Published on Sunday, May 16, 2004 by the New York Times
Saving Private England
by Frank Rich
IT'S almost too perfect. Two young working-class women from opposite ends of West Virginia go off to war. One is blond and has aspirations to be a schoolteacher. The other is dark, a smoker, divorced and now carrying an out-of-wedlock baby. One becomes the heroic poster child for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the subject of a hagiographic book and TV movie; the other becomes the hideous, leering face of American wartime criminality, Exhibit A in the indictment of our country's descent into the gulag. In the words of Time magazine, Pfc. Lynndie England is "a Jessica Lynch gone wrong."
Maybe that's true — we are just starting to hear Private England speak for herself — but there's a more revealing story in these women than the cheap ironies of their good witch/wicked witch twinship might suggest. Our 13-month journey from Jessica Lynch's profile in courage to Lynndie England's profile in sadism is less the tale of two women at the bottom of the chain of command than a gauge of the hubris by which those at the top have lost the war in both the international and American courts of public opinion. And the supposedly uplifting Lynch half of the double bill is as revealing of what's gone wrong for us in Iraq — and gone wrong from the start — as is her doppelgänger's denouement at Abu Ghraib.
Flash back for a moment to the creation of Jessica Lynch Superstar. It was in early April 2003 that the stories first surfaced about the female Rambo who had shot her way out of an ambush." `She Was Fighting to the Death' " read the headline in The Washington Post, an account that was then regurgitated without question by much of the press. Later we learned that this story was almost entirely fiction, from the heroine's gunplay to the reports of her being slapped around by her Iraqi captors to the breathless cliffhanger of her rescue. Meanwhile, Jessica Lynch herself, unable to speak, was reduced to a mere pawn, an innocent bystander to her own big-budget biopic. When she emerged six months later, Diane Sawyer asked if it bothered her that she had been showcased by the military. "Yeah, it does," she answered. "It does that they used me as a way to symbolize all this stuff. Yeah, it's wrong."
This wrong was not committed by accident but by design. In the revelatory new documentary about Al Jazeera, "Control Room," opening in New York this Friday before fanning out nationally, we are taken into our own Central Command's media center in Doha, Qatar, in early April 2003 to see American mythmaking in action. The Lynch episode came at a troubling moment in the war; our troops were being stretched thin, the coalition had mistakenly shot up a van full of Iraqi women and children, and three Marines had just been killed in the latest helicopter crash. But as we see in "Control Room," the CentCom press operation was determined to drown out such bad news by disseminating the triumphant prepackaged saga of its manufactured heroine no matter what.
The documentary captures some of the briefing at which the dramatic Lynch story was first laid out. An American journalist on hand, the veteran CNN correspondent Tom Mintier, grumbles afterward about how the "minute-by-minute" account of the rescue has superseded the major news he and his colleagues had been waiting for: the fate of troops just entering Baghdad. His cavils were useless, however; the instant legend was moving too fast to be derailed. Soon the military would buttress it with a complementary video, shot and edited by its own movie crew: an action-packed montage of the guns-blazing Special Operations rescue raid, bathed in the iridescent "Matrix"-green glow of night-vision photography. But the marketing of this Jerry Bruckheimer-style video was itself an exercise in hype, meant to blur and inflate the Lynch episode further.
The director of "Control Room" is Jehane Noujaim, an Egyptian-American who is a protégé of D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, the chroniclers of the '92 Clinton campaign in "The War Room." Though Ms. Noujaim's principal subject may be the Arab satellite news station that has been widely condemned as a fount of anti-American propaganda, her eye for the American media is no less keen. The true control room in "Control Room" is not so much the Al Jazeera HQ as the coalition media center. It is there, from a costly Hollywood set, that the military commanded its own propaganda effort, which was aided and abetted by an American press sometimes as eager to slant the news as its Arab counterpart. The attractively forthright American press officer we follow throughout the documentary, Lt. Josh Rushing of the Marines, doesn't deny the symmetry: "When I watch Al Jazeera, I can tell what they are showing and then I can tell what they are not showing — by choice. Same thing when I watch Fox on the other end of the spectrum."
Revisiting the invasion of Iraq again in "Control Room," we can see how much the Bush administration was seduced into complacency early on, not just by the relative ease with which it took Iraq but by its success at news management. The Lynch triumph was followed within days by the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue (which looks more like a staged event than a spontaneous Iraqi outpouring when Ms. Noujaim shows it in wide-angle shots). Next up was "Top Gun." Yet we were very good at feigning ignorance about our own propaganda while decrying Al Jazeera's fictionalizations. In one particularly embarrassing illustration of American hypocrisy, we're reminded of how Donald Rumsfeld berated the Arab channel for violating the Geneva Convention by broadcasting pictures of American prisoners of war. By the time of his outburst — March 2003 — we were very likely already violating the Geneva Convention ourselves. The confidential Red Cross report uncovered this week by The Wall Street Journal reveals that complaints about our abuse of Iraqi prisoners had already started by then, some 10 months before the Pentagon launched the Taguba investigation.
In retrospect, much of what we saw during Operation Iraqi Freedom was as fictionalized as CentCom's version of "Saving Private Jessica." When we weren't staging the news, we were covering it up. "A war with hundreds of coalition and tens of thousands of Iraqi casualties" was transformed "into something closer to a defense contractor's training video: a lot of action, but no consequences, as if shells simply disappeared into the air and an invisible enemy magically ceased to exist." That was the conclusion reached by one of the leaders of a research project at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, which examined 600 hours of war coverage on CNN, Fox and ABC from the war's March 20, 2003, start to the April 9 fall of Baghdad, "to see how `real' the war looked on TV." Of the 1,710 stories they surveyed, "only 13.5 percent included any shots of dead or wounded coalition soldiers, Iraqi soldiers or civilians."
That brief war, since renamed "major combat operations," seems like a century ago. As "Saving Private Jessica" symbolizes how effectively the military and administration controlled the news during Operation Iraqi Freedom, so the photos of Lynndie England and her cohort symbolize their utter loss of that control now. More scoops are on the way, and not just those of torture. "Everybody wants to cut to the chase, but the movie has just started," a top Republican aide told The New York Times this week. We are only beginning to learn, for instance, about the shadowy roles played by America's most sizable ally in "the coalition of the willing" — not the British, with some 9,000 troops, but the mercenaries, whose duties and ranks (now at some 20,000) have crept up largely out of our view.
It has taken a while for Mr. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers to figure out just how much their power to enforce their own narrative of this war has waned. Their many successes in news management have been their undoing, leaving them besotted by their own invincibility and ill-equipped for failure. Clearly they still believed they could control the pictures. According to Mr. Rumsfeld's own congressional testimony, he was "surprised" that lowly enlisted men could be "running around with digital cameras" e-mailing grotesque Kodak snapshots all over the world. Even after making that discovery, such was his and General Myers's habitual arrogance that they didn't bother to get ahead of the Abu Ghraib story — or to familiarize themselves with its particulars — once CBS gave them a full two weeks of head's up before "60 Minutes II" broadcast it to the world. Or maybe they just hoped that the press's wartime self-censorship would continue. After all, in happier times, Larry Flynt had done the patriotic thing by refusing to publish half-nude snapshots of Jessica Lynch that fell into his hands at the time of her greatest celebrity.
In desperation, some torture apologists are trying to concoct the fictions the administration used to ply so well. Rush Limbaugh has been especially creative. The photos of the abuses at Abu Ghraib "look like standard good old American pornography," he said as the story spread, as if he might grandfather wartime atrocities into an entertainment industry that, however deplorable to Islam, has more fans in our Christian country than Major League Baseball. In Mr. Limbaugh's view, the guards humiliating the Iraqis were just "having a good time" and their pictures look "just like anything you'd see Madonna or Britney Spears do onstage . . . I mean, this is something that you can see onstage at Lincoln Center from an N.E.A. grant, maybe on `Sex and the City . . .' "
But this movie has just started, and it's beyond anyone's power to spin it any longer. Yet when the president traveled to the Pentagon on Monday to look at previews of the coming attractions, he seemed as out of touch with reality as Mr. Limbaugh. It was nothing if not an odd moment to congratulate the secretary of defense, who has literally thrown the reputation of our honorable military and our country to the dogs, for doing a "superb job." But to understand where Mr. Bush is coming from, one need only recall the interview he gave last fall to Brit Hume of Fox News, in which he griped about the press ("the filter," as he calls it) that was now challenging administration propaganda from Iraq. "The best way to get the news is from objective sources," the president said back then, "and the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world." Perhaps someone on that staff might tell him that, according to the latest polls, most of the country has changed the channel.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company