Media

The Unknown Soldier

Bragging on Pfc. Lynch

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Wherever you place Jessica Lynch in the catalogue of public figures—hero, villain, patsy, victim, screw-up, role model, pawn, goldbrick, golddigger, icon—one thing is certain: In pure productivity terms, she's more than an Army of One. In her short career, the former Iraq war POW has endured a horrendous, disabling military catastrophe, become the heroine of a made-for-tv movie and the anti-heroine of a BBC documentary, made the rounds with David Letterman, Larry King, Diane Sawyer, The Today Show, and others, gracefully endured a short-lived nude photos scandal, toured in support of her authorized biography I Am a Soldier Too, and announced her upcoming nuptials with Army sweetheart Sgt. Ruben Contreras. It's unlikely you've pulled off that much since late March.

But Pfc. Lynch's most impressive role has been as the impassive eye of an ontological storm. Like Elian Gonzalez before her, Lynch is a fluid figure whom assorted parties try to shape into a usable symbol. Elian disappointed his handlers because he was only five at the start of his ordeal, and not able to form a firm conviction; Lynch was only E-3, and not entitled to one. Instead, she's tried to remain truthful, to everybody's dismay.

The Lynchiad long ago passed the point where it could be seen as any sort of referendum on the Iraq war. In the early days after Lynch's dramatic April 1 rescue from Saddam General Hospital in Nasiriyah, the rescue story's political implications were simple. If you were skeptical of the Pentagon's official story of the raid and rescue, that pretty much branded you as a cynical blame-America-firster, probably even a Saddam loyalist. To believe was to be for the war. When the BBC ran an early revision of the rescue story, this was just more evidence of the kind of outrages the ungallant Ba'athist Broadcasting Corporation was willing to stoop to.

Half a year later, it must be said that the Beeb's version has more or less won the day, and the war's supporters as well as its detractors (not to mention Lynch herself) are united in finding the entire Lynch story, in both its details and its various political usages, more than fishy. Certainly, the Pentagon's incautious promotion of the story, its promiscuous medal giving, and its seeming unawareness of how quickly the whiff of hype will sour supporters helped contribute to the cooling off. "It's no big surprise that I've been bombarded by thousands of angry e-mails from vets protesting this assault on our country's sacred award system," wrote the invaluable Col. David Hackworth after Lynch was awarded the Bronze Star.

In the place of a simple political debate has arisen yet another epistemological rumination on the mutability of memory, the nature of propaganda, the impossibility of certainty. Virtually every aspect of the story has, on further investigation, evaporated, shrunken, or mutated. At this point, it's left to the apolitical backbone of the American population to take an uncomplicated interest in Jessica Lynch, not as a hero or a victim, but as a celebrity.

This is what Rick Bragg banks on in I Am a Soldier Too, a book that completes an interesting loop for the disgraced New York Times reporter. The Lynch story, in a roundabout way, brought about the end of Bragg's Times career. After Jayson Blair (currently going through his own none-too-convincing pantomime as this generation's Bigger Thomas) was driven by the racist culture of the Times to fabricate an interview with Lynch's father, an ethics dragnet at the paper pulled in Bragg's own case of parachute reporting in Apalachicola, Fla. Thus it is fitting that Bragg's rapid return to polite society should come via the bestselling account of Lynch's life.

For a book that must have been written in about 15 minutes, Soldier is surprisingly competent. It won't bowl you over with the depth of its sourcing, and the combination of Bragg's haste and his compulsive phrase-turning occasionally mangles the sense. ("Jessi is glad that the army never backed away from its portrayal of the commandos as anything less than heroes.") It reads a bit like a 200-page New York Times story—or more precisely, like a 100-page Times story padded out with text warmers, one-sentence paragraphs, one- and two-page chapters, etc. In the tradition of Times national reporting, the book attempts to translate an exotic locale for urban middlebrows, so be prepared for frequent, corncobby reminders that Lynch is a daughter of the West Virginia mountains, where folks do things a little different. (C'mon, Rick! It's hard enough being a rootless cosmopolitan these days without all the scolding.) Still, the book charges efficiently through the story, gives credible details about the firefight that ended in Lynch's hospitalization, and even broke the news that Lynch seems to have been raped during her capture. (Inevitably, even this detail is now disputed.)

"Some of 'em was good to Jessi," Spc. Greg Lynch, Jessica's brother, tells Bragg of the Iraqis. "You can't hate a whole people." That comment is apt to this war where the effort to reimagine the former enemies as partners for peace has been especially rapid. Michael Young noted in these pages how stories like Lynch's reduce the Iraqis to bit players in their own national history. Bragg aggravates this tendency. None of Lynch's doctors get live quotations; their motives for saving her life are second-guessed in a manner you'd never see applied to American doctors. The story of how hospital workers tried to deliver Lynch to an American checkpoint but were driven back is dispatched in less than a page. Mohammed Odeh Al Rehaief, the lawyer who apparently led the Americans to Lynch, has had portions of his own story contradicted by Lynch. (More recently, Lynch stood Rehaief up when he came to visit her in her hometown of Palestine, W. Va.)

The ghostly characterizations of the Iraqis actually lead back down one of those post-modern hallways that make up this tale. The more you learn about the Lynch story, the less sense it makes. Some of the questions are obvious and potentially tendentious: Why Lynch and not Shoshona Johnson? For that matter, why not Private Patrick Miller, who is said to have attacked an Iraqi mortar position and killed as many as nine enemies before being captured? Others are more complicated: When equally fervent prayers are offered for both Lynch and best friend Pfc. Lori Piestewa, the famously capricious God opts to let Piestewa—a mother of two toddlers—die, while leaving Lynch alive and wounded (probably permanently).

These days, the iterations of true stories come so fast that Bragg, who couldn't have finished the writing any later than Halloween, feels the need to devote ten pages, near the book's three-quarter mark, to the rapid growth of the Lynch media myth. In the old days, a book published seven months after an event (in the old days, were they even able to get books on the shelf seven months after an event?) would still have been working off the first draft of history. Here, we're already several drafts removed. In a way, that makes the book a sort of shorter Executioner's Song, where a human drama crashes into the nationwide media circus, and wackiness ensues. But Bragg's real literary ancestor here could as easily be the enigmatic hyper-realist Alain Robbe-Grillet. The book's closing chapter is a true Robbe-Grillet flourish: a clinical, detailed description of a still picture from Lynch's welcome-home party, ending on a highly ambiguous anomaly in the photography.

What makes the Lynch story of continuing interest is the way the main character both invites and defeats the various storylines that have been imposed on her. Of all the debunkers of the dramatic rescue that required the participation of special operations fighters from all four service branches, the most effective debunker has been Lynch herself. Likewise, Lynch's description of her own panic and passivity during the firefight, though it certainly elicits our sympathy, is sharply at odds with even the idea of a medal awarded for courage. Lynch's tendency to depart from the script, to hew as closely as possible to the truth as best she can piece it together, even made a friend of the reliably bullshit-loathing Hackworth, who wrote recently: "[T]he way this little wisp of a girl has stood up to the world's biggest propaganda machine makes her a hero in my book."

The Iraq war's hottest disputes arise not from the big lies but from the little ones, particularly the dumb, unnecessary, easily disproved ones: a corny fight to the last bullet, the disputed authorship of the "Mission Accomplished" banner, edible vs. ornamental turkeys. Supporters of the invasion of Iraq, and of President Bush, justifiably dismiss the dustups over these issues as sniping; but considering the alternative, an environment where every photo op and official story is immediately shot to ribbons seems preferable. Lynch, a pretty unimpressive figure, is as suited to this environment as she was unsuited to combat. If the job of officers is to broadcast lies, the job of enlisted people is to grumble the truth. Thanks to Lynch, her story has been pared back to something understandable: a chronicle of a young woman who can no longer control her evacuations, of motherless children, of so many dead that they can only be mentioned briefly. That sounds like the feel-bad story of the year.

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