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Tuesday, May 06, 2003  

Saving Pfc. Lynch: The Iraqis

Kudos to Khafara for sending me the latest reportage about the 'rescue' of Pfc. Jessica Lynch. The Toronto Star has thoroughly probed the episode.

All Hollywood could ever hope to have in a movie was there in this extraordinary feat of rescue — except, perhaps, the truth.

So say three Nasiriya doctors, two nurses, one hospital administrator and local residents interviewed separately last week in a Toronto Star investigation. The medical team that cared for Lynch at the hospital formerly known as Saddam Hospital is only now beginning to appreciate how grand a myth was built around the four hours the U.S. raiding party spent with them early on April Fool's Day. And they are disappointed. For Dr. Harith Houssona, 24, who came to consider Lynch a friend after nurturing her through the worst of her injuries, the ironies are almost beyond tabulation.

You may remember that I was one of the early skeptics about the heroic sagas being posted by embedded reporters from Iraq. They conflicted with my sense of news as a former reporter and my nose for deception as an outsider in this society. Now that the truth has emerged, the misrepresentations are even greater than I suspected.

"The most important thing to know is that the Iraqi soldiers and commanders had left the hospital almost two days earlier," Houssona said. "The night they left, a few of the senior medical staff tried to give Jessica back. We carefully moved her out of intensive care and into an ambulance and began to drive to the Americans, who were just one kilometre away. But when the ambulance got within 300 metres, they began to shoot. There wasn't even a chance to tell them `We have Jessica. Take her.'"

According to the medical personnel, the 'rescue' occurred without a single shot being fired by Iraqis.

Separately, the Iraqi doctors describe how the tension fell away rapidly once the Americans realized no threat existed on the premises. A U.S. medic was led to Lynch's room as others secured the rest of the three-wing hospital.

. . .One group of soldiers returned to the x-ray room to ask about the bodies of missing U.S. soldiers and was led to a graveyard opposite the hospital's south wall. All were dead on arrival, the doctors say."The whole thing lasted about four hours," [Dr. Mudhafer] Raazk said. "When they left, they turned to us and said `Thank you.'

Furthermore, they say Lynch received such good care they were thanked by an American military doctor.

So, why all the falsehoods from the Pentagon and the press? I think because to many Americans imagery is more important than reality. The military and media wanted a heroine so they created one. Many civilian Americans also wanted a heroine, so they were complicit in the creation of the myth.

According to the Iraqis, the 'rescue' itself was cinema verite.

Dr. Mudhafer Raazk, 27, observed dryly that two cameramen and a still photographer, also in uniform, accompanied the U.S. teams into the hospital. Maybe this was a movie after all.

Yes, there were a couple of real heroines in Iraq, deceased Pfc. Lori Piestewa and injured Spec. Shoshana Johnson. But, America still wants its heroes to be white if possible. If Jessica Lynch could be shaped into a heroine, that requirement was met.

Readers of The Washington Post took issue with the reportage soon after an examination after her release revealed Lynch had not been injured by gunfire, Michael Getler, The Washington Post's ombudsman admits.

At that point, several readers wrote to complain, saying they did not doubt "the gravity of Lynch's situation," as one put it, but that The Post, "using unnamed sources," was "creating a sensationalist story riddled with inaccuracies." "I smell an agenda," said one reader, suspecting wartime "propaganda." Another was suspicious of the "Hollywood-like telling of the story." My initial reaction, even before the comments of Rubenstein and Lynch's father, was that a more qualified approach in the headline and the lead of the story was merited because of the cautions in the article and because of the thin sourcing used.

Getler has offered a tepid response to complaints about the fairy tale perpetrated by reporters Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb.

The issue here is not Lynch, a courageous young soldier, but how that second-day story was handled. Her rescue, filmed by the military and shown on television, came at a crucial time in the U.S. offensive. It seemed to give everyone a lift. The follow-up Post exclusive about her actions and ordeal was a powerful additional element at the time. People remember that story. But what really happened is still not clear. In the sweep of this conflict, the episode is just a footnote. But let's hope an authoritative public account emerges, at least for journalistic, if not historical, reasons.

Blogger Steve Smith of Smythe's World is not surprised that Schmidt, who has quite a reputation, was involved in the glorification of American might.

. . .Those newspapers created the climate for the appointment of an independent counsel, who could then leak stories of his investigation to favored journalists; long before Monica Lewinsky came to symbolize fellatio, Susan Schmidt (aka "Steno Sue") of The Washington Post was the pin-up girl for sycophancy at the feet of power.

Meanwhile, the military is claiming Lynch doesn't have any memory of her captivity. I would not be surprised if the problem is that she does not have the memories Donald Rumsfeld wants her to have. Being sung to sleep by a motherly Iraqi nurse is not evidence for a war crimes tribunal.

A conservative blogger has told me he will not change his mind about Pfc. Lynch having been tortured and the hospital being a cover for a military post until he hears verification from her mouth. If she is trained to parrot the Pentagon's story maybe he will. However, in my opinion, his failure to even credit the Iraqi medical personnel with the possibility of being truthful is an insult to their humanity. His all to typical ugly American attitude does not bode well as a harbinger of future American-Iraqi relations. Nor do the apparent falsehoods the military and press appear to have created and disseminated about Iraqis I would be proud to call friends.

The Toronto Star has done an excellent job in reporting the Iraqis' side of the story, the kind of job the Washington Post should have done.

8:57 PM