“I’m not a hero, I’m just a survivor,” the famous Private Jessica Lynch told Diane Sawyer during a special Prime Time interview on Tuesday night. Lynch is right. But does anybody believe her?”
Two things, at least, are indisputable: Jessica Lynch is a gutsy gal who served her country–and we are now in the middle of Jessica Lynch Week. She’s on the cover of Time magazine, which runs an excerpt of the book about Lynch, I am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story by Rick Bragg, the former New York Times reporter who left the “newspaper of record” over a little dustup there earlier this year.
The book was released on Tuesday, Veterans Day. Two days earlier, on Sunday night, NBC ran the movie Saving Jessica Lynch. Diane Sawyer’s interview with Lynch was considered the most-important media “get” of the year, according to the Associated Press, but later this week there is more. Lynch was interviewed by Katie Couric on Wednesday morning–Part II of that on Thursday–and on Friday she’ll wrap the tour up–sort of–with David Letterman. There’s still Larry King Live next week.
With Sawyer, Lynch came across as a small, vulnerable, plainspoken (though not plain looking) young woman, somebody you’d like to know or would probably like your daughters to know. (This is a kid, after all, who never saw a mall before her senior year in high school.) Her injuries, though not obvious on the air, are extensive and she may never fully recover from them. But Lynch maintained that the other soldiers in her unit–who were killed–are the real heroes, as were the commandos who rescued her. (The commandos refuse to identify themselves, by the way.) And Sawyer honored the others in Lynch’s unit who died.
Still, it was Lynch who was doing the 90-minute interview, the “get,” with Sawyer, so Lynch has to be willing to embrace the Jessica-Lynch-as-star theme to some extent. (It’s hard to believe it’s all just about promoting the book.)
But whatever one’s take on the interview, no one could come away from it thinking of Jessica Lynch as a warrior, even if she was a soldier.
More on that later.
ACCIDENTALLY GETTING IT RIGHT
But so far, the highlight of Jessica Lynch Week was the movie. Billed as a story about Lynch, the writers were presented with something of a roadblock. Because of the million-dollar deal Lynch inked for a book, NBC had no access to her or her friends for any firsthand tales. What to do? Change the story, or at least its focus. Whether they meant to or not, they went in the right direction. In Saving Jessica Lynch our heroine is presented as simply a tough, ambitious, patriotic gal from West Virginia, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time–a convoy of supply trucks which took a wrong turn in the Iraqi desert and got ambushed.
The hero and focus of the movie was Mohammed Odeh Al Rehaief, an Iraqi lawyer who risked his life, and the lives of his wife and daughter, to save Lynch. (NBC did have the TV rights to his story.) He snuck out into the desert at night to alert the Americans that Lynch was in the local hospital, where his wife was a nurse, then went back at the Americans’ request to get maps and do reconnaissance on Saddam’s henchmen.
Though the movie did, of course, have the breathless, good vs. evil, made-for-TV-movie feel, at least in this case the “good” guys were, by and large, the Americans. And the movie was far better acted and produced than most of its genre–even if it is a little corny in places. This guy is a hero, and is now in the United States with his family.
The low point of Jessica Lynch Week is the book: I’m a Soldier Too: The Jessica Lynch Story. The lead item leaked to promote it? That she was raped. It’s tragic, but it’s also a big “of course.” More on that later. Lynch herself said, according to Time magazine, that she has “read Bragg’s book,” but skipped the parts that were too hard to relive.
She should have skipped more of it.
It’s filled with lots of blank space–literally–between chapters and vignettes. Bragg only had four months to write it, after all. (Time magazine hails it as “spare and wrenching.” ) And it’s filled with passages like these: “She was almost dead. But when the doctors and nurses reached to touch her she cringed, and she would have fought them if she had been able.”
And, “Jessi had given the people of the mountains something that they had never had before. They had always had faith, they had always believed in miracles, and they had prayed for them over their lifetimes. They had never demanded proof, because faith is what you have when there is no proof, no logic, no reason. Faith is what sustained the people here through the crib deaths and highway crashes and cancer wards.”
Where did Bragg get that description of West Virginia–the Howard Dean campaign?
And, “Even as everyone from the president down warned that this could be a long and painful war, it became clear–as fighting raged into its second week–that this conflict would be longer and more costly, than the American public might accept.”
It “became clear” as fighting raged into its “second week” ? Is that from Dean, too?
Strangely, the book–and the interview with Sawyer–gives very short shrift to Al Rehaief’s role in saving Jessica. She contradicts Al Rehaief’s assertion that he saw interrogators slap her, and that he told her he was going to help her. But, Lynch also admits to being unaware of much of what was happening to her and around her during her captivity, so it’s a little hard to understand why she’s so adamant about rebuffing Al Rehaief’s claims. To date she has not called him or agreed to meet with him (though on The Today Show Wednesday morning, Lynch said she greatly appreciates whatever he did to help and wants to thank him privately, out of the media eye).
In any event, she is clear about one thing, in both the book and the big “get” interview: A Washington Post story about her heroism was fiction. You remember the front-page account of Jessica, which had her spraying bullets into the Iraqis and taking down as many as she could before she slumped to the ground? It soon became clear that story was utterly fabricated. The speculation is, naturally, that the source was someone at the Pentagon. There’s no question that the story never came from Lynch herself, and for repeatedly setting the record straight she deserves credit.
Still, the story helped build the hagiography that surrounds Lynch, and it partly explains why, with all the true stories of heroism and lives lost and saved in Iraq, we have a “Jessica Lynch Week” in the first place. Yes, she’s cute, she’s blond, and she’s young. Those things are all true of Elizabeth Smart too, after all. Though Smart was one of hundreds of stranger kidnappings every year, it was the movie about her ordeal which aired opposite the Lynch movie on Sunday night.
Cute, blond, and young sells.
SISTERS IN ARMS
In the Lynch case, cute, blonde, young, and single is what counts. It meant no one had to tell unpleasant stories about a single mom leaving children behind to go to war. In the NBC movie Lynch’s best friend, single mom Lori Piestewa, who is later killed, has taped pictures of her two young children to the dashboard of the truck she is driving. (Somehow that doesn’t sound like a Hollywood gimmick. It rings true with every mom I know. ) This is who we are deliberately and unnecessarily sending into harm’s way? Single moms with pictures of their young children taped inside their army trucks? NBC probably didn’t realize the ugly questions they were raising with that depiction.
Or what about single mom Casaundra Grant, who lost her legs in Iraq after they were pinned under a tank? Who has even heard of her? Where is the Shoshana Johnson story, also a POW, later rescued, and a single mom with little ones? Even Hollywood knows that the “single-warrior-mom-with-little-kids” angle just doesn’t quite sit right with mainstream America.
No kidding. An early CNBC news report cited Iraqi eyewitnesses saying they saw Lynch being tortured. But, when the New York Post online quoted that report the next day, the “torture” line was gone. Americans just don’t want to hear about it.
But because Lynch avoided some of those unpleasantries, her story was easy. Lynch says the army used her to promote the war. Wrong. Feminists, more than anyone, used it to advance their “I-am-woman-hear-me-roar” and “I-can-do-anything-better-than-you” mentality.
More specifically, feminists, well represented within the military establishment itself, used her story to advance their cause of integrating women deeper into the frontlines of combat. In fact, the capture of American women by Iraqis was hailed by American feminists as a major advance for the gentler sex. Before POW Shoshana Johnson was even rescued, the New York Times praised her in an editorial for helping to break the “glass ceiling” of women in the military. They concluded her capture proved women could and should be put into even more dangerous combat positions. What?
After Lynch’s rape revelation, I heard one feminist commentator claim that as awful as it is, it should not be used to keep women from serving in the frontlines of America’s military. Why the heck not? As Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, points out, “women face a greater risk than do men of brutality, including rape, if they are captured by the enemy.” This is not rocket science. Has anybody heard the term “raping and pillaging” used in warfare before? Yes, if the Fedayeen are coming up my driveway, my daughters and I will fight them to the end. But the notion that we would deliberately, and unnecessarily, be put in their crosshairs is not an idea a civilized nation should tolerate.
But it is being tolerated–even promoted and celebrated. And that may be, more than anything else, what Jessica Lynch Week is all about.
–Betsy Hart writes a weekly nationally syndicated column for the Scripps Howard News Service and is currently writing a book for Penguin, Parenting Without Fear: How to Parent in a Culture Which Tells You Not To.