W. Joseph Campbell

Jessica Lynch and the lingering hero myth

In Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on February 2, 2010 at 8:05 am

It’s amazing how “hero” still attaches to Jessica Lynch, the blonde, waiflike Army private from West Virginia who, through no exceptional effort of her own, became the best-known American military figure of the early days of the Iraq War.

Jessica Lynch, before the war

Lynch was in Florida the other day, promoting  I Am a Soldier, Too, a book about her that was written by Rick Bragg and published in November 2003 to decidedly mixed reviews.

In a report online, a Florida television station gave 267 words to Lynch’s visit; in that report, “hero” was invoked twice.

It’s amazing, too, how the media-driven aspect of her emergence to sudden fame usually is obscured these days. The Florida station made no mention of the Washington Post‘s overheated and erroneous report that gave rise to the hero-warrior myth of Jessica Lynch.

The myth is examined in detail in a chapter in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, which is due out in the summer.

In it, I recount how Lynch was catapaulted to sudden and unsought fame during the first days of the war in Iraq. Lynch then was a 19-year-old supply clerk in the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company.

On March 23, 2003, elements of the 507th were ambushed by Iraqi irregulars in the southern city of Nasiriyah.  Lynch was badly injured in the crash of her Humvee and was taken prisoner.

Nine days later, she was rescued by a U.S. special operations unit from a hospital in Nasiriyah.

Two days after that, on April 3, 2003, the Washington Post published a sensational report on its front page that said Lynch had “fought fiercely” in Nasiriyah and had “shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed” her unit, “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition.”

Washington Post's erroneous front-page report

The Post’s report cited “U.S. officials” who otherwise were unidentified as saying that Lynch had “continued firing at the Iraqis — even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting March 23.”

One official was quoted anonymously as saying:

“‘She was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.’”

It was a terrific story that was immediately picked up by news outlets across the United States and around the world.

But it wasn’t true.

The battlefield heroics attributed to Lynch were, quite likely, the deeds of another soldier in her unit, a cook from Oregon named Donald Walters. He fought the Iraqis till his ammunition ran out, was captured, and was executed.

Central to the myth enveloping the Lynch case is that the U.S. military encouraged and promoted the phony hero-warrior story, to help boost public support for the war.

But as I describe in Getting It Wrong, one of the reporters on the Post’s erroneous “fighting to the death” report, told an NPR radio program in late 2003 that “the Pentagon … wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

The reporter, Vernon Loeb, also said in that interview: “I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none.”

And the Post‘s erroneous “Fighting to the death” report about Lynch included this passage:

“Pentagon officials said they had heard ‘rumors’ of Lynch’s heroics but had no confirmation.”

The Post’s hero-warrior story about Lynch has had many unintended consequences beyond vaulting Lynch to celebrity status, which, as her appearance in Florida suggests, has never fully receded.

Her celebrity status also helped pave the way for her lucrative book contract with Bragg. And certainly it obscured the actions of Walters, whose conduct Nasiriyah probably saved the lives of some of his fellow soldiers.

WJC

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  1. [...] Recalling the overlooked heroism of Sgt. Walters In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on March 19, 2010 at 2:05 pm Oregon Public Broadcasting aired a segment today recalling the death seven years ago in Iraq of Sergeant Donald Walters, whose battlefield heroics were mistakenly attributed to Private Jessica Lynch. [...]

  2. [...] seven years on, the Post’s bogus report about Jessica Lynch reverberates [...]

  3. [...] 3 not only was the seventh anniversary of the Washington Post’s botched report about the mythical battlefield heroics of Jessica Lynch. The date also marked the 150th anniversary of the first run of the legendary Pony [...]

  4. [...] battlefield appears to have been a case of mistaken identity: It wasn’t Lynch who had fought heroically; it was most likely Sergeant Donald Walters, who was in Lynch’s unit and who was captured by [...]

  5. [...] many media-driven myths, the notion that the Pentagon pushed the phony hero-warrior story of Jessica Lynch has proven irresistible–too good and delicious, almost, to be [...]

  6. [...] Jessica Lynch and the lingering hero myth Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)the closet lover collection 21 sneaks! « Before Newspapers ‘not dead yet’: But a slow death, still June 12, 2010 [...]

  7. [...] would have helped thwart publication of embarrassing tales such as the Washington Post’s ‘fighting to the death‘ story about Jessica [...]

  8. [...] Washington Post on July 29, 2010 at 12:11 pm Seven years on, suspicions endure about the rescue of Jessica Lynch, the 19-year-old Army private whom the Washington Post catapulted into unsought, and undeserved, [...]

  9. [...] as an example as a hoax perpetuated by the Pentagon. And how readily the Washington Post‘s central role in promoting the case is overlooked and [...]

  10. [...] Even in the face of such denials, the notion the Pentagon concocted a phony hero-warrior story about Lynch has become the dominant narrative–one repeated blithely and often. [...]

  11. [...] In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on August 24, 2010 at 12:41 am Jessica Lynch returned to the national spotlight last night in a tedious and unedifying television interview that [...]

  12. [...] call out the newspaper for its singular role in publicizing the erroneous hero-warrior tale about Jessica Lynch who, because of botched reporting by the Post, unwittingly became the [...]

  13. [...] Lynch never fired a shot during the attack; her gun had jammed, she later said. She was neither shot nor stabbed; she suffered shattering injuries in the crash of a Humvee as it tried to flee the ambush. [...]

  14. [...] than a mildly astonishing how the Washington Post‘s singular role in propelling the erroneous hero-warrior tale about Private Jessica Lynch is rarely noted when the case is recalled these [...]

  15. [...] notion Lynch was a wartime hero, that she had fought like Rambo, was thrust into the public domain by the Washington Post in a botched, front-page story published [...]

  16. [...] still finds Jessica Lynch, who became the most familiar face of the early Iraq War because of a botched, front page story in the Washington Post about her supposed battlefield heroics. Lynch, before the [...]

  17. [...] narrative that utterly obscures the singular role of the Washington Post in thrusting the bogus hero-warrior story about Lynch into the public [...]

  18. [...] at Media Myth Alert, usually for its unwillingness to confront its singular role in thrusting the Jessica Lynch case into the public domain. The Post, I’ve argued, ought to disclose the sources for its [...]

  19. [...] electrifying but erroneous story about Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army private, turned her into the single most recognizable soldier of the Iraq [...]

  20. [...] Lynch was a 19-year-old Army private captured after an ambush in Nasiriyah in the first days of the Iraq War in 2003. She was badly injured and lingered near death at an Iraqi hospital, from where she rescued April 1, 2003, in a swift and well-coordinated raid by a U.S. special operations team. The rescue of Jessica Lynch [...]

  21. [...] The Post showed no interest in Walters’ heroism, or in explaining how his deeds were misattributed to Lynch. [...]

  22. [...] the hero-warrior story about Lynch was thoroughly [...]

  23. [...] Post reported that Lynch, a supply clerk in the 507th Maintenance Unit, “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she [...]

  24. [...] to say about the American soldier who probably did perform the heroics that were misattributed to Lynch. His name was Donald Walters, a cook-sergeant in Lynch’s unit, which came under attack in [...]

  25. [...] important, though, the Pentagon wasn’t the source for the hero-warrior tale about Jessica Lynch. It wasn’t “the Pentagon’s [...]

  26. [...] another messy case the Post has never thoroughly addressed: It never has come clean about its bogus hero-warrior story about Jessica Lynch, a story that became an international sensation in the early days of the Iraq [...]

  27. [...] of it was true; Lynch suffered neither gunshot nor stab wounds. She was badly injured in the crash of a Humvee as its fled the ambush. But Lynch never [...]

  28. [...] News yesterday invoked the false derivation of the hero-warrior myth about Jessica Lynch, declaring that “the U.S. government portrayed her as a fearless heroine who had gone down [...]

  29. [...] was referring to the hero-warrior tale the Washington Post thrust into the public domain in a sensational, front-page report on April 3, [...]

  30. [...] none of that proved true. Lynch fired not a shot in the attack. She was wounded not in the firefight with the Iraqis but in the [...]

  31. [...] Post, moreover, has never adequately explained how it erred so utterly in its hero-warrior story about Lynch, a story that was picked up by news organizations around the [...]

  32. [...] Lynch herself insists, she was no hero (although she has said she could have embraced the hero-warrior tale and no one would’ve been the [...]

  33. [...] hero-warrior tale about Lynch turned out to be utterly wrong in all crucial details. She was neither shot nor [...]

  34. [...] infamous “Fighting to the Death” story of April 3, 2003, which is at the heart of the bogus hero-warrior tale about [...]

  35. [...] herself insists, she was no hero (although she has said she could have embraced the Post’s hero-warrior tale and no one would’ve been the [...]

  36. [...] Lynch, who unwittingly became the best-known Army private of the Iraq War, has added her support to the Obama administration’s plan to end restrictions [...]

  37. [...] Lynch herself insists, she was no hero (although she has said she could have embraced the Post’s hero-warrior tale and no one would’ve been the [...]

  38. […] Lynch was a 19-year-old Army supply clerk severely injured March 23, 2003, in the crash of her Humvee while fleeing an ambush in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. The Washington Post, though, reported that Lynch had suffered gunshot and stab wounds as she fought fiercely against the attacking Iraqis. She kept firing, the Post said, until she ran out of ammunition. […]

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