Right before the beginning of the new year, NBC aired a video from Saddam-TV archives that never made it to screen before the fall of the Butcher of Baghdad’s regime. The video was of Army Pfcs. Jessica Lynch, 19, and single mother of two Lori Piestewa, held as POWs. In the video the two women are on lying on beds; both members of the 507th Maintenance Company are seemingly near death.
Piestewa, 23, did die sometime after the tape was made–and she was buried in a shallow grave with eight other soldiers from her maintenance unit. Lynch, as we all know, would be rescued ten days later.
NBC’s peculiar package–the MSNBC web piece was titled “Tape confirms Iraqis tried to save U.S. POWs”–had fellow POW Pfc. Shoshana Johnson (another single mother) IDing the two women and commenting: “It was a little shocking to see Lori, but it also gave me a little peace to know that they tried, they did their best for her.” She said, “I mean, it was obvious they tried to bandage her up and give her medical care.”
One hesitates to criticize or question the opinion of someone who’s been through what Johnson has–fearing for her life in the hands of Iraqi captors, worried about her young child at home growing up motherless. But her comments don’t seem to make much sense in the context of what we know.
Admittedly, there is much we don’t know about what happened to Lynch after she was captured, and to Piestewa in the hours before her death. But we do know the regime they were held by and, in Piestewa’s case, we now do know what is clear in the video. Piestewa, by then a prisoner of war, is shown in pain, her face and visible skin swollen, bruised, and torn. Contrary to the NBC packaged spin, the attendant–it is not at all clear he is a doctor–in the video actually pulls her hair to make sure the camera gets a close and good look at her agony (hardly standard behavior for a benevolent medic). How Johnson concludes that “they tried, they did their best for her” is baffling (unless the presence of some bandages makes up for other assaults). The video’s more logical message is that these women were held by–and left vulnerable to–the brutality of a ruthless regime.
Ironically, Saddam TV seemed to have a more realistic view of the video than NBC does. The late regime never aired it. Reporter Richard Engel tells us, “Iraqi television videotaped the American POWs for propaganda purposes, but because the tape of the wounded American soldiers didn’t make the Iraqis look like particularly good captors, Iraqi TV employees say they never aired it.”
So why the positive spin in the United States on such a disturbing story? Because, as Kate O’Beirne wrote in her May 19 NR piece, “An Army of Jessicas,” truth is consistently a casualty when the topic is women and war. In a year that included a mythical story about Jessica Lynch fighting off Iraqi attackers–we now know her weapon didn’t even work as her caravan got lost in Nasiriyah–the video provided one final 2003 myth of the woman warrior. Unfortunately the casualties are much more tragic than assorted fallen feminist fantasies–Lori Piestewa lost her life; two children lost their mother. And as gender politics create their own fog of war, the war on terror is providing plenty of its own fatal opportunities for women. Thirteen military women have been killed on duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Shown in the final, holiday-focused days of 2003, most Americans probably have not seen or have already forgotten the images of Lynch and Piestewa. Saddam TV, it would seem, did the ideology of feminism in the military in America a favor: Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, wonders, “What do you think would have happened if this video had been aired on the same day that the Iraqi video of the frightened American POWs, including Spec. Shoshana Johnson, aired on Al Jazeera TV? Americans and civilized people around the world would have been horrified and enraged. Can you imagine the speeches we would have heard in Congress? And the Washington Post never would have gotten away with their hyped-up ‘Jessica as John Wayne’ feminist fable.”
Notes Donnelly (who is also currently running a petition drive to ask the president to revisit issues involving women in the military), “Only the grisly video of the dead Hussein brothers was more visually disturbing than this one, but the invincible ‘woman-warrior’ myth goes on.”
Americans should not let the deaths of 13 American military women on duty in the war on terror go unnoticed and unquestioned. Why are young women and single moms deployed to areas involving a high risk of capture and inhumane brutality?
Donnelly’s petition sums up the most troubling aspects of current military gender politics and policies. In the form of a letter to the president, the petition focuses on changes that would:
‐Find a way to allow military women, especially those in support units, to serve without undue exposure to “a substantial risk of capture” in or near close combat units, to the greatest degree possible;
‐Restore single-gender basic training in the Army, which experts have recognized as a more efficient and militarily effective format for male and female trainees alike;
‐Review and revise well-meaning but problematic pregnancy and family policies that hurt readiness by increasing single parenthood, and poverty in the military, as well as the incidence of long-term separations of young children from single or dual-service parents;
‐Revoke perceived pressures for gender-based recruiting goals and quotas, which unnecessarily burden recruiters and increase the cost of maintaining a strong and ready All-Volunteer Force.
In her biography, I Am A Soldier Too, Jessica Lynch recounts telling a friend before her deployment not to worry about her, assuring the friend that she wouldn’t “be anywhere near danger.” Instead, as the book notes, “she was the victim of anal sexual assault.” Lynch biographer Rick Bragg writes, “The records do not tell whether her captors assaulted her almost lifeless, broken body after she was lifted from the wreckage, or if they assaulted her and then broke her bones into splinters until she was almost dead.”
That cruelty was avoidable.
When the video was aired last week, a spokesman said the Pentagon was not aware of the footage. The Pentagon knows the difference between GI Joe and GI Jane, however, and the whitewashing of gender differences in the military is doing no one any good–especially the families who are losing mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters who should have never been in the line of fire in the first place.