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The Education of Jessica Lynch

Private Lynch's effort to hold on to the truth of her story in the face of Pentagon spin and a media feeding frenzy is a heroic act in the Age of Hype.
 
 
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Jessica Lynch, by all accounts, is a fine person with immense fortitude and intrinsic honesty. On the evidence of "I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story" (Alfred A. Knopf), by former New York Times reporter Rick Bragg, she has needed such virtues to survive not only her ordeal in Iraq, but also to fend off those who would make of her what she is not.

Her effort to hold on to the truth of her story in the face of Pentagon spin and a media feeding frenzy is a heroic act in the Age of Hype. It has required her to draw upon reserves of strength to cut through talk-show hyperbole and a U.S. government that, desperate for a wartime hero, planted a story of combat heroics it now admits is false.

In her insistence on telling the truth, Lynch is a hero in the best tradition of a nation that intuitively prefers modest honesty to grandstanding bravado. In this respect, Bragg succeeds in paying tribute to her character and to the dignity that resides deep in the impoverished hollows of West Virginia that produced this young woman.

Lynch signed up before Sept 11, 2001, when she had every reason to believe an army career would be more likely to land her in Hawaii than in Iraq. It might also provide the funds, not otherwise available, to allow her to pursue her goal of becoming a kindergarten teacher.

Bragg is gentle with the locals, understanding that their range of choices for decent occupations, let alone a rich cultural life, are extremely limited in the new world economy that has eliminated so many of the better-paying jobs. One wonders what those people might be thinking about the billions of dollars being used to, among other things, create jobs in Iraq.

Where Bragg fails is in his paltry investigation into the official mendacity that succeeded for a while in turning Lynch into a propaganda tool for a war that has been difficult to defend. Bragg brings none of his investigative skills to bear on uncovering the government officials who deceived the media into presenting Lynch as a warrior-princess swiftly dispatching Iraqi Fedayeen. In fact, a government investigation later conceded that her gun had jammed and she spent the battle huddled in prayer.

He dwells at length on the Washington Post report stuffed with misinformation about Lynch's alleged battle heroics as she falls to her knees after suffering many terrible bullet and knife wounds. None of it was true. But Bragg expresses not the slightest curiosity as to how such blatant, false propaganda came to be. Nor is he interested in understanding how it was used to manipulate an ostensibly free press in a free society.

By contrast, Lynch has a keen appreciation of how she was taken advantage of by the military's propaganda machine, telling ABC's Diane Sawyer in a televised interview that, "They used me as a way to symbolize all this stuff. It hurt in a way that people would make up stories that they had no truth about." She added that there was no reason for the film of her rescue to have been recorded with a fragment released to the media. "It's wrong," she declared.

Given that the Jessica Lynch story, including the theatrics of her dramatic door-busting rescue from an Iraqi hospital that had been abandoned by its guards, is now viewed in much of the world as pure propaganda, the whole affair is certainly worthy of examination. Lynch, for her part, wonders why the raid to rescue her was recorded with night vision film; a curious reporter might also question the release of only a small fraction of that footage by the Pentagon.

It is odd that Bragg would not recognize that this official spin is a key part of the Jessica Lynch story. By ignoring it, he renders his book little more than a thinly disguised soap opera.

Bragg compounds this failing by accepting at face value the military's report (strangely, never actually quoted) that Lynch was sexually abused during the three hours between the time her Humvee crashed and she was taken to an Iraqi emergency hospital (where her life was saved by quite heroic doctors and nurses). The alleged sexual abuse, of which Lynch has no memory, gave the book the headlines that will perhaps boost sales, but it is discounted by the Iraqi doctors who examined her and is treated as a more ambiguous possibility by American doctors interviewed by the news media.

Both Lynch and Bragg, however, are quite clear that she was never abused in the two Iraqi hospitals where she was treated, amid a scene of wounded children and other civilians awaiting their turns. Indeed, the Iraqis make only cameo appearances in what is, after all, a tale of the invasion of their homeland. One of the curious points of this book, which dwells on Lynch's preparation for war, is that she seems never to have been provided with a serious explanation for the war's necessity.

No wonder then, at the very end of this account when Lynch is safely home, medals awarded and satellite TV crews departed, she remains perplexed as to what the war was all about. "We went and we did our job, and that was to go to war, but I wish I hadn't done it -- I wish it had never happened," she tells Bragg from her wheelchair.

"I wish we hadn't been there, none of us. ... I don't care about the political stuff. But if it had never happened, Lori [Piestewa, an Army buddy] would be alive and all the rest of the soldiers would be alive."

The sad thing, as Bragg points out in one of his more insightful passages, is that for most of the young folks in the hollows of West Virginia, the Army is the best job around. And kids like Jessica Lynch will do that job honorably, to the best of their abilities, without ever knowing if its often dire consequences are warranted.

What is most tragic in this telling is that the education of Jessica Lynch about the world beyond her rural West Virginia home occurred not in her schools or through television, but in the shattering moments of intrusion into the country of a people whose lives and history remained for her a great unknown.

Robert Scheer is co-author of AlterNet's new book, Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.