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December 2003 • Vol 3, No. 11 •

Jessica Lynch: Hero, Whistle-blower, Celebrity

By Lynda Hurst

Pity the poor PR boys at the Pentagon. It may be hard, but they try. They thought they had it made:

A pretty, blonde soldier ambushed by the Iraqis, courageously firing until her ammo runs out, shot and stabbed and carried off by the enemy who, after taking time out to rape her, deposit her unconscious body in a hospital, where she is slapped around by evil medical staff, then, nine days later, is rescued in a daring, nighttime raid that is videotaped and can be shown repeatedly around the world and who, as soon as she recovers, will tell what it’s like to be an all-American hero. It was a gift from the propaganda gods.

Just two problems: It didn’t happen that way, and the designated hero, Private Jessica Lynch, refuses to say it did.

In fact, Lynch is telling anyone who asks that she is no hero: “That wasn’t me. I’m not about to take credit for something I didn’t do ... I’m just a survivor.”

Okay so far, modesty and all.

But Lynch is also a mite angry about the Pentagon’s manipulation of events and can’t seem to stop correcting the record. She says she never got off a shot because her gun jammed. The Iraqi medical staff were kindness itself. She was out cold for three hours after her Humvee crashed in the grenade attack, so she doesn’t remember any sexual assault. And shocked Iraqi doctors deny it.

As for the dramatic, Rambo-style hospital raid on April 1, she says there was no resistance, no Iraqi military in the hospital, and staff even offered the rescuers a key. The Pentagon “used me to symbolize all this stuff,” Lynch told a fawning Diane Sawyer on ABC last week. “It’s wrong.”

Yikes. Time for Plan B: It isn’t our fault.

A senior military official tells Time magazine that, contrary to appearances, the Saving Private Lynch story was not, no way, a calculated PR ploy, but more a “comedy of errors,” based on patchy battlefield intelligence. The media just ran with it.

What the Lynch story actually is, say critics, is a star-spangled metaphor for the confusion and deceit that’s marked the Iraq foray from the start.

“This White House believes they can spin their way out of anything and they assume reality will surrender to their spin,” says Mark Crispin Miller, a media analyst at New York University. “In this case, they believed Jessica would play along. But she hasn’t. She may not appear self-assertive, but she can clearly tell illusion from reality. Good for her.”

What irks him and other analysts is how the American media went along with the fraud for so long.

The Toronto Star’s Mitch Potter was one of the first to report the actual facts of the rescue on May 4. The BBC followed up on May 15. But those stories got no traction in the U.S., says Miller. “The media here should have exposed the lie long before they did.”

Indeed, the Washington Post—which ran the first story, on April 3, of Lynch fighting until her last bullet, while 11 of her colleagues lay dead on the ground—took until mid-June to print an accurate version, whereupon its ombudsman dryly noted that the tale “didn’t get knocked down until it didn’t matter so much anymore.”

But true or not, the air-dates have been booked and The Jessica Show must go on.

Walking with crutches and still undergoing two hours of physiotherapy a day for her shattered legs, Lynch, barely 20, has contractual commitments to promote her newly released biography, I’m a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story, and there’s no backing out.

The book was written by Rick Bragg, the former New York Times reporter who resigned this spring after a brouhaha over his failure to credit a freelance journalist. Bragg and Lynch split the million-dollar advance.

Last week, Lynch appeared with Sawyer and got a standing ovation on The David Letterman Show; tomorrow night, it’s the inevitable Larry King.

By then, she will have completed her warp-speed transformation from war hero to whistle-blower to innocent pawn to ... what? Pop celebrity? Or scapegoat for Americans’ growing anger over the handling of post-war Iraq?

If her head is spinning, think what’s happening in the Pentagon PR office. “They learned the wrong lessons from Vietnam and still think lying to the public is the best course,” says Vince Carlin, former head of CBC Newsworld.

As for Lynch, born and bred in Palestine, W. Va., pop. 900: “She was an ordinary person placed in a situation she didn’t anticipate and now her life is playing out in the media,” he says.

“She’s not a hero, but a ‘war celebrity.’ The truth rarely has anything to do with celebrity.” Resentment, however, often does.

Critics are pointedly asking why the other surviving woman in Lynch’s convoy, Army Specialist Shoshanna Johnson, also injured and taken prisoner, is set to receive only a 30 per cent disability benefit, while Lynch gets 80 per cent—a difference of $700 a month. Anything to do with Johnson being black? Her parents, among others, think so and are enlisting perennial activist Jesse Jackson to stir up the waters on the double standard.

Then, there are the veterans. Many of them are furious that, despite the now-known facts of her capture, Lynch still was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery, along with a Purple Heart for being injured and a POW medal on her discharge from the army in August.

It’s been deemed an “insult to the sacred awards system,” and some are threatening to return their own medals. Other vets are claiming military “feminists” cooked up the entire story. “Trust me, the troops—past and present—are unhappy,” the outspoken war critic Col. David Hackworth wrote last week. “Jessica was used right from the first to sell the war to the American people and to encourage their daughters to join up and be heroes.”

Hard to imagine how Lynch’s experiences in Iraq would set off a female rush to the enlistment office. If anything, say analysts, they’ll re-ignite the slumbering hostility to the use of women in combat zones. The more organized veterans groups, meanwhile, are outraged that while Lynch is everywhere in the media, there is little coverage of the wounded, maimed and dead of Iraq. They hugely resent the White House’s good-news-only policy that prohibits pictures of flag-draped coffins or returning soldiers missing their arms and legs, says Seth Pollack, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense.

“Am I angry about the amount of coverage she’s received rather than the soldiers who’ve come home and aren’t getting proper medical support? Yes,” he says. “We’re focused on Iraq and how we get out of this mess. Nothing against Jessica. She’s a victim of circumstance, used by the Pentagon and used by the media machine.” Not to mention some of her old basic-training buddies back at Fort Bliss, Texas.

Just before Lynch’s public unveiling last week, word came that they’d sold photos of her frolicking nude in the barracks to Larry Flynt. He insists he has no intention of running them in his Hustler magazine. “They wanted it known she’s not all apple pie,” said Flynt. This offended him because “she’s a good kid who is very much a pawn for the government.”

Lynch must be wondering what’s hit her.

All she wants is to walk unaided down the aisle next June when she marries her fiancé, Sgt. Ruben Contreras. The two met at the Taco Bell at Fort Bliss, back when she—not the Pentagon, not the media, not critics of the war—was in control of her own life.

Will she remain an enduring image? “No,” says Miller. “They’ll have dropped her by Christmas.” Indeed, the Daily Telegraph reported last week that senior administration officials now regard the episode as an embarrassment they wish would go away. “The Saving Private Lynch story,” one bleakly said, “is becoming a monster.”

Tell it to Jessica.

—Toronto Star, November 16, 2003





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