Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Flashback: Jessica Lynch: The most famous wartime false rape claim in recent history

Despite the headlines touting how the Iraq War, at long last, broke down gender barriers in the US armed forces, in the first year of that conflict, when fighting was most intense, females comprised approximately just 1.6% of all U.S. fatalities.  See, e.g., here.  In any other setting, this would scarcely be considered "breaking down gender barriers." But in the world of journalism where gender skirmishes sell, no claim about female empowerment is too wacky.

Even though the risk of war has not, by any means, been shared by women, it was a woman, Army Private First Class Jessica Dawn Lynch, who became the most famous soldier in the Iraq war.

From March 23-April 1, 2003, Lynch was a captive of Iraqi forces after her convoy was ambushed until she was rescued by U.S. Special Operations Forces.  Eleven soldiers were killed in the ambush.  Lynch originally was hailed as a hero. It was said that she battled fiercely, and was raped by the enemy, that she was rescued under dire circumstances. It turned out none of that was true. 

Gender Double Standards

Let's back up for a moment and put the Lynch story into perspective. USA Today asserted that it was Lynch's rescue that "made her the most famous GI in the Iraq war," but this, of course, is nonsense.  If she had been a rescued male soldier, it is likely almost to a certainty that no one outside of his home town would have even known about it. For example, none of the male soldiers captured with Lynch got a Time cover story or a lucrative book deal as Lynch did. 

It is telling that later, concerned citizens questioned the inordinate media coverage afforded to Lynch's rescue. Some complained about the absence of coverage given to an African American soldier who was also captured with Lynch, and they chalked it up to racism. That African American soldier, of course, also happened to be a woman.  See here.

Few people complained about the lack of coverage afforded male captives. 

One writer tried to grapple with the double standard: "The parading on Iraqi television of US POW Shoshana Johnson, 30, the single mother of a two-year-old, had an element of shock missing in the parading of her four fellow male POWs. It is not that a female life is more precious than a male's, but that women in civilised societies have always been afforded special protection against violence." See here.  (In other contexts, that's known as "male privilege.")

'When the Legend Becomes Fact, Print the Legend'

Jessica Lynch was touted as a hero in one of the few "feel good" stories of an awful war. It turned out Lynch wasn't much of a hero.  "Lynch never fired a shot because her rifle jammed. By the time U.S. forces arrived, the hospital was undefended. And Iraqi hospital staffers had earlier tried to sneak her to safety in an ambulance, but turned back when suspicious U.S. soldiers opened fire." See here.

The rape claim was more problematic. According to Lynch's official biography, for which Lynch and Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg split a $1 million advance, Lynch was raped by her captors.  Lynch had no memory of any sexual assault. "In the book, author Rick Bragg writes that scars on Lynch's body and medical records indicate she was sodomized, but that Lynch recalls nothing: 'Jessi lost three hours. She lost them in the snapping bones, in the crash of the Humvee, in the torment her enemies inflicted on her after she was pulled from it.'"  See here.

According to feminist Susan Faludi in The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America, Lynch "was adamantly opposed to including the rape claim in the book. . . . . But, she said, Bragg eventually wore her down. 'He told me that people need to know that this was what can happen to women soldiers." Terror Dream at 249. 

It is astounding that Ms. Lynch apparently knew that a crucial claim about her life was false, yet she allowed it to be included in a biography about her, and then she tried to blame someone else.  She's not an empowered free moral agent; she's a typical subjugated woman -- a victim.

According to Faludi, the rape claim put the Lynch story, which had grown cold, back in the headlines, and landed Lynch a Time magazine cover story.

In fact, the rape was pure speculation, and the doctors and nurses who treated Lynch denied it. Terror Dream at 250-51. Among other things, Faludi quotes the first doctor to examine Lynch after her rescue: "There is no way she could have been raped." Id. at 250. See also, here.  There are insufficient facts to support a claim that Lynch was sexually assaulted.

"Rape" Used to Advance Ideology: The World is a Scary Place for Women

Faludi's book, of course, is unvarnished male bashing. When Faludi noted that the press jumped on the alleged rape claim as gospel truth, she was intent on proving that our culture is misogynistic because we fabricate a false rape claim simply to buttress the myth of the helpless damsel in need of men.  She posits that 9/11 and the Iraq War were used as excuses to reinvigorate traditional gender roles, which meant that women retreated to the kitchen. In an interview, Faludi explained the Lynch affair: "The story has all the elements of the American myth: Women need to be weak in order for men to be strong, women need to be helpless and in need of rescue." See here

As one (female) English professor wrote: ". . . in debunking pernicious media myths about bold men and fragile women, Faludi too often substitutes her own dubious mythology."  See here.

It is well that Ms. Faludi debunked the Lynch false rape claim, but, of course, she drew exactly the wrong conclusion from it. It isn't a misogynistic culture that creates, fosters, and allows false rape claims. It is a misandric culture.  That is a term that Faludi seems to have no interest in exploring.

We shouldn't miss the irony that Faludi takes offense at the false rape claim in the Lynch case. She takes offense because she believes that, ultimately, the claim hurt women by fortifying traditional gender roles.  She decries this one false rape claim in order to advance a feminist agenda.

Of course, a denunciation of a single claim can't absolve the militant feminist movement of responsibility for helping to foment a culture where false rape claims flourish.  How many prominent feminists took it upon themselves to debunk, for example, the Duke lacrosse false rape claim? Of course, in that instance, the false claim furthered the feminist agenda because it fit its gender/race/class narrative so well.

But Faludi might, actually, have a legitimate point about the Lynch case -- about how conservatives used the alleged "rape" to foment fear for women's safety. Conservative activist Elaine Donnelly wrote: "Advocates of women in combat often talk about 'sharing the risk' of war, but the truth is that women face unequal and greater risks. The vulnerabilities unique to women can and probably will be exploited by enemy captors." See here. Moreover, Rich Lowry wrote in "Male prisoners can be abused, but aren't vulnerable in the way women are.  Women get raped, a crime that any civilized society considers particularly horrific.... There is something odd about the same feminists who, rightly, make campaigning against rape one of their highest priorities applauding the fact that American women--who might . . . have no idea of what they were signing up for--have been put in danger of terrible abuse in Iraq."  See here.

And, of course, men were not in danger of terrible abuse in Iraq, right?  Thirty men in a village might be killed in a raid, but if two women were raped, the rapes are the headline, and we worry what’s being done to protect THE WOMEN.

I note, in passing, that these conservative views about the helpless female damsels in wartime are ironic in light of the widely disseminated images of US female soldiers smiling broadly and posing with naked and thoroughly degraded Iraqi prisoners, all of whom were male.

The Lynch case is just yet another example of how rape, and false rape claims, are improperly used to advance ideology. Both the far left, including militant feminists with their "women don't lie about rape" shtick, and the far right, with its "lock-the-doors-and-hide-the-daughters" conservatives ready to castrate any young man who even looks at their daughters the wrong way, have much to answer for in perpetuating misandry and a culture that allows false rape claims to flourish.

If rape and false rape claims were treated as what they really are -- crimes -- instead of as political statements, we would go a long way toward treating their victims as what they really are -- crime victims in need of healing -- as opposed to political pawns in a twisted game of battle of the sexes.