Saving Private Jessica
By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
Friday 20 June 2003
I've been roaming Iraq, turning over rocks in my unstinting effort to help the Bush administration find those weapons of mass destruction. No luck yet.
But I did find something related, here in the city where it seems (contrary to early Pentagon leaks) that Pfc. Jessica Lynch did not mow down Iraqis until her ammo ran out, was not shot and apparently was not plucked from behind enemy lines by U.S. commandos braving a firefight. It looks as if the first accounts of the rescue were embellished, like the imminent threat from W.M.D., and like wartime pronouncements about an uprising in Basra and imminent defections of generals. There's a pattern: we were misled.
None of this is to put down Private Lynch, whom her Iraqi doctors described as courageous and funny in the face of unrelenting pain; they said that she told Abdul Hadi, a hospital worker who had befriended her, not to take risks for her because he was needed by his 17 children. Ms. Lynch is still a hero in my book, and it was unnecessary for officials to try to turn her into a Hollywood caricature. As a citizen, I deeply resent my government trying to spin me like a Ping-Pong ball.
Staff members of Nasiriya's main hospital told me, as they have told other reporters, how surprised they were when military officers brought an American woman by ambulance. Private Lynch was unconscious, with broken legs, a head wound and other injuries, apparently sustained in a vehicle accident during a firefight.
"She was nearly dead," recalled Saad Abdulrazak, the deputy hospital director, who received her.
The Iraqi doctors were enchanted by this blonde warrior, who as she recovered spent her time alternately crying and joking. I don't know how much to credit the Iraqis' claims that they gave her the best room in the hospital, that they went to the market to buy orange juice for her with their own money, that they brought clothes so that she would have something to wear. But they didn't minimize Iraqi brutality. Indeed, they told of an execution of a handcuffed American male. (I've put a fuller account of this execution and of Ms. Lynch's saga at nytimes.com/kristofresponds.)
The hospital staff also said that on the night of March 27, military officials prepared to kill Ms. Lynch by putting her in an ambulance and blowing it up with its occupants blaming the atrocity on the Americans. The ambulance drivers balked at that idea. Eventually, the plan was changed so that a military officer would shoot Ms. Lynch and burn the ambulance. So Sabah Khazal, an ambulance driver, loaded her in the vehicle and drove off with a military officer assigned to execute her.
"I asked him not to shoot Jessica," Mr. Khazal said, "and he was afraid of God and didn't kill her." Instead, the executioner ran away and deserted the army, and Mr. Khazal said that he then thought about delivering Ms. Lynch to an American checkpoint. But there were firefights on the streets, so he returned to the hospital. (Ms. Lynch apparently never knew how close she had come to execution.)
By the morning of March 31, all of the Iraqi military at the hospital had fled. The hospital staff members said that they then told Ms. Lynch they would take her to the Americans the next day. That same night, the American special forces arrived.
"I met the Americans at the hospital entrance," said Dr. Hussein Salih, adding that Mr. Abdulrazak then led the Americans to Private Lynch. The staff members all said that there was no resistance, and that they welcomed the Americans.
Is this account the truth? I don't know, but every time I voiced skepticism, the doctors and staff all insisted: "Go ask Jessica! She'll tell you." The U.S. military has refused to make Private Lynch available, although that may be out of respect for her privacy; in any case, she is said to have no memory of her capture.
My guess is that "Saving Private Lynch" was a complex tale vastly oversimplified by officials, partly because of genuine ambiguities and partly because they wanted a good story to build political support for the war a repetition of the exaggerations over W.M.D. We weren't quite lied to, but facts were subordinated to politics, and truth was treated as an endlessly stretchable fabric.
The Iraqis misused our prisoners for their propaganda purposes, and it hurts to find out that some American officials were misusing Private Lynch the same way.