In her book Race Against Empire, Penny M. Von Eschen showed how during the Cold War Black anti-colonialism was smashed through the judicious use of reward as a carrot to compliant Black leaders who dropped their critique of colonialism, and McCarthyite intimidation as the stick against those like the Huntons, DuBoises, and Paul Robeson who did not. This maneuver was ideologically consolidated by redefining racism as an individual psychopathology (thereby publicly abandoning any critique of slavery, Jim Crow, and colonialism as systems).
A similar discursive strategy developed after the Vietnam War, where the American imperial system itself was discredited by any detailed examination of the war, especially those critiques that focused on powerful decision-makers in Washington DC.
The essence of this discursive strategy is to shift the public’s point of view from the system to individuals. Focus on political leadership cuts far too close to the system, so after Vietnam the story became that of the individual soldier.
One heard less and less about Westmoreland or Johnson or Nixon. The stories became those of individual soldiers and their angst and tribulation. Perversely, Vietnam veterans themselves (including many who never saw combat in Vietnam) adopted this portrayal of themselves as the primary victims of a war of occupation in which they themselves were the occupiers.
Susan Jeffords, in her essay “Telling the War Story”, says, “This trend away from the war itself to the people who fought in it shifts the war from a national to a personal experience, making it possible for viewers to forget the specific historical and political forces that caused the war.”
This shift fits nicely with “support the troops” appeals that oblige the public to drop all critique of leadership or interrogation of geopolitical motives to ensure we don’t disempower our “loved ones” in uniform, or encourage their attackers. We are allowed to have differing individual opinions about the war, provided they are superficial enough, but expected to rally round our team once the war is on (ignoring in the most recent case of Iraq that low intensity war had never ceased against Iraq for over a decade).
Gender iconography was combined with this approach in the manufacture of the Jessica Lynch story. Ideally, from the point of view of political rulers, the redefinition circuit is only complete after the geopolitical war is reconstructed out of the social sphere and into the individual, whereupon the individual is iconographed in order to be reintegrated with a mythology that substitutes itself for social reality in the public imagination.
With the able assistance of the commoditized American press, the American public was treated to an irresistible series of lurid and titillating feature attractions that combined the patriarchy, racism, and chauvinism that form the internal structure of American national mythology. There is a great deal to be learned about our notions of the binary opposition of masculinity-femininity if we unpack these stories and identify the multiple representations of Jessica Lynch.
I don’t know a great deal about Jessica Lynch, and neither do most people. In any case, what is most revealing about the Jessica Lynch saga is not what it reveals about Lynch, but what it reveals about American attitudes regarding sex, race, and war. New York Times columnist Frank Rich insightfully called the Jessica Lynch story an American ink blot test.
Jessica Lynch was raised just south of the Ohio River valley in Palestine, West Virginia. The Little Kanawha River and Hughes River run nearby, and this region of Appalachia has become popular for backpackers and conoeists who can afford these hobbies that most West Virginia “Palestinians” cannot.
Extractive industries, in particular coal and timber, have long colonized Appalachia. As these industries have become ever more mechanized, coal colonies like Palestine have suffered high rates of unemployment. The mountaintop removal method of coal mining has reduced the mining labor force to 10 percent of its former levels while it trashes and toxifies the land.
The Southern Regional Council used to publish poverty maps of the south, reaching from West Virginia to Texas, with color codes for each county that reflected percentages of total populations in poverty. There was a corresponding map showing percentage of Black population by county. Taking these two maps together, there was a high degree of correlation between Black counties along the cotton producing Black Belt and high poverty rates, and a strong correspondence of heavily Hispano-Latina counties and poverty in Texas. There is only one region that has an overwhelming white majority where the poverty figures are extremely high. That is an area reaching from Scott and Fentress Counties in the mountains of northeastern Tennessee, across Eastern Kentucky, and across all of West Virginia. There is only one county in West Virginia with poverty rates below 15 percent, Putnam.
Wirt County West Virginia has only five small towns, Munday, Elizabeth, Creston, Brohard, and Palestine. Wirt County and neighboring county Ritchie are more fortunate than some of their adjacent counties. Wirt and Ritchie have poverty rates–using the federal government’s grossly understated criteria–only around 29 percent. Calhoun and Gilmer Counties nearby have poverty rates above 35 percent.
This region of white Appalachia is rivaled on the SRC maps in its overall poverty only by the Arkansas-Louisiana-Mississippi Delta and the border region of southwest Texas. These maps clearly show three economic colonies in the southern United States–the Black Belt, the Southwest, and coalfield Appalachia.
What makes Appalachia different from the other two is its strong cultural identification with being “white.”
Slavery and the terrible political power of the planter class drove poor whites off of fertile lowlands to scratch out an existence on the rocky slopes of these ancient mountains. Then the fossil fuel age began and the carbon energy, trapped for millions of years underground–and now beneath the blue haze, the little subsistence patches, and the lush green forests–was monetized.
The mechanical cotton gins of the south and the northern industrial manufactories that were being born out of the belly of slave cotton were insatiable in their appetite for coal. The aspiring coal barons arrived with their gun thugs and the full backing of the United States government, and that region of Appalachia was subjugated to King Coal, the younger sibling of King Cotton.
In all these regions this colonized status carries with it the paradoxical combination of extreme backwardness and progressive resistance, to include archaic gender constructions alongside evolving ones. There are also powerful solidarities based on shared oppression. Millenarian religion sprang out of a sense of hopelessness in the face of this subjugation even as some of the most militant, and first multi-racial, unions in the country fought back against the bosses, sometimes with firearms.
John Sayles’ matchless film Matewan portrayed these contradictions in relating the story of a 1920 union-management war in Mingo County that culminated in a shootout in the town of Matewan in which ten people were killed. Sayles himself made a cameo appearance as a chialistic preacher, who interpreted the millenarian Baptist cosmology on behalf of the ruling class. The film’s narrator was a teenage preacher who sermonized for the union using the same cosmology. And women, who neither bossed nor worked in the mines, were mobilized as a kind of underground support cell during the conflict, transforming their roles from passive observers to active insurgents.
Many that formerly toiled in the coal mines, thrown off the land as subsistence farmers and into the pits as subterranean proletarians, are now being steadily expelled from the economy by more “efficient” technology and the coal capitalists’ overarching desire to break or subjugate the unions. Like their counterparts in other internal colonies, young people look at their situation and select from the menu of options that seem available. Some nurture tragic dreams of celebrity. Some deal drugs and then sink themselves into addiction. A few compete for the handful of public sector jobs that are available in a shrinking economy. And some get a free ticket out of town, the offer of some training and money for an education, and a regular paycheck, by joining the military.
This is the real story of Jessica Lynch which I will combine with inferences and speculation, but inferences and speculation from the perspective of both soldier and leftist, and not the perspective of those who have serially reduced this young woman to symbols.
She wanted to teach school. She needed money to get her education. She signed on the dotted line and entered the contradictory world that is the United States Army. There could have been worse things.
Pornographers troll for people like Jessica Lynch: slender, blonde, with an air of pretty next-door innocence the degradation of which titillates the main consumers of pornography: men. Wealthy men are also quick to colonize young women like Jessica Lynch as models, mistresses, and trophy wives. Some of the men from her own home might have sought to subject her within a patriarchal marriage.
So even in the masculinist culture of the military, she might find an element of juridicial equality. This belief leads many young women to choose the military. A supply clerk is a supply clerk, ungendered. A degree of independence was accessible within that institutional framework, along with some job training, a written guarantee of some money for college, and a way out of Palestine. Then she could go to school and get a certificate to get a public-sector job teaching kindergarten.
As she was undergoing her initial training as a supply clerk, and during her initial assignment to the 507th Maintenance Company in Ft. Bliss, Texas–now immersed without knowing its import within another region like Palestine, the most deeply colonized region of Southwest Texas–plans were being drafted and re-drafted for the military conquest of Iraq. Kentucky and West Virginia weren’t the only places with the misfortune of sitting atop colossal fields of the combustible hydrocarbons required to feed industrial capitalist expansion.
Jessica Lynch was 19 when she was deployed to Kuwait to support an impending invasion of Iraq. Like so many young people for whom the military is a sectoral economic strategy, she was unschooled in the dynamics of capital accumulation and imperialism. Her frame of reference–like the vast majority of white Americans–was what Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz describes as “the U.S. Origin Myth,” which portrays the development of the United States as some axiomatic force for good, and which is underwritten by the assumption of white supremacy and “white man’s burden.” In the context of this Origin Myth, there is no question of the rightness of invading other nations to “civilize” and “democratize” them. Young people, white or otherwise, have not been equipped by their education to interrogate these assumptions–quite the opposite. With this background uninterrogated, they were simply “doing their job” by participating in an invasion.
She was also unschooled about the patriarchal dynamics of this system.
The invasion was delayed by international resistance, and that resistance resulted in the loss of the Turkish and Saudi fronts.
Almost the entire United States ground force was forced to drive north into Iraq along a single axis out of Kuwait that would bifurcate into two columns along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The initiation of the invasion was now being conducted during sandstorm season. And Iraqi resistance fighters were now able to concentrate their pinprick attacks along a single avenue of approach.
On March 21, an inconceivable mass of military vehicles crawled northwest along the main axis of advance, with units blending and weaving among each other in the open terrain, a small unit commander’s accountability nightmare. Jessica Lynch was driving a 5-ton truck with an equipment trailer attached. The sandstorms that had plagued the invasion taskforce left a heavy residue of dust in every moving part of every machine and weapon, settled in the corners of eyes and the folds of skin, and insinuated itself between clothing and skin. The frantic movement schedules and the sand undermined mechanical maintenance, troop comfort, and attentiveness.
Lynch’s unit was supporting the 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division, the main combat force aimed ultimately at Baghdad. The 507th was not a combat unit and they never anticipated combat. The intelligence summaries issued by Central Command (CENTCOM), still reflecting the triumphalist expectations of Donald Rumsfeld and the optimistic predictions of Rumsfeld’s con-man advisor Ahmad Chalabi, said that Iraqi soldiers would surrender on sight. The U.S. troops were directed that Iraqi soldiers were to be allowed to keep their weapons, presumably so their own officers could control them.
The convoy went non-stop for a grueling 48 hours, using their blackout-drive infrared headlights and night vision goggles during darkness. They were gritty-eyed, nodding, and exhausted. Lynch’s truck, like many others, casualties of the sandstorms and the schedules, died and was hitched to a giant recovery vehicle. She was put aboard her company first sergeant’s Humvee, where she could nod off fitfully while the bleary-eyed driver, another young woman named Lori Pietsewa, fought sleep behind the wheel.
As they approached the outskirts of Nasiriyah on March 23, where units were now channeled along narrower roads and convoys achieved a degree of separation. The sun was not yet up when the first sergeant’s Humvee, leading the 507th convoy, encountered a U.S. traffic control checkpoint at the intersection of Highway 1, their main avenue of advance, and Highway 7 that went due north toward the center of Nasiriyah.
No one has established exactly who was working on that checkpoint, or what their communications had been, or how exhausted they might have been. It was dark. They were stupefied with fatigue. The first sergeant and the 507th company commander, Captain Troy King, had GPS navigation systems.
They claim they had no maps as backups for when these hi-tech gadgets lied or failed. But the truth is no one in the 507th expected that there would be any need to actually navigate. They were part of a growling river of northbound steel and diesel, and these checkpoints were there to direct them as compliant traffic.
Pietsewa and the first sergeant, Robert Dowdy, looked at some nameless military policeman, and he raised his hand toward Highway 7, directing Jessica Lynch into a future of terror, dislocation, huckster iconography, and racialized patriarchal culture war.
The sun rose over the 507th creeping steadily along Highway 7, its addled leadership now making excuses for discrepancies in the GPS systems. No military leader likes to admit when a mistake has been made, especially when they are still unsure whether it’s been made or not. They are like the proud father at the wheel of the family car not yet prepared to admit that he is lost. Surely, that day, as the 507th passed through not army but Marine units, the doubt went deeper. But they were traveling generally north. They hadn’t crossed the Euphrates, which was there like a great geographical backstop. The commander bit back his self-doubt while he tried to puzzle out the contradictions between his GPS readings and an operations order that was jumbled in his sleep-deprived brain, and continued on.
In the morning light, they found themselves driving into Nasiriyah with 33 sleep-starved support troops and 16 vehicles. Rising up around them were buildings where most people were apparently still abed. Then before them was a bridge.
They crossed over it, but after a couple of miles they realized that they had crossed the Euphrates River. Iraqis began to appear on the streets. Captain King then ordered them to turn the convoy around. They were definitely in the wrong place.
Vehicle traffic began to clutter the streets as the convoy went through the clumsy business of turning 16 military vehicles about in the tight thoroughfares of downtown Nasiriyah.
There were Iraqis carrying weapons.
They began to pass actual manned Iraqi tanks.
Looks were exchanged.
But the CENTCOM intelligence summary had said the Iraqis would either be friendly or they would surrender, and the 507th was not a combat unit. Their greatest desire now was to be back in the company of a real combat unit. Adrenaline began to make headway against their deep muscular fatigue.
At just after 7 AM they could hear a fierce firefight in the distance. The Marines they had passed earlier were in contact. Some began to wonder, if they will fire on the Marine infantry and armor, won’t they fire on this collection of mechanics and clerks?
The convoy made several false turns in Nasiriyah, becoming ever more confused about their location, and their disorganization became evident to the Iraqis. As they attempted to reorganize themselves, now split over two narrow streets and trying to turn around, an Iraqi pickup truck turned around to make a slow second pass of the convoy, two men inside now frankly assessing the disorganized American unit. In a few minutes, a second pickup with a mounted machinegun wheeled past them and around a corner. One portion of the convoy was still out of sight from the other. Pulses were now fluttering and mouths were dry, as they began to sense that they had stepped out of everything they knew and everything they had trained for.
They were prey, and they were in trouble.
A few bullets suddenly snapped past them from buildings on both sides of the street. Orders were shouted and radioed. “Get out!” Then the sprinkle became the storm.
Bullets and then RPGs began slamming into and around the vehicles. As they frantically tried to maneuver their vehicles, Iraqis threw tires into the street to block escape routes. Down another street, a bus was being pulled forward to block that avenue of escape. Dowdy jumped off the Humvee and attempted to direct the other vehicles back into a semblance of order to escape the intensifying ambush. Moments later he was dead. Two soldiers whose vehicle had been disabled leaped aboard Pietsewa’s vehicle.
Pietsewa, the two who’d leapt aboard, and Lynch careened wildly over the street as if trying to actually dodge the bullets, then Pietsewa lost control. Jessica Lynch was gripping whatever she could find inside the careening vehicle. The Humvee smashed to a halt under the trailer hitch of one of the convoy’s destroyed semi-tractor trucks.
Jessica Lynch saw Pietsewa and the others vaguely, unable to assess their conditions or her own. She managed to get off the Humvee where she fell to her knees and began praying, then for Jessica Lynch the day was over. The concussion from a gaping head wound sustained from the crash caused her to lose consciousness. There is a contradiction here yet unresolved, a story that her rifle jammed, which would mean she attempted to put it into action… but in this series of presumptions, I am presuming from the severity of her injuries that she was in shock and it was unlikely she attempted to operate an assault rifle. It happens in the movies, but this was no movie. Her ankle was dislocated. Her femur was fractured and releasing blood in to the muscle of her thigh. Her arm was broken, and she had a large, copiously bleeding laceration on her head. Pietsewa, her best friend, and a woman of the Hopi Nation, was already in deep shock.
Part of the convoy, with Marine assistance, escaped.
Once the attack was over, the Iraqi troops took Lynch and Pietsewa to the Nasiriyah military hospital. Had they not, she would have bled to death. Pietsewa died of her injuries.
Dr. Jamal Kadhim Shwail and Dr Harith al-Houssona examined her. She was in shock with precariously low blood pressure. Not knowing the extent of the musculoskeletal injuries or whether there was spinal damage, they could not afford to jostle her to remove the layers of combat gear, uniform, body armor, and web gear. They had to use bandage scissors to cut away the equipment and clothing, which was still fully secured on her body. She was infused with fluids, including three units of whole blood–two donated on the spot by Iraqi hospital staff–catheterized, splinted, her head sutured, and transported to Saddam hospital, also in Nasiriyah, for surgery on her dangerously fractured femur.
Dr. Mahdi Khafazi performed the surgery.
Al Jazeera published photos from Nasiriyah, including pictures of the dead and captured Americans. The U.S. military would eventually attack the al Jazeera offices (as they had also done in Afghanistan) for daring to publish the true face of war. In those pictures were prisoners from the ambush of the 507th: Specialist 4 Edgar Adan Hernandez, 21, of Mission, Texas; Specialist 4 Joseph Neal Hudson, 23, of Alamogordo, New Mexico; Specialist 4 Shoshana Nyree Johnson, 30, of El Paso, Texas; Private First Class Patrick Wayne Miller, 23, of Walter, Kansas and Sergeant James Joseph Riley, 31, of Pennsauken, New Jersey.
The fear and pain of Specialist Johnson, a young African American woman who had been shot in both legs before capture, was almost palpable in her picture. Shoshana Johnson’s story would cross Jessica Lynch’s again.
During Lynch’s convalescence, Dr. Harith Houssona, a young 24-year-old physician, and several of the nurses befriended Lynch. Iraqi military commanders considered her a prisoner of war but, given the severity of her injuries, gave the hospital staff wide latitude and little oversight. Seven days into the ordeal, most of the Iraqi military left and Houssona ordered Jessica Lynch to be returned to the American military. One Iraqi officer and an ambulance driver named Sabah Khazaal tried to transport Lynch back to the Americans.
The reasoning was that an ambulance is protected under the Geneva Conventions and wouldn’t be fired upon. It didn’t work. When the ambulance was within 300 meters of the American army checkpoint, U.S. soldiers opened fire on it, nearly killing Lynch after she was well on her way to a successful convalescence and repatriation to the United States.
It is probably coincidental that a detachment of SEALs and Rangers were deployed for a “special” mission on April Fools Day. Several things were special about it.
First, special teams like this are generally employed on sensitive missions, for which the tactics and techniques are classified.
Second, special teams like this, given the classified techniques and tactics they use, would not take along a civilian cameraman, who would both record classified techniques unnecessarily and be a possible impediment to the operation.
Third, there was not a threat for this special secret mission that warranted the use of these classified tactics and techniques.
It was well known to American military intelligence, by the time that the so-called rescue of Jessica Lynch was planned, that the Iraqi military was abandoning Nasiriyah as tactically untenable. Civilians were moving freely between Nasiriyah and American positions on the outskirts of the city. Wily opportunists were among them, one in particular a lawyer named Mohammed al-Rehaief. The official story is that al-Rehaief reported Lynch’s “captivity” to the Americans, and CENTCOM then organized a special ops rescue mission.
Given what we know now, including that al-Rehaief has become rich and lives in the United States, it seems likely that al-Rehaief, whose wife worked in the hospital, told him about Lynch. He went to the Americans, who then began debriefing him.
The war was going very badly for American forces at that point with Rumsfeld’s feeble new doctrine and his incessant and counter-productive micromanagement. Doubt was emerging in the anesthetized consciousness of America, and to keep that patient asleep, the War Department needed a publicity boost.
Al-Rehaief was offered a free trip to America for him and his family and a life of fame and adulation in exchange for a modicum of cooperation.
He was sent back to the hospital to gather specific information on floor plans and door locations, while the “special” unit began planning the “rescue” of PFC Lynch. The Public Affairs Officer of CENTCOM was put on high alert, and the whole Department of Defense Wag-the-Dog Bureau went into action, including the Rendon Group.
The Rendon Group has been around through both the Clinton and Bush II administrations. It is not the only public relations outfit feeding at the public trough for the purpose of shoveling bullshit at the very public who signs its checks. But Rendon is emblematic.
Rendon stage managed much of the run-up to the current quagmire in Iraq, to include being largely responsible for the organization of the new Iraqi quisling regime–dubbed by Rendon the “Iraqi National Congress,” complete with the changed regime head and convicted embezzler, Ahmad Chalabi. (Said one unnamed State Department official in a moment of anonymous candor, “Were it not for Rendon, the Chalabi group wouldn’t even be on the map.”)
Neither would Jessica Lynch’s “rescue,” because it never would have happened. It was a staged military operation… staged for the entertainment media with the purpose of injecting some war optimism into the American mass consciousness. There never was a rescue. There was a made-for-television mini-movie.
Rendon has picked up where Hill & Knowlton, the Gulf War I perception managers, left off. I people recall, Hill & Knowlton, on contract with the US government, hatched the Kuwaiti-babies-thrown-from-their-incubators-by-Iraqi-soldier s story that mobilized massive press and public support for the Bush I invasion. Of course, the story turned out to be complete horseshit, but it proved so persistent that an HBO movie about Gulf War I last year actually echoed it again as fact. It should not surprise anyone that Torie Clarke, Pentagon spokesperson during the stop-and-start blitz at the beginning of the latest invasion, is a former Hill & Knowlton staffer.
More and more, the right-wing is bringing women into the limelight as spokespersons for their policies.
Rendon Group was founded by the former Democratic Party operator, John Rendon. Rendon Group worked alongside Hill & Knowlton during Gulf War I, inside Kuwait, where they learned quickly how to mine America’s consumerist witlessness.
Rendon even boasted about it to the National Security Council, saying, “If any of you either participated in the liberation of Kuwait City … or if you watched it on television, you would have seen hundreds of Kuwaitis waving small American flags. Did you ever stop to wonder how the people of Kuwait City, after being held hostage for seven long and painful months, were able to get hand-held American flags? And for that matter, the flags of other coalition countries? Well, you now know the answer. That was one of my jobs.”
Did you ever stop to wonder…
Well, no. We don’t. That’s why we keep signing checks for dull-witted gangsters pretending to be statesmen. Hill & Knowlton actually published a pack of lies disguised as a book, called The Rape of Kuwait, that was sent directly to troops prior to launching Desert Storm, presumably to remove their inhibitions and imbue them with the proper fighting spirit by dehumanizing their new enemy.
The Rape of Kuwait is an interesting choice of words. Rape comes up again and again in warfare, on the one hand as an unspeakable reality, and on the other as part of a patriarchal morality tale, as we shall see further down.
The shifting fictional account that happened to Jessica Lynch was likely a fabrication that originated in the White House’s Office of Global Communications–an office almost run by Rendon people. (Rendon’s Chief Financial Officer is Sandy Libby, wife of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.) They generated “news stories” to be released through CENTCOM and elsewhere faster than the press could keep up in order to push deadlines and competition and inhibit fact-checking. Then the stories come apart, sometimes in mere days or hours, but the fabrications are allowed to “linger” without comment.
“Linger” is a wag-the-dog industry word and a concept employed by military psychological operations (Psyops).
This tactic is combined with language/message control–explaining why masculine bluster like “Americans are not the running kind” can show up in two separate speeches in the same day by different members of the administration–redefining all opposition to US actions as terrorists, and building false associations through repetition: “echoing,” another industry word. (How many times did we hear “September 11,” “terrorists,” and “Saddam Hussein” in the same breath.) This is a Psyops technique, a method to “construct memory,” and the “target audience” is not the enemy, and not the “indigenous population.” It is us.
When they get caught, they reconfigure the story with elliptical, some would say obtuse, language, then let it linger some more. Weapons of mass destruction become a “weapons program,” a “seeking” of WMD. George Tenet’s CIA “had questions” about the British forgery… er, dossier. By the time this is published, who will remember the Jessica Lynch fable, or care?
Some of these constructed tales are so lurid they would defy imagination if people had any.
But the American press, always a bastion of healthy skepticism and critical thought, lapped up the Jessica Lynch fable like Basset hounds. The prefabricated story was ready at had for the press pool at CENTCOM headquarters in Qatar, and they dutifully echoed a dramatic morality play of chauvinism–national then male–around the world.
The pretty, plucky, white American female soldier fights off the degenerate, blood-drinking, cowardly (that is, feminized), sub-human Iraqis, emptying her magazine into several of the evil-doers until, multiply shot and stabbed, she is overwhelmed and taken prisoner. CENTCOM solemnly left the question of sexual assault open to let the public imagination run with it. Wicked Fedayeen interrogators reportedly cuffed her around in the hospital.
Then, the epitome of moral American manhood, Special Operations, enters the set to rescue our heroine, fallen beneath the assaults of the unmanly Arabs, reaffirming the roles of male and female fully-human Americans, and the great chain of being is reconstituted in all its proper hierarchies.
To paraphrase Susan Jeffords in her essay, “Telling the War Story”, at a time when American military invincibility is being called into question by Iraqi resistance, a display of heroic, militarized male power can provide a “compensatory national identity.”
Roll subtext: “Never overestimate the intelligence of the general public.”–P. T. Barnum
Susan Schmidt and Vernon Leob of the Washington Post were positively fawning on April 10 when they regurgitated the “leaked” story of Jessica Lynch’s fight to the death with deviant Iraqis and her subsequent rescue, complete with subtitles like, “Fighting to the Death,” “Talk About Spunk,” and “Classic Special Ops.”
The latter refers to that “daring special operations raid” that “rescued” Lynch.
The story “echoed” breathlessly across the airwaves and the pages of ostensibly respectable magazines and newspapers. The public memory was “constructed” through repetition. As questions were raised, the story was allowed to “linger.”
On May 15th, the Guardian said, “Her rescue will go down as one of the most stunning pieces of news management yet conceived. It provides a remarkable insight into the real influence of Hollywood producers on the Pentagon’s media managers, and has produced a template from which America hopes to present its future wars.” Americans don’t read the Guardian. They still believe the rescue fiction.
In point of fact, the Special Operations raid was conducted with zero resistance, exactly as they expected, given that they were perfectly aware the Iraqi combatants had already withdrawn. But to give it the feel of authenticity, they cut the power to the hospital (putting every patient there in danger), explosively breached doors that hospital staff would have willingly opened for them, and even flex-cuffed two hospital employees, taking one prisoner for several days, and two patients, one with an intravenous infusion.
That was edited out of the film version.
Then the doubt as the Lynch fight-to-the-death story collapsed, and the ellipsis came. Lynch’s actual experiences were “still being sorted out,” said CENTCOM. They were obscured by “the fog of war,” a fog generated from the White House Office of Global Communications.
The Rendonesque spinmeisters, taking their cue from Hollywood, manned by men who clumsily tail social trends like commodified-media ersatz feminism, constructed their tale of the spunky woman soldier, kind of a GI Jane meets Courage Under Fire, and ran headlong into an unexpected red-meat reactionary backlash. Any woman who donned a uniform was a manifestation of something called “radical feminism,” which meant anything remotely resembling feminism at all. Lynch the late imperialist token woman hero ran headlong into Lynch the violator of primitive partriarchy’s weapons taboo. America the diverse!
Patriarchy doesn’t assign women one monolithic script, but many, with every script developed safely within a phallocentric construction of sexuality.
As Zillah Eisenstein notes in her essay “Disciplining Female Bodies for Khaki”, as part of its restless renegotiation of sexuality, capitalist patriarchy pluralizes femininities in relation to their corresponding, also evolving, and dominant opposite poles, masculinities.
Lynch had been grotesquely exploited by army Public Affairs, but now she was going to undergo multiple transformations. Like women in all situations, she was one female body who would now be plurally defined against a plurality of masculinities serving a diversity of interests. Her subordination as a woman, her femininity, was not abolished. It was diversified, like a product line that is losing market share.
As quickly as the fiction of the fight to the death was released, liberal feminists came forward to seize this proof of women’s fitness for combat. She was GI Jane. This backfired, as the battle to the death story unraveled, and the liberals were silenced by the misogynists arguing against women’s fitness for combat.
[This is a bogus argument either way, engaged with arsenals of competing empirical claims about upper-body strength and other near-irrelevancies, given that there is not a single combat skill that doesn’t have its corollary in non-military endeavors and which has not been practiced from the very beginning by women. Harriet Tubman led so many forays behind Confederate lines during the Civil War, including commanding units in combat, that she earned the nickname General Tubman. Tens of thousands of Yugoslav partisan women fought valiantly against Ustasha, Chetniks, and Nazis by turns. Soviet women flew fighter aircraft and were among the top combat snipers for the Red Army in the war against Hitler, with one Soviet schoolteacher single-handedly sending 93 Aryan warrior-males of the Wehrmacht on to Valhalla. These are just a few examples. It’s not even a real question whether women can perform in combat. They can. History has already settled that question quite decisively, yet another reason why history can be so dangerous and has to be displaced by mythology.]
Jessica Lynch, the person, was hidden away, while her definitions were played.
Why didn’t the press cover the men who died fighting? Why did Jessica Lynch receive a Bronze Star? Why didn’t anyone point out that Pietsewa, a woman, “lost control” under fire? These agenda-driven questions proliferated.
Sex and war are hot buttons.
Jessica Lynch’s defenders from the latter attack have in many ways reduced her to a poor, picked on girl, which while true in some respect is also another script… it’s inescapable. Jessica Lynch was chosen because she was a white woman-soldier, and the issue became a can of worms for the same reason.
The perception managers of the fight-to-the-death story, in trying to mobilize “feminist” sympathy as support for the war, now spotlighted (if we were looking) how patriarchal society has to reduce women in order to retain male hegemonic claims on this key institution, the military.
The father of a male soldier–who had reportedly fought fiercely before being killed–excoriated Lynch when her book deal was signed. So did a host of others. Now she would become a gold digger, a woman ruthlessly exploiting the deaths of brave male soldiers to make money.
Rick Bragg–a white man–was fired from the New York Times for almost plagiarizing a freeleancer’s material and pretending he was reporting from on the scene, when he was clearly not.
Bragg cut a million dollar deal with Knopf publishers to write Lynch’s “authorized” biography, which raises the suspicion that he swindled Lynch into signing a contract in which she relinquished her control over the final product. Or not. I’m not here to idealize Lynch or anyone else. I don’t know. A million dollars is a lot of money to turn down for a poor family from Palestine, West Virginia. A million dollars is just a lot of money.
The book, I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story, patched together as many details as Bragg could string together, then added a twist to pump up the sales. Jessica Lynch, it claimed, was raped by her captors.
This claim, it turns out, has no evidence to support it, and the Jessica Lynch doll (that is, whatever collection of interests now acting as her public surrogate) is reported to have another bout of amnesia about this ostensible rape. The doctors at Nasiriyah hospital who examined her in great detail, to include catheterizing her, said that (1) there was no sign of sexual assault, (2) her clothing was still buttoned, zipped, and intact when she arrived at the hospital, and (3) her condition was so grave from her injuries that a sexual assault would have killed her.
Aside from selling books, why rape? The answer will take us across the terrain where gender and race tread together in the landscape of the American psyche.
Rape happens, and rape happens in war as well as peace. Men rape women. Male sexuality is socially constructed, understood, and accepted as aggression. “Getting fucked” is still metaphorical slang for being attacked. Men still boast about their sexual exploits as “tearing that pussy up.” These are not aberrations. This is the norm. And this is not news.
The frequency of rape is amplified by war, but it can be amplified so readily because patriarchal culture is rape culture. Masculinity that is associated with violence that defines the sexual subject (male) as aggressive, and describes sex as aggression, necessarily defines the sexual object (female) as an object of (sexual) aggression.
Women, nature, and brown people’s societies are “naturalized” in the imperial Cartesian cosmology, the objects of male subjectivity, the objects of conquest (often referred to as penetration) and control. When an imperium requires war to continue its exploitation, the (masculinized) military as an institution assumes greater centrality, taking the rest of society along with it by further militarizing masculinity. When sectoral wars occur, this dialectic of militarism and masculinity happens too, and the frequency of rape is amplified.
The merger of violence and sexuality that is already there in countless forms is suddenly released from the legitimizing constraints of civil association, and men take their opportunity to rape, to actualize sex as aggression and aggression as sex and therein actualize their own masculinity.
But rape also has propaganda value, and here is where we have to take great care. Just as we deal with the intricacies of separating anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism, we have to separate the denial of rape culture, about which women and their male allies are rightly outraged and in motion, from identifying actual falsifications about rape. This is an extremely important critical challenge as imperialist patriarchy becomes ever more deft and sophisticated in retaining its ideological hegemony.
In Cynthia Enloe’s Maneuvers, remarking on the breakup of Yugoslavia, she said, “Rape has been used as one method to terrorize civilian populations in villages and forcing ethnic groups to leave [according to the U.N. “Investigation into Rapes in Bosnia,” which published its report in 1993]. … Serb paramilitary units would enter a village. Several women would be raped in the presence of others so that word would spread throughout the village and a climate of fear was created. … Those male villagers who had wanted to stay then decided to leave with their women and children in order to protect them from being raped. … Often, men were deported or fled. Women were then often raped in their own homes or taken from their hopes to another location to be raped … (p. 140)”
This is an example of unwitting collaboration with one form of patriarchy, and with imperialism, that happens when seeking “evidence” to support one’s case in a singularized issue, in this case the characterization of the military as a dehistoricized thing-in-itself with no reference to which military, under what circumstances. The fact is that in some militaries rape was not tolerated. And every story of rape cannot be accepted uncritically.
A thorough review of the breakup of Yugoslavia reveals in short order that many of the lurid tales of mass rape and “rape camps” were in fact not true, that these stories targeted almost exclusively those crimes alleged against Serbian combatants, and that they were used to mobilize not only Western feminist outrage, but–and this is even more significant, I think–also the paternalistic outrage of men as women’s father-protectors.
There were rapes in Yugoslavia, and they were committed on all sides. But that does not constitute a “rape camp.”
Yoshie Furuhashie, a feminist scholar with whom I have corresponded off and on for about four years, had the temerity to point out on a feminist listserv (that was quickly taken over by men) that these stories were questionable. A male on the list replied with reflexive outrage, “What proof do you have that the Serbs did not use mass rape as a conscious policy of genocide and terror in Bosnia and Kosovo?”
Note the detailed specificity of his construction.
There is an argument from intimidation in this challenge where he not only demands that Yoshie prove a negative (Prove that there is no God.), but he issues the challenge with a kind of sanctimonious outrage that implies any question of the veracity of the rape camp claim is tantamount to holocaust denial.
Yoshie cited numerous sources that demonstrated these were demonizing fictions, targeting Western feminists as an audience, to mobilize support for an imperial war to further break up Yugoslavia disguised as a war against demonic Serbs.
The demonization of the Serbs with this strategy is little different than the similar demonization of African Americans and German Jews, also systematically and effectively portrayed as sub-human sexual predators. Now it was the Serbs’ turn.
Diane Johnstone, former European editor of In These Times (“Seeing Yugoslavia Through a Dark Glass: Politics, Media, and the Ideology of Globalization”, 1999) and Karen Talbot, of Covert Action Quarterly (“Backing Up Globalization with Military Might”, 1999), both journalists with a high index of suspicion when imperialist adventures dovetail so nicely with shocking stories of women-as-victims issued by the male-dominated imperial press, looked into the stories of “rape camps” and found that for the hundreds of stories about them, there appeared to be a singular original source: Ruder Finn, Inc., yet another public relations outfit, al la Rendon Group and Hill & Knowlton, working for the US government through proxies in Bosnia and Croatia.
Ruder Finn convinced the world of the existence of Serbian rape camps, which was disproved by Martin Lettmayer, a German journalist who spent months trying to find any actual evidence of these rape camps, and came up empty handed. Nick Mamatas (“The Public Relations Firms of Dictators”, 2001), describes one public relations coup manufactured by Ruder Finn: “Pictures can fool the world, and recently, one of them did. In 1992, an Independent Television News team led by journalist Penny Marshall shot footage of men staring out from behind barbed wire. They were Bosnian prisoners inside a Serbian concentration camp, ITN explained. The picture was very misleading: the ITN photographers were actually inside the compound, and their subjects were outside the fence, looking in. LM, a libertarian magazine that had been founded by some disaffected former Marxists, pointed this out, and was promptly sued out of existence thanks to Britain’s stringent libel laws.”
Ruder Finn’s president, Jim Harff, unapologetically proud of his accomplishments, boasted in public interviews that his firm had targeted liberals, feminists, and Jews, wagering on a generalized ignorance of Balkan history, in their efforts to gain support for Euro-American interventions in the Balkans.
Catherine Sameh, in Against the Current, “The Rebel Girl: The War, The Women, The West,” responded to similar attempts of the Bush administration to appeal to feminists for support of the war against Afghanistan:
“Let me be clear that I DO NOT in any way support the Taliban regime as defenders of Afghanistan against neocolonial domination, nor do I endorse a silence from the left on this issue. I strongly condemn the Taliban’s oppression of women and all Afghan citizens, as I believe any thoughtful antiwar, global justice movement must.
“But I do oppose a decontextualized, exclusively Western discussion of women under the Taliban or the position of women in the Middle East (as if there were one position). From Oprah to “Frontline” to the Feminist Majority, the discussion spins on a highly out-of-context, sensationalist view of Islamic societies and Muslim people_which simultaneously reinforces the Islamic-fundamentalist framing of their political regimes as the one true Islam, and the Orientalist framing of Arab and Muslim societies that further silences women’s voices and agency.”
This tactic is proving effective in many venues, and the paradox of it is that while it is directed at feminists, it also serves as an appeal to an anachronistic patriarchal protectionism that often defines women as sentimentalized property.
Jessica Lynch is now being yet again redefined by Bragg’s totally unsubstantiated allegations of rape. Rape by an enemy is the usurpation of male privilege by a subhuman, and it must be avenged to restore the status of the victim in the eyes of the father-husband. Rape becomes symbolic of the enemy.
Men have to “protect” women, and oftentimes, “our” women. This is the basis of the Black rapist stereotype that was used to overthrow Reconstruction and enforce Jim Crow.
Andrea Dworkin writes of lynching, “The black male, in the South hunted at night to be castrated and/or lynched, becomes in the racist United States the carrier of danger, the carrier of rape. The use of a racially despised type of male as a scapegoat, a symbolic figure embodying the sexuality of all men, is a common male-supremacist strategy. …. And so, among the women, night is the time of sex and also of race: racial exploitation and sexual exploitation are fused, indivisible. Night and black: sex and race: the black men are blamed for what all men do…”
In Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and its Legacy, edited by David Cecelski (UNC Press, 1998), describing the North Carolina coup d’etat against the fusion governments of Black Republicans and white Populists that signaled the last nail driven in the coffin of Reconstruction, there is account after account of how the specter of the Black Rapist was the absolute centerpiece of white Democrat propaganda to marshal and mobilize ad hoc white militias against “Black rule.” As Dworkin points out, this is a “common male supremacist strategy.”
The Origin Myth–based fundamentally on white supremacy–asserted itself in the minds of the white Populists and when given the choice between their class peers among Blacks and the white ruling class, they chose the latter. (This is a lesson we cannot afford to forget about any form of American populism.)
This provision of outrage is essential to deploying troops into battle on imperial adventures. While wars in defense of one’s home, or wars defending oneself against extermination are clear and unambiguous to combatants, wars of offense generally require the emotional fuel of a morality tale. It needn’t have much of a half life either.
When I was in Haiti, my team allowed themselves to feel the outrage at the FAdH baton beatings of civilians when the mission was still defined as one that might involve combat. Once the likelihood of combat passed, however, within a month, several of my subordinates were longing for the baton-wielding FAdH and would themselves have gleefully laid into the raucous crowds of turbulent black bodies.
Which brings us to Shoshana Johnson, Black, daughter of a Panamanian immigrant, and one of the captives from the ambush of the 507th. There was never any reference, however elliptical, to the possibility of Shoshana Johnson being raped, as there was for Jessica Lynch even before CENTCOM learned her fate. Indeed the issue of Black women being raped is extremely dangerous in the United States because it hits too close to the centuries-long American tradition of white masters raping their slaves. This is not part of the U.S. Origin Myth. Quite the contrary.
There is much being made, and rightly so, of the disparate treatment of Jessica Lynch and Shoshana Johnson, but little remarked upon is what binds the two together in mass consciousness.
They are both women. White supremacy has been sniffed out by both sides of the race question regarding Johnson and Lynch (who reportedly liked each other), judging by the outrage of one side and the defensiveness of the other.
The issue of racial disparity is red hot and will fought out in other venues, and I stand with Shoshana Johnson in her demand to be treated equally, holding the military and white supremacy as systems responsible, and not Jessica Lynch.
It is more important here, perhaps, to point out what they had in common, and to include Lori Pitsewa: an Appalachian woman, an African American woman, and a Hopi woman; all in the Army, and all doubly colonized and plurally defined by capitalist patriarchy.
Lynch and Johnson are now scheduled to appear together on the cover of December’s Glamour magazine as the “Women of the Year.” Get your head around that if you want to see how deftly any seed of subversion is commodified! This is the latest transformation, the latest account–two smiling women warriors, salt ‘n’ peppa like the biracial buddy movies Americans find so comforting, backgrounded by American flags and yellow ribbons, our (militarized) social progress on display in every supermarket.
How do these many accounts of them reflect not on them as individuals, but on capitalist patriarchy in the United States?
STAN GOFF is the author of “Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti” (Soft Skull Press, 2000) and of the upcoming book “Full Spectrum Disorder” (Soft Skull Press, 2003). He is a member of the BRING THEM HOME NOW! coordinating committee, a retired Special Forces master sergeant, and the father of an active duty soldier. Email for BRING THEM HOME NOW! is email@example.com.
Goff can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Freedom Road.