On 2 April, a team of US Navy SEALS and Army Rangers were flown in by helicopter to storm the Nasseriya general hospital and rescue 19-year-old soldier Jessica Lynch. The US media, airing the videotape of the assault released by the Pentagon, painted a scene of valiant commandos bravely defying hostile fire in order to save their blonde, teenage compatriot from the clutches of Iraqi soldiers — i.e. primitive barbarians — somewhere deep in the heart of the scorching desert. The videotaped rescue operation fired enthusiasm for the war on Iraq among American spectators who — correctly, if we may use that term — confused the news footage with a made-for-TV film. After all, how often has that same screen in their living rooms brought them action dramas featuring intrepid American fighters rushing to rescue a beautiful journalist, doctor or secret agent from her savage captors whose malicious grins open to reveal obscene black gaps or gold capped teeth, and whose every physical contact with their female captive suggests repressed oriental lust? Hollywood films leave little to the spectator’s imagination; indeed, they shape his imagination, usually in the crudest possible terms.
Two years ago, Hollywood scored an enormous box office success with Saving Private Ryan, set in World War II France. Not surprisingly, having been milked by the US media for days on end, the story of Jessica Lynch caught the imagination of NBC’s corporate think tank, and soon preparations for a blockbuster drama were underway. The film of “Saving Private Lynch” would have all the ingredients needed to make it the Iraqi war drama par excellence: heroic American soldiers, a winsome blond prisoner, evil enemies, a daring military adventure…
Behind the scenes, the Pentagon did a superb job of spinning the legend. An unnamed “official” told the press that Lynch had been captured in an Iraqi ambush, but only after having put up a tenacious fight, continuing to fire even after sustaining multiple wounds until she finally ran out of ammunition. “She didn’t want to be captured alive,” declared the spokesman. The account appeared in the Washington Post on 3 April beneath the headline, “She was fighting to the death!” If that was the Post, it is not difficult to imagine how FOXnews played it.
The first blow to the legend came from the US military hospital in Germany where the American soldier was being treated after her “rescue”. Evidence revealed no signs of bullet wounds or any other combat-related injuries. Instead, she had a head wound and some broken bones, which doctors attributed to the overturning of the vehicle she had been using when she was captured.
This revelation whetted the press’s appetite for more, and it was not long before the BBC, followed by the Guardian and the Toronto Star, tore the rest of the myth apart, piece by piece, leaving only a young soldier in a hospital in Washington barred from meeting journalists. NBC was plunged into a state of collective anxiety over whether or not to go ahead with its film project, regardless of the enormous dents newly revealed facts were punching into the original story line. In an article satirising the network’s predicament, veteran “60 minutes” producer Barry Lando suggested that the network would have few qualms at departing from the truth. As his fictional NBC corporate executive remarks, “What people remember are the first sensational reports they heard, not the page 17, nit-picking follow-ups.”
So what exactly did happen? According to staff at the Nasseriya hospital, such as Dr Hareth Hassouna, the US raid came a full two days after Iraqi forces had withdrawn from the hospital. They have also described what was, in fact, the only truly daring operation in the entire affair. The day after the Iraqi forces pulled out, Jessica’s doctors put her in an ambulance and set off to drive her to the American forces which were stationed about a kilometre outside of the city. The ambulance, however, never made it. US forces opened fire on them before the medical team got an opportunity to tell them that their “maiden in distress” was inside the van and ready to be handed over.
It also transpired that only hours before they launched their assault on the hospital, the SEALS, using an Arabic translator, had asked neighbourhood residents, among them hospital staff member Hussam Hamoud, whether or not there were any Iraqi soldiers present in the building. They were repeatedly told that the answer was no, that the soldiers had left two days before. Even so, the Americans were determined not to let that stop them from staging their spectacular operation behind the nonexistent lines of a nonexistent enemy.
To cries of “Go! Go! Go!” they burst into the hospital, guns blasting, red laser beams cutting through the darkness — for true to the Hollywood script, they had cut the main electricity beforehand. Having blown up 12 doors, they then chose the only room in the hospital without windows, the X-ray department, to begin their search. They seized a hospital administrator whom they held in an open- air prison camp for three days. Yet in the end it was members of the hospital staff who finally showed them to the room where Jessica was being treated and who subsequently took them to the place where US soldiers brought to the hospital dead had been buried.
And how exactly had the Nasseriya hospital physicians and staff treated Private Ryan — sorry, Lynch — since her arrival with a wound in her head and a few broken limbs? Remember, we are talking about a hospital that was inundated at that time with more than 2000 wounded and 400 dead, most of them Iraqi civilians. Under such dire circumstances, aggravated by lack of medical supplies and food, the American soldier got the best of what little was available. She was given the best possible food, and when that fell short, staff members brought her food from their own homes. As stocks of blood were low, they donated two bottles of their own blood. There were more than a hundred Iraqi patients who needed platinum plates to repair shattered bones. The hospital had only three; one was given to Jessica. American military doctors later congratulated the Nasseriya physicians for the successful operation they performed on Lynch’s arm. And when Jessica came to, terrified — her fears probably fed by Hollywood films — she was attended by the best nurse on the staff, a mother of three, who treated her as though she were her own daughter.
This was the story of a young, frightened soldier, not a combat heroine; of doctors, nurses and hospital administrators who did all they could possibly do and more to save and care for their foreign “guest”, towards whom Arab custom would demand generous hospitality. It was also the story of an American military raid, accompanied by cameramen in military dress, that encountered no fighting and no one to fight against, and of the eternally anonymous military spokesman who, referring to the young woman later in hospital in Washington where she was barred from interviews, told the press: “She basically has amnesia and has mentally blocked out the horrible things we strongly believe she went through.”
How does one begin to address this tangle of politics, instant news and flagrant lies in the management and production of information? Undoing the unholy marriage between the worlds of politics and the media that presides over the fabrication of such drama and the melo-dramatisation of our lives is no easy task for those brave enough to undertake it.
Out of some 2,600 war films produced in Hollywood since World War II, the Pentagon has helped fund 2000. This statistic points the way beneath another layer of lies, although it only begins to expose the nature of the relationship between the film production industry and the industrial production of a political climate conducive to pushing through a certain type of policy. It was only a short step for the Pentagon to produce its own film on the raid to save Private Lynch and have it aired on all the news networks during the war on Iraq.
If that film finally does emerge, I hope they will include what was for me the most painful and awkward moment of all. For at such times of tragedy, farce and misinformation, there is always an Arab somewhere waiting to add the finishing touch — an Arab who is more infatuated with the American myth than the Americans themselves, and who jumps in to embarrass everyone else with his obsequiousness, like the man who crashes a wedding feast, fawns over the unsuspecting guests, insinuates his way next to the groom and makes himself the star of the party to which he was never invited. All so that he can prove to others just how civilised his wealth, his bad taste and his appalling sense of timing have made him. The story of Private Lynch was no exception in this respect. True to form, at the height of the fanfare over the rescue operation, we were treated to the spectacle of one of our compatriots sending Jessica a flashy sports car — a Ferrari, if I’m not mistaken — as a gift to congratulate her on her release from “captivity”.
Some people may think that Hollywood has no place for irony. But if any truth survives in the final cut, I sincerely hope it will be the Arab Ferrari of peace and reconciliation.
The writer is a Palestinian Israeli and member of the Knesset.