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Archive for Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Lynch story redefines heroism

June 24, 2003

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— Maybe it's best that Jessica Lynch doesn't remember what happened. The doctors say she doesn't recall the ambush and capture, the April days that transformed the private first class into a first-class war hero.

So Private Lynch, at least, had no part in the making of the Legend of Private Lynch. When the nonstop coverage began, she was a survivor being carried on a stretcher in and out of planes and hospitals, having her bones meticulously pinned back together.

When the big names of television tried to woo her with lockets and books and deals, they didn't know that the star of the story couldn't actually tell the story.

There is something terrible about the alchemy that tries to turn a human into a symbol. In this case, the alchemists took a young soldier from the hollows of Palestine, W.Va., to the hollow world of myth-making. And now we are discovering the fool's gold.

Two Washington Post headlines bookmark the story of the story of Jessica Lynch. The first was on April 3: "She Was Fighting to the Death." The second was on June 17: " A Broken Body, a Broken Story, Pieced Together."

In the first rough draft of history, a 19-year-old supply clerk had fought fiercely, emptying her gun. She was riddled with bullet and knife wounds. As a prisoner of war, she was abused and finally rescued in a daring night raid. It became the defining story of the war.

In the revised draft of history emerging in bits and pieces, chaos as well as courage, fear as well as bravery, play a role. It was a Humvee accident that shattered her bones. She was never shot or stabbed. Her M-16 jammed and was never fired. If she was abused by her captors, they were gone when the rescue team arrived.

The original tale was, in the words of one Los Angeles Times reporter, "the first feel-good story of the war." But what felt good in April is now prickly to the touch.

In June, everything about this war seems to be up for revision -- from the way it began, with declarations of weapons of mass destruction, to the way it hasn't ended. So Jessica Lynch has now become a redefining story of the war, with skeptics asking whether the Pentagon spun the media or the media hyped the story.

But weren't we all embedded -- in the creation and adulation of a new war hero?

I confess that I was wary from the get-go of this story. I carry in my head the voice of my first city editor: "If the story is too good to be true, make some more calls." The team of Post reporters who wisely and carefully revisited the story still call it "irresistible and cinematic." But there was something cartoonlike about Jessica, warrior and prisoner of war.

The mythological Lynch was both Rambette and Damsel in Distress. For a military wrestling with women in its ranks, she was the woman fighting ferociously -- "She did not want to be taken alive" -- and the slight, blond teenager who needed to be rescued.

For the media she was a human interest story in the world of tanks. She was news -- the woman in combat fatigues -- and the crossover star who might attract women viewers the way Annika Sorenstam brought them to a PGA tournament.

Whatever the conspiracy theorists say, this dog didn't need to be wagged. Just tweaked a little. As one military public affairs officer told the Post, he knew the video of Private Lynch's rescue "would be the hottest thing of the day. There was not an intent to talk it down or embellish it because we didn't need to. It was an awesome story."

The not-so-secret is that media and military and citizens live in a world where war only interrupts our regular programming. We are expected to digest simple story lines about both the reasons for conflict and its heroism. It's also a world in which a Jessica Lynch is fit between a Laci Peterson and a Martha Stewart.

But to turn a human into a symbol, you have to take away the humanity. In the pursuit of fool's gold, you burn away the metal. By making Jessica into a cartoon hero, we may have missed the bravery of the young soldier now recovering in Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Pfc. Jessica Lynch didn't empty an M-16 into the enemy. But she has learned how to take a hundred steps with a walker, one step at a time. That's heroism enough for one lifetime.

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