Toward the end of "Rambo III," the last of the great war comedies, Rambo and his latest POW catch are surrounded by about half the Soviet army, somewhere in Afghanistan. All seems lost. But poet-warrior that he is, Sylvester Stallone's Homeric hero fires a two-worded obscenity at the oncoming Russians and starts shooting his howitzer of a gun even as a monsoon of bullets and artillery rains around his magnificent pectorals.
It's a terrifically funny bit of war fiction that looked impossible to top -- until that front-page account in The Washington Post of April 3 about Pfc. Jessica Lynch: How she "fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers" after Iraqis ambushed her company, "firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition," how she "continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her," how she was "fighting to the death," how "she did not want to be taken alive." And all that just in the first three paragraphs of the story.
The Post has been gloating over The New York Times' scandal of fabricated and ghost-reported stories. But it has yet to print a correction about the reporting on Lynch's capture and the subsequently invented stabbing she suffered, the bedside slap, a-la-Patton, by an Iraqi officer, and the allusions to torture ("Special Operations forces found what looked like a 'prototype' Iraqi torture chamber in the hospital's basement").
First the BBC, then the Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press, among others, have corrected the Pentagon's Rambo account of Lynch's capture and rescue. At this point it's doubtful whether the 19-year-old West Virginian fired a single shot, because her injuries were the result of a pretty bad vehicle accident. No gunshot wounds, no stab wounds, no torture. To the contrary: The Iraqi hospital staff where she was kept seems to have accounted for much bravery and compassion, treating her fractures, donating blood for her and protecting her from roving thugs. She "sipped juice and ate biscuits," reports the Tribune. But that version of the story didn't fit the narrative the Pentagon wanted.
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If the fabrication of the Jessica Lynch story is a harmless lie, it is nevertheless emblematic of the Bush administration's sordid deceptions that led to the very lethal, very costly Iraq war and its equally pointless aftermath. For the media, Vietnam had its Five O'Clock Follies. But Iraq was (and still is) an around-the-clock sham. At least in Vietnam the press learned to call trickery by name. Regarding Iraq, and admirable exceptions aside, much of the press remains a stooge, stage-managed as surely as that $250,000 set built at Central Command Headquarters in Qatar, where the press corps gets its daily fix of fictions.
The storytelling started quickly after Sept. 11, 2001, when the Bush White House, clueless until then, discovered that waging war was its only chance to stay relevant. Any war. Afghanistan wouldn't be enough. The White House went to work concocting an Iraqi threat that hadn't existed for more than a decade. It invented that al-Qaida connection with Saddam Hussein. It invented a nuclear threat from Baghdad, too, thanks to forged papers plucked from the Internet. It invented that "road map" to peace that went from Baghdad to Jerusalem by way of Oz. Once the war began, it turned out Iraqis were not dying to hug and kiss the Anglo-American invaders. They were merely dying. And the war's false finale was no less contrived than the Jessica Lynch story: The toppling of Saddam's statue on Paradise Square was a staged gig by a few dozen Iraqi extras in the shadow of American tanks.
But the mother of all inventions -- the one about chemical and biological weapons -- continues to metastasize hilarious variations. If it isn't a rusty truck from the Sumerian era that could have been a bioweapons lab, it's the absolutely trustworthy testimony of an anonymous ex-Saddam official whose friend's supervisor's second cousin by marriage might have once seen a fishy yellow substance stored in suspicious barrels in an Ali Baba cave that may or may not have been part of the plot in Sheherazade's 12th night. For all this, we're at war in a land that never should have mattered more to us than its mirages and sand piles. Still, the venal inventions continue. Our top gun president depends on them.
Bush out-fabricated all fabrication with his May 1 carrier-jacking of the USS Abraham Lincoln so he could pretend to fly a plane onto its deck, pretend to act like the soldier he never was, pretend to call Iraq a "mission accomplished" (at least 26 American soldiers have been killed since May 1), and pretend to have made the world safer for his juvenile aphorisms about good and evil. With such a make-believe president in charge, the movies have no chance. Jessica Lynch has no chance. And Democrats, of course, have no chance -- unless they want to make rank dishonesty their trademark, too. Even Rambo has more class than that.