Heroine Abuse

Private Jessica Lynch makes a heroic escape — from Pentagon spin.


Conveniently coinciding with Veteran’s Day, the book “I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story,” Lynch’s own authorized version of her much publicized and politicized rescue from capture in Iraq, hit the shelves Tuesday, opening a new round of debates about war reporting, military propaganda, and the meaning of heroism.

Lynch’s was taken captive after an ambush on March 23 that killed 11 of her fellow soldiers. Lynch has no recollection of what happened between the time of her unit’s ambush and when she awoke at a nearby hospital, something the Pentagon would use to some effect, plugging the gap with a narrative of courage, virtue, and good old U.S. grit.

The official telling had her fighting back bravely, then spending nine days as a prisoner of war before being spectacularly rescued by U.S. Special Forces. Lynch’s version is that she didn’t fight back, not least because her rifle jammed; that the the doctors of the hospital were she was “held” treated her pretty well (the AP reports that in Lynch’s account the Iraqi doctors are
“gentle caretakers who worked at their own risk to keep her alive.”); and that the rescue, when it came, was pretty workaday.

The Pentagon, abetted by a supine media, touted that rescue as a heroic high-point of the Iraq war, a simple narrative of good triumphing over evil by means of American valor that even critics of the war would grow misty about, a badly needed diversion for the administration in the early days when “shock and awe” was starting to sound like wishful thinking. Hence Lynch became the public face of the Iraq war: idealistic, brave, sympathetic.

No longer. Now Lynch is chafing at her Joan of Arc role, and she’s criticizing the military for hyping her story. Briefly the embodiment of American virture, she’s fast become a symbol of Pentagon propaganda and schlocky media credulity. Where the “real” Jessica Lynch fits in all this is unclear. And, really, who cares? More interesting is the view this whole episode offers of the “real” Pentagon.

Lynch told ABC‘s Diane Sawyer that the Pentagon’s airbrush-job bothered her.

“Yeah, it does [bother me]. It does that they used me as a way to symbolize all this stuff,” Lynch said, “I mean, yeah, it’s wrong … I don’t know what they had … or why they filmed it.”

The alternative news portal Electronic Iraq thinks there are in fact two Jessica Lynches:

“The first Jessica Lynch is the one we met last April — the Pentagon-created Jessica Lynch whose smiling, petite face, partially shadowed by her military uniform cap, has been on countless magazines and whose story was ‘recreated’ in a made for T.V. movie that aired last night in the U.S. But more recently emerged is Jessica Lynch the army supply clerk whose gun jammed during the ambush she and several other members of her convoy endured on the outskirts of Nasariya, Iraq. This second Jessica Lynch, whose interview with Diane Sawyer will air tomorrow night, is upset with the Pentagon for manufacturing the first Jessica Lynch, the Jessica Lynch who distracted Americans, for a little while at least, from the mounting American casualties that have stacked up during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Just like there seem to be two Jessica Lynches, there seem to be two American wars on Iraq that are simultaneously being represented by the news media and the Pentagon. The first war is the one of heroic U.S. troops descending upon downtrodden Iraq to liberate its people from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, as illustrated by staged pictures of U.S. soldiers and a handful of Iraqis toppling down a statue of Saddam earlier this year. But the second war on Iraq is the one that I would bet that the real Jessica Lynch would identify with, along with more and more Americans, the war that took the life of her friend and convoy comrade Lori Ann Piestewa, and the same war in which her boyfriend and brother are currently risking their lives.”

From the beginning, when the story of her rescue first broke, the media focus in the U.S. was on Lynch, obscuring a day of heavy U.S. losses (29 were dead by end of day, the worst of the Iraq war)
in line with the White House’s desperate attempt to focus on the “good news.”

When the Washington Post broke the original story of Lynch’s rescue, the account included an alleged gun battle with Iraqi ambushers, in which she reportedly killed several attackers and sustained multiple gunshot wounds. Later the Post was forced to run a lengthy correction and provide a competing version of the rescue. The Baltimore Sun provides an excellent timeline of how the media made Jessica Lynch a star .

Writing in the New York Times, Frank Rich says that the NBC’s docudrama “Saving Jessica Lynch”, which aired Sunday, actually proved to be a more accurate depiction of reality than the Post’s initial news account.

“When American forces were bogged down in the war’s early days, she was the happy harbinger of an imminent military turnaround: a 19-year-old female Rambo who tried to blast her way out of the enemy’s clutches, taking out any man who got in her way. When those accounts turned out to be largely fiction, she became a symbol of Bush administration propaganda and the press’s war-time credulity in buying it. Then came her months of muffled recuperation: a metaphor for the low-grade fever of inertia and unease that has set in at home in the months since that Saddam statue fell.


The movie [“Saving Jessica Lynch”] begins with the inevitable disclaimer that ‘some characters, scenes and events in whole or in part have been created for dramatic purposes.’ Even so, given the facts as we know them to date, it is startling in its relative accuracy — more than earlier reportage by The Washington Post (which attributed its initial Rambo version to ‘U.S. officials’) and The New York Times (whose reporter Jayson Blair fictionalized some of the paper’s Lynch coverage).

The Lynch of this film has not been pumped up with steroids. She’s a supply clerk gravely injured in a Humvee collision, not G.I. Jessica spraying bullets in a shootout. (She has only a sprinkling of lines in the entire movie, many of them in flashbacks to prewar West Virginia.) The American forces that rescue her encounter no ‘blaze of gunfire,’ as was described in an early Los Angeles Times account attributed to ‘defense officials and reports from the battlefield,’ but instead confront only compliant doctors and nurses. The White House is portrayed as being disproportionately focused on the urgency of this single mission, for no apparent purpose other than p.r.”

The conflicting versions of her rescue aren’t the only controversy in the story of Jessica Lynch. Rick Bragg, the writer of her authorized biography asserts that it was likely Lynch was sexually assaulted, something Lynch has neither confirmed nor denied since the assault presumably happened while she was unconscious. In her interview with ABC, Lynch said she had no recollection of the attack. “Even just the thinking about that, that’s too painful,” she said. Meanwhile, her Iraqi doctors have firmly rejected the claim.

The media doesn’t come well out of this, with its obsessive focus on Lynch, the pretty, teenage soldier whose daring rescue in Iraq “gave America hope.” Some claim that the focus on her might be rooted in racism as Channel News Asia reports:

“‘One of the things that we have seen in wars … is that news media try to personalize the complexities of wars into a handful of people,’ said Steven Livingston, a professor at George Washington University in Washington who has studied news media coverage of the Iraq war. ‘This is a case where Hollywood and the Pentagon have worked very closely to produce this cultural icon.’


The spotlight on Lynch meanwhile has obscured the fact that 11 members of her 507th Maintenance Company died in the fighting and five others spent two more weeks in captivity, enduring the humiliation of being paraded for the news media by their Iraqi captors.
Critics have focused on Specialist Shoshana Johnson, 30, a former prisoner of war whom they say was ignored because she is black and a Panamanian immigrant while Lynch, a petite blond from the rural state of West Virginia, is more ‘all-American.’
‘You’ve got some very interesting cultural, almost racial overtones here,” Livingston said of the Lynch story.'”

In yet another instance of reality biting back at the myth-makers, Hustler publisher Larry Flint’s announcement that he was in possession of nude pictures of Lynch. Contrary to the image of the wholesome girl next door, the Pentagon tried to ascribe to Lynch, the pictures apparently show her frolicking topless with male soldiers before she went off to war. Lynch’s publisher was outraged and called Flint’s plan to publish the pictures “unspeakable”. Flint has since backed down from his initial plan. On Tuesday, he told the AP that he had changed his mind about printing the pictures, because Lynch is a “good kid” who became “a pawn of the government.”