The first major battle of the Iraq War, the ambush 10 years ago today of an U.S. support unit, gave rise to one the most woeful moments in recent war correspondence — the Washington Post’s thoroughly inaccurate front-page report about a 19-year-old U.S. Army private named Jessica Lynch.
The Post claimed that Lynch, a waif-like supply clerk who never expected to see combat, had fought fiercely in the ambush at Nasiriyah, firing at attacking Iraqis until her ammunition ran out.
It was an electrifying report, conjuring as it did cinematic images of an improbable female Rambo.
As it turned out, it was one of those remarkably rare news stories that’s spectacularly wrong but reverberates long after its initial publication.
The Post’s article had the effect of:
- turning Lynch, through no exceptional effort of her own, into the best-known U.S. enlisted soldier of the Iraq War
- obscuring the heroics of an Army cook-sergeant who was captured, then killed, by Iraqis
- prompting the rise of media myths that continue to distort understanding about what happened at Nasiriyah.
Ten years on and the Post has never fully accounted for its botched reporting. It has never disclosed the identities of the anonymous sources who provided the salient details for a story so stunning that was picked up by news organizations around the world.
That story was published April 3, 2003, beneath the headline:
“‘She was fighting to the death.’”
The Post said Lynch was shot and stabbed “when Iraqi forces closed in on her position,” and based its account on otherwise anonymous “U.S. officials.”
The story was reported from Washington, D.C.: No journalists were with Lynch’s unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, when its convoy of trucks and support vehicles made a wrong turn and mistakenly entered Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003.
The convoy fell under attack and 11 U.S. soldiers were killed in the fighting. Among them was Sgt. Donald Walters, who had put down covering fire as his comrades tried to flee the ambush.
Walters was taken prisoner and soon after was executed by his Iraqi captors. So far as is known, his killers have never been captured.
It emerged months later that Walters most likely performed the battlefield heroics misattributed to Lynch, who never embraced the Post’s account.
The mistaken identity stemmed apparently from mistranslation of Iraqi battlefield transmissions.
The Post, though, never showed any interest in that aspect of the story — or in Walters’ bravery.
His name has appeared in only four news reports published by the Post, the most recent of which was an Associated Press dispatch in May 2004 which said “details of [Walters'] actions remarkably resemble a story circulated in The Washington Post and other news media, based on anonymous sources, describing how Lynch had fought until her ammunition ran out.”
The reference to “other news media” was misleading, though. It was the Post, alone, that thrust the hero-warrior about Lynch’s battlefield heroics into worldwide circulation.
It was the Post that said Lynch “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” at Nasiriyah.
And none of it was true: Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed.
She never fired a shot in Iraq. Her weapon jammed during the fighting.
She tried to escape the attack in the back of a Humvee, her head lowered to her knees in prayer. The fleeing Humvee was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, sending the vehicle hurtling into a disabled tractor-trailer.
Lynch suffered shattering injuries to her arms, legs, and back in the crash. Four fellow soldiers were killed.
The Post’s hero-warrior story about Lynch began unraveling in the spring of 2003. As it did, a toxic narrative arose that the Pentagon (or, more broadly, the “military“) had concocted the story and somehow fed it to the Post in a crude and cynical attempt to boost public support for the war.
As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, one of the authors of the Post’s botched hero-warrior story, Vernon Loeb, has stated unequivocally that the anonymous sources were not Pentagon officials.
In an interview on NPR in December 2003, Loeb said:
“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”
Loeb said they were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C. , and added:
“We wrote a story that turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong. That happens quite often.”
Loeb made clear he that “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.
“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch,” Loeb declared, adding:
“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none. I mean … they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”
Loeb’s remarks have long been in the public domain. But they’ve been mostly ignored.
We know from Loeb who the Post’s sources weren’t.
On the 10th anniversary of the battle of Nasiriyah, it’s high time for the Post to say who they were, to set the record straight and clarify at long last how one of the most memorable yet twisted narratives of the Iraq War came to be.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Time for WaPo to disclose sources on bogus Lynch story
- Digitally scrubbing WaPo’s embarrassment on Jessica Lynch?
- Jon Krakauer rolls back claims about WaPo ‘source’ in Jessica Lynch case
- Women at the front: Recalling Jessica Lynch in Iraq
- WaPo still dodging responsibility in Jessica Lynch case
- Ignoring the astonishing reporting lapses in Lynch case
- The military’s ‘fabrication’? No, Jessica Lynch was WaPo’s story
- Pentagon ‘caught creating false narrative’ about Lynch? How so?
- Lynch says she could’ve embraced Post’s phony hero story
- Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez in D.C., plans digital newspaper back home
- William Randolph Hearst mostly elusive in new ‘Citizen Hearst’ documentary
- ‘Mythmaking in Iraq,’ at a conference in New York
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ goes Majic