"Men who rape in war are ordinary Joes, made unordinary by entry into the most exclusive male-only club in the world," wrote Susan Brownmiller in "Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape," her pioneering 1974 book. "Victory in arms brings group power undreamed-of in civilian life. Power for men and men alone."
That was then. But as the world has now learned from photographs of leering American female soldiers participating in the sexual humiliation of nude Iraqi prisoners, women are not exempt from the sadistic and corrupting lure of power enjoyed by military conquerors.
Nor are women in command roles exempt from the "go along to get along" mentality that characterizes the worst kind of military bureaucracy. Janis Karpinski, the now-suspended Army reserve brigadier general who was in charge of military prisons in Iraq, made no protest when she was denied access to interrogation cells in the jails she was supposed to be supervising.
As a feminist who has always supported equality for women in the military, I am so disturbed by the role of women in these atrocities that I have difficulty explaining the intensity of my reaction.
It seems undeniable that a photograph of a woman pulling a prisoner by a leash, or grinning atop a pyramid of men being forced to simulate sex acts, arouses even greater repulsion than similar images of male soldiers. The question is why.
There is clearly no moral difference between men and women who commit such acts. There is, however, a different cultural and psychological meaning attached to female involvement in reducing other human beings to a state of naked helplessness.
It is horrible to acknowledge that on some level we are never really all that surprised when a man turns out to be a rapist, torturer or murderer, whether in military or civilian life.
Throughout recorded history -- from the Trojan War to the rapes and murders of tens or hundreds of thousands in Bosnia and Rwanda -- the bodies of women have been counted among the spoils of victory.
Women have usually been victims rather than perpetrators in part because most women in combat zones have generally, until recently, been civilians.
Of course there have always been exceptions. Female SS guards such as Hermine Braunsteiner (of Majdanek and Ravensbruck) and Ilse Koch, known as the "bitch of Buchenwald," were even more sadistic than their male counterparts, according to the accounts of many concentration camp survivors. That may or may not have been true, but what does seem clear is that every generation is more shocked by sadistic women than by sadistic men in authority.
I have never believed the pseudo- scientific research suggesting that women are somehow more empathic and more compassionate than men. But I used to think that women -- because on some level, every woman knows that she can become a rape victim if she finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person -- would be more likely to protest the sexual objectification and humiliation of anyone, male or female.
Indeed, it is ironic that the Army is currently investigating reports of sexual harassment and rape of U.S. military women by fellow Americans in Iraq at the same time that other women are being charged with torturing prisoners.
Two of the soldiers charged, Pfc. Lynndie R. England and Spc. Charles A. Graner Jr., were sexually involved with each other, and England is now pregnant with Graner's child. There is something especially repellent about the thought of two collaborators in torture being in a perverse courtship.
The truth is that some women, placed in circumstances that can bring out the worst in human nature, are every bit as evil as some men. Cultural conservatives, who have long opposed women in combat on the grounds that they are too delicate to be subjected to the sight of war -- and might be raped if taken prisoner -- are likely to use the behavior of such women as a further argument against equality for all military women.
But if it is wrong to expose women to the brutalization of war -- and to the corruption that can ensue when victors are allowed to exercise unchecked power over the vanquished -- it is wrong to subject men to the same influences. That is arguably the only worthwhile lesson to be derived from the shock of seeing all-American girls do to men what men have always done to women.
Susan Jacoby is the author of "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism" (Metropolitan, 2004) and director of the Center for Inquiry-Metro New York.