The War Hero Who Never Was

Someday, when the final, dispassionate account of the U.S. invasion of Iraq is written for the history books, at least a chapter will be needed to explain how the Pentagon played the media as suckers.

From the carefully-scripted briefings in Kuwait to the artfully-managed “embedded” correspondents with the units, offering only a controlled, microscopic view of the war, the study of Pentagon manipulation of the press should serve as a classroom example of wartime propaganda.

And exhibit number one should be the crass manipulation of the story of PFC Jessica Lynch, a shy West Virginia country girl whose wartime horrors were turned into the phoniest war hero story of modern times.

We’re heard the story so many times. Lynch was part of the 507th Maintenance Group unit that took a wrong turn in Iraq and ran smack into an ambush on March 23. A special forces unit rescued the injured and captured Lynch on April 1 and the dramatic videotape of her rescue played time and again on the news.

Perhaps we all should have stepped back and taken a closer look then at a rescue that took place on April 1, also known as April Fool’s Day. Perhaps then the media might not have become a willing accomplice in the Pentagon’s creation of the Jessica Lynch myth.

Among the stories, passed on by Pentagon “sources,” was a dramatic tale that told of an injured Lynch emptying her sidearm as her captors approached. The horrific tale included claims that Lynch suffered gunshot and stab wounds as she valiantly fought off her attackers.

Military leaders in Iraq and Kuwait knew the stories were false but allowed them to circulate and wind up on the evening news and front pages back home. Blinding sand storms, equipment breakdowns and other logistical problems had stalled the advance on Baghdad and the Pentagon needed something to divert attention from what was, at that time, a problematic war. A heroic female soldier from Palestine, West Virginia, gave them just the ticket.

Early reports of Lynch’s dramatic rescue also played fast and loose with the facts. They claimed special forces fought their way into a heavily guarded Iraqi hospital and extracted Lynch at great peril. Turns out the hospital was all but abandoned and Iraqis gave the soldiers directions and offered no resistance. They simply walked in, found Lynch, and carried her out unchallenged.

An official Army investigation, due out soon, refutes virtually all the myths surrounding Lynch’s capture and rescue. She could not have fought off her captors because she was unconscious from multiple injuries received when her Humvee, driven by fellow soldier Lori Piestewa, crashed into a trailer while trying to escape the ambush.

Piestewa died in the crash. All of Lynch’s broken bones and internal injuries came from the crash. No gunshot wounds. No stab wounds. In fact, the Army report says, Lynch survived only because of the medical treatment she received from her captors. Her sidearm, recovered at the scene, had not been fired.

The Pentagon knew the facts early on, the report says, but allowed military sources to pass on the false story of her capture to the media who gobbled it up without any real attempt to second-source the so-called facts. The report will also show that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld knew the story was false but took no steps to have it corrected. It would be weeks after her capture and rescue before questions would be publicly raised on the accuracy of the tale of the war hero who wasn’t.

By then Lynch was everybody’s favorite soldier, the pretty blonde with the shy smile and broken body, struggling to recover from her many injuries at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington. Her dirt-poor family, knowing opportunity when they see it, hired a lawyer to represent her in negotiations for book deals and a TV movie.  The Army, already complicit in creating the Jessica Lynch myth, granted a medical discharge so she could sign a million dollar book deal with Rick Bragg, a disgraced New York Times reporter who left the paper after admitting he used interns to research and write his stories.  NBC already has a TV movie in production.

The Army further complicated the myth by awarding Lynch a Bronze Star, along with the obligatory Purple Heart, leaving a lot of soldiers who fought bravely in Iraq and previous wars wonder how someone who is injured in a car wreck while fleeing an ambush becomes a decorated war hero.

It also doesn’t sit too well with the father of one of Lynch’s fellow soldiers.

“I don’t have a problem about her writing about her life, but when it involves not only my son, but of the others injured, wounded or killed, why should one person make money over the deaths of other people?” says Randy Kiehl, the father of Army Spc. James Kiehl, who was one of seven members of the 507th Maintenance Company who died in an ambush on March 23.

Lynch, in the meantime, is weighing competing, and lucrative, offers from the broadcast networks for the rights to her first TV interview and that interview will, no doubt, bring high ratings to the winner of the bidding war.

But which Jessica Lynch will we see in that interview? The shy country girl who served her country and got hurt in an automobile accident during a skirmish early in the conflict?  Or the hero who never was, created by a politically-expedient propaganda machine that would do anything to sell its war to the American people?

You tell me. I won’t be watching.