The big story from Iraq this week has been that a 19-year-old female soldier from West Virginia, who had been Missing in Action since 23 March, was rescued by American special forces in a raid on a hospital in Nasiriya. This is obviously very good news for Private First Class Jessica Lynch and her family. But this story raises three interesting issues: the way women are portrayed in the media; the use of unsubstantiated rumour in war reporting, and the way heroes and myths are constructed out of a kernel of truth.
Lynch’s story has already resurrected the issue of women in the military. Lynch is only one of three female American casualties. U.S. Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson is a confirmed POW, and U.S. Army Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, was confirmed killed. It is likely, therefore, that academic research into the journalistic portrayal of women as military casualties will be intensive after the war.
One thing that immediately struck me was the way some news outlets labeled Pfc. Lynch. The London Evening Standard *headline cutely blared “Saving Private Jessica.” Others have simply used her first name. Virginia Postrel notes that Fox News and MSNBC referred to her just as “Jessica.” Here in Britain, the *Northhampton Chronicle & Echo even referred to her as simply as a “girl held by Iraqis.” Many bloggers, including Postrel, Matthew Yglesias, and Kevin Drum have also noted this.
Here’s an adult, a soldier, being referred to by first name like a little girl rather than by title and surname, the way any other adult in the news would be described. A 19-year-old male soldier would clearly not be referred to in this way. While this is an interesting observation of itself, this double standard suggests something more serious: a stereotype of women — especially young, attractive white women — as helpless victims, even where their position suggests otherwise. P. Kerim Friedman, Silver Rights and Alas, a Blog have excellent posts on this issue.
(On a related note, the *Sun *has a pretty predictable position on women in combat: they love it, especially if the women are hot. Britain’s most widely-read tabloid reveals the British Army’s secret weapon: the “blonde squaddie,” Corporal Sharon Astor.)
Somewhat contradictorily, victim Jessica is also being portrayed as the heroic Pfc. Lynch, an icon of the war and appropriated as a political symbol.
Citing only anonymous souces, the Washington Post wrote the rough first draft of Saving Private Lynch, framing the narrative as that of a plucky clerk “fighting to the death” before being captured:
Lynch, a 19-year-old supply clerk, continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting March 23, one official said.
Lynch was also stabbed when Iraqi forces closed in on her position, the official said, noting that initial intelligence reports indicated that she had been stabbed to death. …
… Pentagon officials said they had heard “rumors” of Lynch’s heroics but had no confirmation.
She was in “stable” condition, with broken arms and a broken leg in addition to the gunshot and stab wounds, sources said.
“Talk about spunk!” said Sen. **Pat Roberts **(R-Kan.), whom military officials had briefed on the rescue. “She just persevered. It takes that and a tremendous faith that your country is going to come and get you.”</blockquote>
Another official — this one actually attributed — later flatly contradicted most of that. Col. David Rubenstein, who commands the military hospital in Germany where Lynch is currently being treated, told the New York Times: “The most recent evaluations by our staff do not suggest that any of her wounds were caused by either gunshots or stabbing injuries. She was not stabbed, she was not shot.” Later, this was all contradicted again, suggesting that the original story had some merit, after all.
It will be very interesting to find out what actually happened to Lynch before her capture. In any case, as a person placed in impossible circumstances, she will be a greater credit to her current profession than many journalists have been to their own, who have been too busy complaining about the “fog of war” to notice that it is they who are creating the haze in the first place.
The myth-making machine has clearly been cranked into high gear. Several newspapers have been publishing speculation about the inevitable Hollywood treatment of this story. The movie is taken for granted as the next stage of the process. The British tabloid *Star *and broadcaster ITN have already tipped erstwhile vampire-slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar ** as a possible lead. The* Washington Post agreed that a film was inevitable, and one *Observer columnist suggested much of the cast: **Reese Witherspoon as Lynch, supported by “Vin Diesel as an heroic US Army Ranger, Eminem as a Navy SEAL, Jude Law as the Royal Marine who led the decoy force, Harrison Ford as Tommy Franks and Kurt Russell and Sissy Spacek as Mom and Pop.”
This is what wartime journalism has decended to. The best skewering of this myth-in-the-making comes from novelist Will Self, in his Evening Standard column:
The story has it all: a telegenic 19-year-old blonde, who fought with great bravery to avoid capture and was wounded in battle; high-tech wizardry used to find her; and a daring raid to drag her back from the very belly of the beastly Iraqis. This perfect fusion between the massive military might of America and its sentimental view of the individual is summed up by the statement given out by US Central Command: “America does not leave its heroes behind; it never has and it never will.”
And yet … how fed up I am with the grotesque moral nonequivalence of this war. How sickening it is to observe the thousands of column inches that are expended on Lynch, when the lives of many thousands of nameless Iraqi conscripts pass without mourning. And there’s a lot else we need to ignore in order to give Private Lynch’s rescue the dramatic potential of Private Ryan’s. If, or when, Hollywood gets its hands on this, Saddam Hussein’s Fedayeen will be quite as ruthlessly successful at genocidal extermination, territorial conquest and sheer bloody fighting as Hitler’s SS.
An opening sequence will show thousands of US infantrymen being shot to pieces by Iraqi machine-gun fire. And any movie director worth his salt would ensure that the real Private Lynch — like Private Ryan — had joined the US Army to fight for deeply held ideals. Unfortunately, none of these plot devices applies to this scenario, but most telling in its absence is the last. Apparently, Lynch, who comes from the dirtpoor hill country of West Virginia, joined the army to get an education, and her real ambition is to be a teacher.
Of course, this grotesque irony doesn’t make for a good Hollywood movie at all; it’s no kind of escapism to witness one nation’s disadvantaged youth killing the impoverished youth of another.</blockquote>
At least Lynch, whose ordeal will lead to profits for many, will gain from it herself. A car dealer from Fairfax Viriginia said he was giving Lynch a new sport-utility vehicle and, more importantly, several universities are offering her a scholarship — including Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.
As Farai Chideya put it on AlterNet, “Wouldn’t it be great if people like Lynch and Johnson didn’t have to go to war to get a job or an education?”