I’ll be in New York tomorrow to present a paper that’s drawn on my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong.
The venue will be the annual, daylong Joint Journalism Historians Conference; my paper is titled, “‘She Was Fighting to the Death': Mythmaking in Iraq.”
The paper deconstructs the media-driven myth surrounding the case of Jessica Lynch, the Army private whom the Washington Post lifted from obscurity in early April 2003, in an electrifying account of her supposed heroics at Nasiriyah in the first days of the Iraq War.
The Post’s hero-warrior tale about Lynch, then 19, carried the headline:
“’She was fighting to the death.’”
The Post‘s story was picked up around the world, in a classic case of intermedia agenda-setting (wherein large news organizations set a news agenda for other, smaller outlets).
But the account proved badly in error: Lynch never fired a shot in the fighting at Nasiriyah.
Given that the Post’s hero-warrior narrative proved untrue, it’s scarcely surprising that other suspicions arose about the Lynch saga–namely that Pentagon officials planted the “fighting to the death” report and that the rescue of Lynch by a U.S. special forces team was contrived to boost flagging morale back home.
As I’ll note in my presentation, the Pentagon did little to promote the hero-warrior story about Lynch. Indeed, the Post‘s story was not based on Pentagon sources.
I’ll also point out that U.S. public support for the war was quite high at the time the Lynch case began unfolding.
A national CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken of 1,012 American adults in late March 2003—a few days before publication of the Post‘s erroneous report about Lynch—found that 85.5 percent of respondents thought the war effort was going “very well” or “moderately well” for U.S. forces.
The hoopla over Lynch had another, lasting effect: That of obscuring the recognition of an Army sergeant named Donald Walters who did fight to the death at Nasiriyah.
Walters was captured when his ammunition ran out, and executed.
Walters’ heroics were mistakenly attributed to Lynch, apparently because of faulty translation of Iraqi battlefield reports.
But when they became known, Walters’ heroics attracted little more than passing attention in the American news media.
Walters’ mother, Arlene, told me a few years ago that she called the editors of newsweeklies that had placed Lynch’s image on their covers. But “there was never any story about Don,” she said. “I called all these magazines. … They didn’t really care.”
I’ll bet most attendees at tomorrow’s conference never have heard of Sergeant Donald Walters.