Tomorrow marks the eighth anniversary of the deadly ambush at Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, an engagement so poorly reported by the Washington Post that it catapulted Jessica Lynch to undeserved international fame – and obscured the heroism of an Army sergeant who was captured, then killed.
The Post published an electrifying, front-page account of Lynch’s supposed heroics in the battle of March 23, 2003. The report appeared beneath the headline, “‘She was fighting to the death,’” and said Lynch had fought fiercely before being overwhelmed and captured by Iraqi attackers.
Because of the apparent mistranslation of battlefield radio intercepts, the deeds the Post misattributed to Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army private, most likely were those of a 33-year-old cook-sergeant named Donald Walters.
Walters (right), a veteran of the Gulf War in 1991, either was left behind or stayed behind as his fellow soldiers tried to escape.
Perhaps the most detailed account of the ambush at Nasiriyah appears in Richard Lowry’s masterful work, Marines in the Garden of Eden.
In the book, Lowry wrote:
“We will never really know the details of Walters’ horrible ordeal. We do know that he risked his life to save his comrades and was separated from the rest of the convoy, deep in enemy territory. We know that he fought until he could no longer resist.”
Walters is believed to have fired 201 M-16 rounds at his attackers.
He was captured and executed by Iraqi irregulars.
His killers, so far as is known, have never been caught.
But how did Walters’ heroism come to confounded with the actions of Lynch — who later said she never fired a shot during the ambush? (Lynch cowered in the back seat of a Humvee as it tried to escape the Iraqi attack.)
“The probable sources of confusion were Iraqi radio communications that the U.S. forces intercepted. These communications reportedly included references to a blond American soldier’s fierce resistance in the fighting at Nasiriyah.
“In translating the intercepted reports to English, the pronoun ‘he’ was mistaken for ‘she.’ As Lynch was the only blonde woman in the 507th, the battlefield heroics were initially attributed to her, not Walters.”
And drawing on information sources it has never revealed, the Post published its erroneous account of Lynch’s derring-do.
I further note in Getting It Wrong that a brigade commander named Colonel Heidi Brown offered the explanation about the mistranslation, in an interview broadcast in 2004 on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered program.
Brown said on the program: “What I was told was that it was just a faulty translation, but it made for everyone … to make a huge assumption that it was Jessica Lynch, when, in fact it probably — but you know, no one knows for sure. It probably was Sergeant Walters.”
I also note in Getting It Wrong that Walters’ actions, “when they became known, attracted little more than passing interest from the American news media — certainly nothing akin to the intensity of the Lynch coverage after the Post’s ‘fighting to the death’ story appeared.”
The Post article about Lynch’s supposed heroism, which appeared April 3, 2003, set off an avalanche of similar news coverage in news outlets across the United States and around the world. It was an irresistible, cinematic tale — a waiflike teenager pouring lead into attacking Iraqis, much like a female Rambo.
The Post never fully explained how it got the story so badly wrong, and offered but scant interest in the real hero at Nasiriyah.
A database search of Post articles published since April 2003 revealed just three stories in which Walters’ name was mentioned. None of those articles discussed in any detail his bravery at Nasiriyah.
The Army eventually acknowledged that Walters’ conduct “likely prevented his unit from suffering additional casualties and loss of life” and posthumously awarded him the Silver Star — the military’s third-highest decoration for valor.
Recent and related:
- Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon
- Too good to be disbelieved: The military, myth, and Jessica Lynch
- ‘Good narrative trumps good history’
- A subsidiary myth: Lynch rescue ‘was play acted’
- Indulging in myth on the way out
- ‘Mythmaking in Iraq,’ at a conference in New York
- Lynch and mythical ‘Pentagon propaganda machine’
- Jessica Lynch: One of the ‘buzziest’?
- ‘Commentary’ reviews ‘Getting It Wrong’