W. Joseph Campbell

The military’s ‘fabrication’? No, Jessica Lynch was WaPo’s story

In Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on January 5, 2012 at 9:15 am

A passage in a recent  essay at a Washington Post blog demonstrates just how insidious the notion is that the military made up the hero-warrior tale about Army private Jessica Lynch in the early days of the Iraq War.

The Post’s higher education blog, “College Inc.,” cited “the fabrication of the story of Jessica Lynch” as an example of “a serious problem in the military’s relationship with the civilian world.” (The essay discussed what the author called the “shrill insistence by the military on its own virtue.”)

Lynch in 2003

The author, a Naval Academy professor named Bruce Fleming, also invoked the case of Pat Tillman — an Army Ranger killed slain by friendly fire in Afghanistan — in asserting:

“This is lying to the people the military is meant to protect, and who pay for it. It is absolutely, completely, unacceptable. Yet it now has become common.”

Strong stuff.

But it’s exceedingly the top in the case of Jessica Lynch: The claim that the military made up the tale of her battlefield heroics is seriously misstated. And more than faintly ironic, given that it was the Washington Post that reported Lynch had “gone down firing,” that she had fought ferociously in the ambush of her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, in southern Iraq in March 2003.

It was the Post — citing otherwise anonymous “U.S. officials” — that claimed Lynch had “shot several enemy soldiers” in the ambush.

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” in the fighting.

It was the Post that placed the electrifying heroic-warrior tale about Lynch on its front page of April 3, 2003, beneath a headline that read:

“‘She was fighting to the death.'”

It was the Post — alone — that placed the story into the public domain.

And none of it was true.

Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed. She suffered shattering injuries in the crash of a Humvee as it attempted to flight the ambush. But she fired not a shot in the attack.

Lynch was taken prisoner, but rescued nine days later from an Iraqi hospital by U.S. special forces.

The Post for its part has never fully explained how it got so utterly wrong a story that was picked up by news organizations around the world, turning the unsuspecting Lynch into the best-known Army private of the war.

However, as I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, we know from one of the Post reporters on the Lynch story that the military wasn’t pushing the hero-warrior story.

That reporter, Vernon Loeb, said in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air program in December 2003:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

He also said in the interview:

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

Loeb added:

“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.”

On another occasion, Loeb was quoted in a commentary in the New York Times as saying:

“Far from promoting stories about Lynch, the military didn’t like the story.”

The author of the Times commentary was Mark Bowden, who wrote the critically acclaimed Black Hawk Down, a book about the failed U.S. military mission in Somalia in 1998 1993. Of the Lynch case, Bowden said in his commentary:

“There is no doubt that the American media took these bits and pieces from the fog of war and assembled them into a heroic tale. … This is how the media works today, for better or worse. It happens without any prompting from the Pentagon.”

What, then, explains the persistence of the false narrative that military concocted the hero-warrior tale about Lynch?

Part of the answer lies in a dim understanding about the military and its ways. Few Americans have much first-hand knowledge about the armed services and warfare. Such limited familiarity can lead to the embrace of flawed narratives and misleading caricatures.

The Post’s erroneous account of Lynch as a female Rambo pouring lead into attacking Iraqis was cinematic — and more than vaguely reminiscent of scenes in the 1996 motion picture Courage Under Fire.

Another part of the answer lies in the news media’s tendency to shift blame away from major mistakes. As media critic Jack Shafer has pointed out:

“The rotten truth is that media organizations are better at correcting trivial errors of fact — proper spellings of last names, for example — than they are at fixing a botched story.”

The false narrative that the military concocted the Lynch tale has enabled the Post to dodge accountability for a botched story still oozes venom, suspicion, and misunderstanding.

The newspaper’s unwillingness to set the record straight by  identifying the sources that led it awry has given rise to false claims, including those about the military’s “fabrication.”


Many thanks to Instapundit Glenn Reynolds, and to smalldeadanimals.com and Blackfive.net, for linking to this post.

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