W. Joseph Campbell

Myth and error: Recalling the rescue of Private Lynch

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on April 1, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Today marks the eighth anniversary of the swiftly executed rescue of Private Jessica Lynch from a hospital in Iraq, an event long since steeped in myth and distortion. The prevailing dominant narrative has it that the rescue was contrived — much like the rationale for the war in Iraq.

Lynch rescued

But the dominant narrative is in error.

Lynch’s rescue, the first of a U.S. soldier held captive behind enemy lines since World War II, was the highly effective work of a team of Army Rangers and Navy Seals which extricated Lynch within minutes, and without injury.

But less than two days later, the Lynch case became swept up in myth and error that persist eight years on.

On April 3, 2003, the Washington Post published its famously botched story about Lynch, saying the young woman had fought fiercely against Iraqis attackers before being wounded, overwhelmed, and taken prisoner in an ambush at Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003.

The Post report, which appeared beneath the headline, “‘She Was Fighting to the Death’,” was an instant sensation, picked up by news organizations around the world. The Times of London, for example, said that Lynch’s battlefield derring-do surely had won her “a place in history as a gritty, all-American hero…”

Sgt. Walters

The tale of Lynch’s heroics turned out to be utterly false, a case of apparent mistaken identity. Although the Post never adequately addressed how it got the story so thoroughly wrong, the battlefield heroics it attributed to Lynch most likely were the deeds of a cook-sergeant in Lynch’s unit, Donald Walters.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year,  Walters during the ambush at Nasiriyah “either stayed behind, or was left behind, to lay down covering fire as his fellow soldiers tried to make their escape. Walters fought his attackers in a fashion that the Post attributed to Lynch.”

Richard S. Lowry, in a fine account of the battle at Nasiriyah, wrote of Walters:

“He probably ‘fought to his last bullet.’ He was captured alive and taken to an Iraqi stronghold and later murdered.”

Walters, the father of three children, was executed by Iraqi irregulars.

Lynch, as it turned out, had never fired a shot in the attack. She was badly injured in the crash of a Humvee in trying to escape the Iraqi ambush.

As the Post’s erroneous report about Lynch’s purported heroics unraveled in the spring of 2003, suspicions arose that her rescue had been drama contrived.

“Such suspicions,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “reached full expression in May 2003, in a documentary broadcast on the British Broadcasting Corporation …. Relying almost entirely on the accounts of Iraqi medical personnel at the hospital, the BBC concluded that the rescue of Lynch was ‘one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived,’ a shameless bit of stagecraft done for propaganda purposes.”

The BBC version of the rescue, though vigorously disputed by the Pentagon, soon congealed into the dominant popular narrative about the Lynch case. “After all,” I note in Getting It Wrong, “the notion of a theatrical but counterfeit rescue operation fit well with the curdled popular view about the war in Iraq.”

But an investigation by the Defense Department’s inspector general — an inquiry requested by three Democratic members of Congress, including Rahm Emanuel — reported in 2007 that the BBC’s allegations had not been substantiated, that no evidence had been uncovered to support the notion the rescue “was a staged media event.”

In testimony to Congress in April 2007, Thomas F. Gimble, the Defense Department’s acting inspector general, said the rescue operation was found to have been “a valid mission” to recover a prisoner of war “under combat conditions.”

More than thirty witnesses were interviewed in the inspector general’s inquiry, including members of the Special Operations rescue team, Gimble said in written testimony.

Few if any of those witnesses had been interviewed by news organizations, he noted. In undertaking the Lynch rescue, Gimble said, the extrication team “fully expected to meet stiff resistance” and had come under enemy fire from the hospital building and areas nearby.

Gimble’s report, I note in Getting It  Wrong , represented “an unequivocal rebuke to the BBC’s account. Even so, by the time Gimble testified, four years had passed and the BBC’s version had become an unshakeable, widely accepted element of the Lynch saga.”

Gimble’s report, I add, “did not fit what had become the dominant narrative about the rescue. It made little news.”

WJC

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