The Jessica Lynch ordeal has stirred debate over the Pentagon's spin tactics as well as a media hungry for white heroes. Khaled Dawoud reports from Washington
Twenty-year-old Jessica Lynch, probably the best-known American soldier from the recent Iraq war, launched a highly publicised marketing campaign last week. It was no coincidence that her media advisers picked 11 November, Veteran's Day, as the date for the campaign.
The same week, a photo of the army private, who looks younger than her age, graced the cover of Time magazine, her long, blond hair falling over her shoulders. NBC also aired a 90-minute dramatisation of her story and Glamour magazine honoured her as one of its "women of the year". On Veteran's Day Lynch released her book I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story, written by a former New York Times reporter, while ABC's Diane Sawyer broadcast the first interview with the former prisoner of war (POW). Her book sold 25,000 copies in its first two days of release and her prime-time interview rated second, after a popular sit- com, in its time slot.
Lynch, a supply clerk from Palestine -- not the troubled Middle Eastern territories, but a small town of 350 in West Virginia -- was riding in a convoy on 23 March when her company was ambushed near Nasseriya in southern Iraq. Eleven soldiers died and nine were wounded. Of those wounded in the attack, the Pentagon highlighted Lynch's case, and army spokesmen were quoted as saying that she fought bravely until the last minute, discharging every bullet in her rifle before her capture.
When the US Army led an operation to rescue Lynch a week later from a hospital in Nasseriya, President George W Bush was reportedly kept updated on the minute-to-minute developments. When she was finally saved, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld personally telephoned his boss with the good news. The Pentagon's media unit later released a video showing her dramatic rescue by soldiers using special night vision goggles, while the clearly distressed Lynch lay on a stretcher holding the hand of a fellow American soldier.
Even before Lynch came out last week to tell her own story, a BBC reporter had investigated the Lynch ordeal in Nasseriya. It turned out that doctors at the hospital took the initiative to transfer Lynch to the US troops surrounding the town, but were turned back when they came under US fire. When the US Special Forces landed by helicopter to rescue Lynch, there were no Iraqi soldiers at the hospital. Doctors there voluntarily handed the keys of her room to the US soldiers who nevertheless insisted on conducting the operation Rambo style, their guns pointed at the civilian doctors.
Lynch was given a hero's welcome upon her homecoming in Palestine, as crowds lined the streets for a military parade. She was inundated with requests from television networks wanting to nail her first interview. Meanwhile a ghost writer was enlisted to seal a book deal worth one million dollars. Hollywood has also been part of the circus, with offers flooding in to produce "Lynch: the movie".
In her interview with Sawyer, Lynch confirmed earlier reports that challenged the Pentagon's version of her heroism. When her convoy came under attack, the young soldier was basically terrified, and dropped to the Humvee's floor, praying to God for help. She said she did not fire a single shot because her weapon jammed, and that her injuries were sustained when her vehicle crashed into a building.
Asked about the video released by the Pentagon of her "rescue", Lynch said she was upset by the way the army used her. But to lend her story an added element of drama -- and marketability -- Lynch agreed to include in her book that she may have been raped by her Iraqi captors, while admitting that she cannot confirm nor remember such details. A medical report quoted in the book said she might have been sexually assaulted. Doctors in the Nasseriya hospital vehemently denied the charge, and said that Lynch's condition, a broken spinal chord and injuries throughout her body, would have made it impossible for anybody to rape her.
Throughout the interview, Lynch affirmed the image her media handlers-cum-marketers want to sell: a young, innocent girl from a tiny American town sent into harm's way in a distant land ruled by a brutal dictator and later exploited by a Pentagon propaganda unit aimed at mobilising support for the ongoing war. In a shy voice, Lynch said she mainly joined the army to make money that would later help her study to become a teacher. Having never left the small town where her father is a truck driver and her mother is a clerk at a small store, Lynch said another reason for joining the army was to "see the beach" in a nearby state. Instead, she was shipped off to Iraq.
The innocence that Lynch's handlers have been so keen to cultivate in the former POW has not survived the media campaign intact. On the day of her book release, porn king and Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt told reporters he had bought semi-nude photos of Lynch, but decided not to publish them. Flynt said he acquired the photos from two soldiers who served with her.
"I purchased them at first with the intention of publishing them, however, I quickly changed my mind and decided simply to keep them out of circulation," Flynt said. "If Jessica Lynch wants to join the army and see the world, and if she wants to have a good time while she's at it, I'm not here to judge her." Flynt, a vocal critic of the Iraq conflict, described Lynch as a pawn in the US government's "cynical attempt to create a 'hero' who can 'sell the war' to the American people".
The photos reportedly feature a topless Lynch romping with two men at Fort Bliss, Texas, where she was stationed before shipping off to Iraq earlier this year.
Flynt said the soldiers who sold him the photos were annoyed by the special attention given to Lynch, one of thousands of soldiers who have been wounded since the conflict started. They also felt they had to refute the innocent image Lynch and her handlers were trying to portray to sell her as a product, he added.
Lynch's celebrity has also developed into a racial issue as Shoshana Johnson, who is black and was captured in the same Nasseriya ambush as Lynch, hasn't received a fraction of the attention as her white counterpart. The wounded and terrified single mother was seen being interrogated by her Iraqi captors on television screens all over the world. Since her return, however, she has received neither lucrative book offers nor donations from neighbours to rebuild and expand her house. Furthermore, Lynch is being discharged from the army with an 80 per cent disability benefit while Johnson is being discharged on only 30 per cent disability. The difference is nearly $700 per month for Johnson and her young child, Lynch's family said. In an interview with the Washington Post, Johnson's father Claude said that there is clearly a double standard. "I don't know for sure that it was the Pentagon," he said. "All I know for sure is that the news media paid a lot of attention to Jessica."