News & Politics

A Double Standard for Heroes?

Jessica Lynch and Shoshanna Johnson underwent nearly identical ordeals in Iraq. But only the white soldier's story made the cover of Time magazine.
What do you call a black war hero? A nigger.

In the crudest of senses, this twist on the old joke about black PhDs sums up the political backdrop of Calvin Baker's lyrical novel "Once Two Heroes." Set in the European battlefields of World War II, in black Los Angeles and in the white South, the book ranges masterfully across geography, race and point of view. The novel follows the struggles and glories of two war heroes, one black, one white, and their divergent and fatally convergent life paths. Although it is a period piece, its echoes are very much present day.

Take the case of Shoshanna Johnson.

Johnson is a single mother of a young daughter. She enlisted in the Army in hopes it would help her become a chef. Instead, the Army specialist was deployed to Iraq, shot through both legs and held prisoner for 22 days. (She was captured in the same ambush as Jessica Lynch, but remained in captivity longer.) Her slow and painful recovery was not charted by the media with the same zeal as her friend Lynch. In fact, there was hardly any coverage of her journey at all.

Today Johnson remains partially disabled, unable to stand for long periods (which clearly impacts her desired career), and haunted by flashbacks to her ordeal. But the U.S. Army, so buoyed by the publicity around the Lynch case, has now dealt Johnson and her family a severe blow. While Jessica Lynch is being discharged from the army with an 80-percent disability benefit, Johnson is being discharged on only 30-percent disability. The difference will mean a loss of nearly $700 per month for Johnson and her child.

Reluctantly, the Johnson family began to turn to the media that had spurned them, speaking out about her plight. Her father, Claude Johnson, told reporter Lee Hockstader of the Washington Post that there was 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."

The family has enlisted the help of Rev. Jesse Jackson. Although his help is bound to be effective, it is necessary only because of the tiresome dance of race in America, where whites are seen as the default models for society, and black achievements are looked at with puzzlement.

Jessica Lynch's face graces the cover of Time magazine; her interviews and excerpts of her book have been scattered across national television. Now, only because of a small but growing outcry, Shoshanna Johnson may get her due as well.

Nuyorican Poetry Slam winner Kahlil Almustafa has even written a poem about Johnson. It begins:
There are no lack of
affirmative action programs on the front lines
of the U.S. military, there is full equality
in killing and in death
It ends thus:
Yr coming home
has been covert, quiet
sneaking back into the country
beneath media radar. Yr life as a single, Blk mother
will not make any front page news.

Perhaps there is a codicil: Yr life as a single, Blk mother
will not make any frontpage news
until people wake up, and raise hell.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.

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