on the "prisoners'" heads. Ask them about the fact that at least one of the incidents was videotaped. Do you think they were surprised at the Abu Ghraib photos? Maybe at first. But I'm betting the specifics were far too familiar.

It so happens that these miscreants were men. But make these real-world rather than training situations. Change the targets of the abuse to those cast as "the other" to a much greater degree than female trainees and cadets. And add to the mix all the other things that apparently went wrong at Abu Ghraib. It should no longer surprise us that women, too, acted in ways contrary to what we would like to expect.

So how do we make sense of it all? Can we make sense of it all? We can begin by understanding that the stars did not align in such a way that a random group of sadistic individuals ended up in the same military assignment. Something much larger was at work. A combination of factors yet to be fully understood -- poor leadership, inadequate preparation, lack of resources, and perhaps some experienced interrogators taking advantage of inexperienced soldiers -- undoubtedly contributed to a situation in which individuals, female and male, made bad choices. If you watch "West Wing," you might have been struck by a line from last week's program. A young Israeli soldier, referring to his comrades' shooting of children said, "They are not evil. But when people who are not monsters do this, it's the situation. The circumstances are to blame." Even without Aaron Sorkin, the "West Wing" writers "get it."

Just as women have proven themselves capable of leading troops in difficult situations, so have they now shown that they can become vulnerable to the power of a role, the power of wielding power. Images of a woman giving a "thumbs up" beside a hooded, naked man have highlighted the horrors of war in a way I don't believe would have happened had we seen only more traditional images of men at war. Putting a woman's face on war's brutality has, I believe, prompted a depth of discussion that might not otherwise have occurred. Ultimately, through that discussion, I expect we'll gain insight far beyond what any of us expected when we first saw the young women smiling at us from inside Abu Ghraib.

Author's e-mail: embserherbert@hamline.edu Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert is associate professor of sociology at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., and the author of "Camouflage Isn't Only for Combat: Gender, Sexuality, and Women in the Military" (NYU Press).