In a June 17 front-page article, the Washington Post attempted to clarify misinformation it had previously published in its own self-described “irresistible and cinematic” front page article about rescued prisoner of war Pfc. Jessica Lynch. This was a transparent exercise in journalistic damage-control, and the paper deserves no laurels for it. The Washington Post remains responsible for one of the most unprofessional, propagandistic “news” stories in recent history.
The April 3 “new journalism” cover story, titled “She Was Fighting to the Death,” created a vivid Amazon Myth of gigantic proportions. It deceived the world by portraying Lynch as a “woman-warrior” from West Virginia who was shot, stabbed, and captured only after she had emptied her weapon killing Iraqis.
Combined with Lynch’s striking, flag-bedecked photo, the piece brought to life feminist illusions of gender equality in war. As they see it, Jessica’s winning smile proves that female soldiers are ready for the infantry. After all, they say, now we know that combat violence, capture, abuse, and even death at the hands of a vicious enemy are really no big deal. The brave young soldier, suffering intense pain from severe injuries, is being pressured by television and movie producers to live up to that legend.
A few weeks after the “Jessica as John Wayne” story ran, Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler discredited the front page fable with an article titled “Reporting Private Lynch.” Few people saw that April 20 piece, however, because it was not featured on the front page.
Now the Post has produced what Managing Editor Steve Coll described as an “enterprise story,” titled “A Broken Body, a Broken Story, Pieced Together.” The disingenuousness of the story was betrayed by Coll himself, who told the New York Times that he was still “pleased” with the original article, despite its many inaccuracies.
Replay of Women in Combat Spin
What we have here is a pro-women in combat media campaign unlike anything we have seen in years. In 1994, when the late Lt. Kara Hultgreen crashed her F-14 aircraft on approach to the carrier Abraham Lincoln, some Navy officials deliberately misled the nation by claiming that engine failure, not pilot error, was the primary cause of her death.
One of Hultgreen’s instructors subsequently revealed F-14 training records to Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness, indicating that the pioneer combat pilot and her colleague, then-Lt. Carey Dunai Lohrenz, had been rushed to the fleet despite low scores and major errors in training. Those records, verified and published by Donnelly in the 1995 CMR Special Report: Double Standards in Naval Aviation, contradicted the Navy’s self-serving “party line.”
A few years later, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest boosted the attempt by some self-interested Navy officials to discredit Donnelly and the CMR Special Report by published completely fabricated misinformation.
Lt. Carey Lohrenz washed out of carrier aviation in May 1995, due to performance that was described in a Navy report as “unsafe, undisciplined, and unpredictable.” The Navy nevertheless decided in 1997 to restore Lohrenz to flight status in land-based aircraft.
As reported by Priest on June 21, 1997, Lohrenz’s plea for reinstatement succeeded because of allegations that Donnelly was the head of a group of resentful male naval aviators called the “Tailhook Underground,” which supposedly “conspired” to ruin Lohrenz’s carrier aviation career.
Priest never bothered to check the “facts” of her preposterous story with Elaine Donnelly, who had never heard of such a group. Post editors later admitted in writing that the source of the story had been unnamed Defense Department officials, and agreed to print a substantial letter from Donnelly refuting Priest’s defamatory report.
Seven years later, the same Dana Priest was listed as a contributor to the June 3 Jessica Lynch story, which was based on unsubstantiated reports from unnamed “U.S. officials.” She also took the lead in writing the lengthy June 17 damage-control piece.
The prevailing theory is that Defense Department officials were trying to lift morale at a low-point in the war by feeding unsubstantiated rumors to Post reporters, who used them to sensationalize the Lynch rescue story. It is also possible that Priest and her unnamed Pentagon source—perhaps a low-ranking civilian or military woman—may have wanted to create the impressionistic woman-warrior legend in order to push the women-in-combat cause.
If the idea was to hype the Lynch story in order to distract attention from the horrible injuries and brutal treatment that she and her colleagues had reportedly encountered in Iraq, the effort succeeded.
The tale also eclipsed the story of another female soldier, Army Sgt. Casaundra Grant. On April 3, the same day that the splashy Jessica Lynch story ran, Sgt. Grant was being transferred from Walter Reed Hospital to Brooke Medical Center near Fort Sam Houston in Texas. In Kuwait on March 14, Sgt. Grant’s legs had been accidentally pinned and crushed by a tank, which her unit was unloading from a flatbed transportation vehicle.
Sgt. Grant, the 25 year-old single mother of a two year-old, is happy to be alive. It is not likely, however, that television and movie producers will line up to dramatize her story, which clashes with the sanitized image of today’s women in combat. Only the San Antonio News-Express, her hometown newspaper, sent a reporter to tell her story on May 2.
(To see the Untold Story of Sgt. Casaundra Grant, please go to the Issues/People in the News section of this website.)
Even if the Post story had nothing to do with the swift campaign in many newspapers and commentaries to push for the assignment of women in all land combat units, it was a prime example of impressionistic Jayson-Blair-type journalism that undermined the credibility of the Washington Post.
News Management Backfires
In May the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Toronto Star alleged that the rescue of Jessica Lynch had been staged and videotaped for wartime propaganda purposes. The Army announced an investigation of what happened to the 507th Maintenance Unit on March 23, and the circumstances of Lynch’s April 1 rescue.
In the meantime, the Defense Department’s unusual, heavy-handed attempts to manage and control all news about events or persons associated with Pfc. Lynch have not allayed international doubts and suspicion about this and other war-related issues. None of this is the fault of Jessica Lynch herself or her loyal family.
On June 17 ABC News produced a two-part report, based on the still-unreleased Army investigation, which was devoid of feminist-friendly hype. “Bloody Sunday,” reported by Howard L. Rosenberg, described March 23 in Iraq as the single deadliest battle of the war.
Eleven American soldiers and 16 Marines—at least two of whom died coming to the aid of the beleaguered maintenance company—lost their lives in and around Nasiriyah. The heroism displayed by a few of them will be recognized and honored with Silver Stars and other decorations—some of them awarded posthumously.
Pfc. Jessica Lynch also deserves appropriate honors and respect for her service to America. But when the fog of gender war clears, she will likely be seen as a victim of wartime violence, rather than the guns-blazing action figure that she did not have to be.
It is not fair to expect her to play that role, just to make more money for television and movie producers who are eager to dramatize a false but idealistic version of her story. Nor should Jessica Lynch be expected to advance the women in combat agenda, which put her and many other female soldiers into greater, unequal peril in the first place.
For additional information, please go to “Unresolved Questions About the Ambush of the 507th Maintenance Unit and Rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, posted elsewhere on this website under Issues/Women in Combat.