"It is time for the truth, the whole truth, versus misinformation and hype." Those were Jessica Lynch's words as she testified before Congress April 24-- along with the brother and mother of the late Army Ranger Specialist Pat Tillman--to set the record straight on her service in Iraq.
On April 2, 2003, Army Private Lynch was carried from an Iraqi hospital and whisked away on a Black Hawk helicopter. It was a great PR opportunity for the Bush administration, and with the help of too many in the mainstream media, they spun it for all that it was worth.
Lynch's testimony last week was timely, coming just one day before the premiere of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, a 90-minute report entitled Buying the War. "Four years after shock and awe," Moyers observed, "the press has yet to come to terms with its role in enabling the Bush administration to go to war on false pretenses."
"I am still confused as to why they chose to lie and tried to make me a legend...." Lynch said.
As Daphne Eviatar reported in The Nation in 2003, media outlets across the country ran with Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks' initial account of a daring rescue of Lynch by Special Ops forces, complete with firefights upon entering and exiting the "location of danger." The story snowballed into a "daring raid in hostile territory," and anonymous US officials told reporters of Lynch fighting "fiercely" and shooting "several enemy soldiers." She had been shot and stabbed, according to these accounts.
"The whole Rambo story, that I went down fighting. It just wasn't the truth. I didn't even get a shot off. My weapon had jammed. And I didn't even get to fire," Lynch told Newsweek.
Eviatar observed that the "Saving Private Lynch" story arrived at the perfect moment for an administration obsessed with controlling the press coverage. It had been less than two weeks since the invasion and correspondents were delivering a stream of grim news: then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was receiving harsh criticism for deploying too few ground troops to contain the violence; there was "unexpectedly fierce fighting in the south"; a van full of Iraqi women and children were mistakenly killed by US forces; and four Marines died in a helicopter crash. The Lynch story offered a tale of heroism to replace the horrors of this war on the front pages and the airwaves.
"The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals for heroes and they don't need to be told elaborate tales," Lynch said.
In his documentary, Moyers said of the lead up to the invasion, "This gets us right to the heart of the debate that's going on now in our craft. We lean heavily in reporting on what [government officials] say.... We really give heavy weight to what public officials say."
This reliance on government accounts continued as the war began and Jessica Lynch was injured. "As with many stories, we were left with our sourcing being other government agencies," Paul Slavin, senior vice president of ABC News, admitted to Eviatar.
"There was a real sense that you don't get that critical of a government that's leading us in war time," Walter Isaacson, former Chairman and CEO of CNN, told Moyers.
By mid-April, the government and media tale was debunked. Lynch hadn't fired her weapon, nor had she been shot or stabbed (an examination did reveal that she had been sexually assaulted, however). And, according to hospital staff, the Iraqi fighters had already abandoned the hospital before she was "rescued," casting doubt on any gunfights and characterizations of daring.
"The nurses at the hospital tried to soothe me and tried unsuccessfully at one point to return me to American troops," Lynch testified.
The lies about the service of Lynch and the death of Tillman demonstrate the lengths to which this administration will go to protect its interests--and the necessity that the media ask tough questions to preserve our democracy. As Naomi Wolf notes in Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps: "In a fascist system, it's not the lies that count but the muddying. When citizens can't tell real news from fake, they give up their demands for accountability bit by bit."
"They could have handled situations a lot better and made sure that the truth was more accurate," Lynch said.
They could have indeed.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.
© 2007 The Nation