Until April 1, the war news from Iraq had mostly been discouraging. Instead of "shock and awe," the U.S.-led offensive was meeting with unexpectedly strong Iraqi resistance. Then, suddenly, "CNN has confirmed that 19-year-old Pfc. Jessica Lynch of the 507th Maintenance Unit based in Fort Bliss, Texas—a supply clerk who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time when that unit veered off and got lost near Nasiriya and was captured by Iraqis—has been recaptured by U.S. troops.... She is now back under U.S. control." Last week, Lynch was released from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and received a hero's welcome in her hometown.
The story had all the elements of a Hollywood drama: A young female soldier from a small town in West Virginia is captured in an enemy ambush and severely injured; she goes missing in action for nine days before being dramatically rescued by U.S. Special Forces. Hers was the first rescue of a U.S. prisoner of war from behind enemy lines since World War II—and the first ever of a female soldier.
All those things are true.
But the Jessica Lynch story became something much bigger. The war needed a hero. And that need drove the story. "Everyone was ready for a story of heroism," Daniel Klaidman, Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, recalled. Journalists "were seduced by the little bit that they heard, and they ran with information they shouldn't have."
Take the April 3 Washington Post headline, which claimed that Pvt. Lynch "Was Fighting to the Death." The Post described her as "firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition." Weeks later, a Post investigation revealed that Lynch had tried to fire her weapon, but it jammed.
Reporters cited initial intelligence reports that Lynch had been stabbed or shot. But as the draft of a later Pentagon report has revealed, she suffered major injuries when her Humvee was hit by an Iraqi grenade and plowed into a U.S. truck.
On April 5, CNN reported the recovery of Lynch's dog tag. "Now let me tell you where they found this dog tag," correspondent Jason Bellini reported. "It was on a search of a house on the Euphrates River here in the city of Nasiriya." The house belonged to a Baath Party leader. That led to speculation that Lynch had been abused or mistreated. One witness claimed to have seen an Iraqi agent slapping Lynch in her hospital bed. That account was subsequently disputed by hospital workers.
Moreover, the video of the rescue operation provided by the military made it look like a great feat of derring-do. But as CNN correspondent John Vause first reported in April, "The doctors say the Iraqi military and other officials had fled [the hospital] at least 10 hours earlier. In fact, they say early that morning they tried to take Jessica to an American checkpoint."
The Pentagon does not dispute that account. It is consistent with the findings of the Washington Post investigation published in June, which said: "The Special Operations Unit's full-scale rescue of the private ... ultimately was proved unnecessary. Iraqi combatants had left the hospital almost a day earlier, leaving Lynch in the hands of doctors and nurses who said they were eager to turn her over to Americans." Even an April 3 New York Times interview with Lynch's family and friends in West Virginia turns out to have been partly fabricated by a reporter who was never there. The reporter? Jayson Blair.
None of this diminishes Lynch's very real suffering and sacrifice. But it does suggest that the Pentagon allowed the story to be hyped, and that it may have even fueled the hype.
Reporter Michael Wolff of New York magazine, who was at the media center in Doha, Qatar, during the war, says, "A hero was good copy.... I think there was, at the end of the day, an absolute willingness to overlook the points in the story that were flatly not credible."
Wolff recalls, "The Pentagon PR representatives went to the press corps and said, 'We have the tape. We will not show this tape unless the press asks to see it.' So this was a pure setup." By insisting that reporters ask to see the tape, the military seemed to be trying to distance itself from the media frenzy while at the same time encouraging it.
A military spokesman says, "We never walked out and promoted the Jessica Lynch story." They didn't have to. The rescue and the grainy tape footage were receiving round-the-clock coverage. Jessica Lynch became the symbol of the war's turnaround. But the Pentagon and the press couldn't resist giving it a little extra spin. "To some extent, the press fabricated this story," Wolff says. "Well, let's use a different word. They novelized this story."
The exact details of the ambush and rescue may never be known. The authoritative source, Jessica Lynch herself, has not been able to help. Her family and doctors say she has no recollection of events leading up to her rescue.
What happens in an environment where the media grabs a popular story and won't let go—an environment in which the government is defending itself, not just on the battlefield, but from critics around the world? A story that brings good news is likely to get hyped.