by Matthew Rarey

Chronicles Magazine, July 28, 2003

Once upon a time, American war heroes who attained celebrity deserved the acclaim. Consider Sgt. Alvin York, this nation’s most-decorated World War I veteran. A humble Christian from Tennessee’s Cumberland Gap, York killed 23 Germans and captured 132 in order to save the lives of his comrades, who had been pinned down under intense fire. Or consider Sgt. Audie Murphy, the most decorated veteran of World War II. Murphy killed a lot more Germans over a longer period of time until finally he was wounded while standing atop a burning tank, decimating a Wehrmacht onslaught. By displaying such mettle, York and Murphy deserved to be honored as the emblematic hero of their respective wars. How does the celebrity of our latest war’s emblematic hero, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, compare?

On Wednesday, Lynch returned to West Virginia to a hero’s homecoming. (“Returned” doesn’t quite capture the pizzazz: She was choppered in from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, not every wounded soldier’s exit strategy.) Surrounded by dignitaries and a troop of state police, Lynch spoke for two-and-a-half minutes, thanking people for their support and saying how proud she was to be a soldier. A soldier presumably under orders, she took no questions from the battalion of reporters. Why? At the risk of not getting out of town alive, a gutsy reporter could have posed a simple question and ruined the show: “Private Lynch, everyone recognizes that you’ve suffered injuries. But what exactly did you do to merit such specific attention and win the Bronze Star?”

For, although Private Lynch may be an especially apt emblem of the Iraqi war, it is painfully obvious that she is no hero. The “heroics” for which she has been commended—namely, getting injured when her Humvee crashed during an ambush and then spending ten days as a POW under the care of Iraqi doctors until her mock “rescue” from an unguarded hospital—are as spurious as those MIA WMD.

The initial account of her capture was spun by anonymous Pentagon officials who said she was stabbed and shot but emptied her rifle into Iraqi soldiers. Naturally, the tale made headline news. Later, the Pentagon reversed course and said that her wounds appeared to be from the crash and that her rifle had probably jammed. This begs a big question: Why was Lynch deliberately hyped in the first place and then honored after the Rambo version of her travail proved false? Speculating about an answer, however, is beside the point. The important thing is the effect the story achieved: the further legitimization of women in combat.

Since the Clinton administration, women in the Armed Forces have been allowed to serve in close proximity to combat. President Bush, who has expressed a fondness for female fighter pilots, refuses to alter that arrangement. It is "up to the generals" to do that, the Commander in Chief recently said. Of course, given the public perception that Jessica Lynch braved combat and gallantly fought back, it is unlikely that generals, who tend to be politicians in uniform, will risk their careers by doing the right thing. And the right thing would be to keep women from having to do the awful work of men.

The purely utilitarian argument against women in combat is that they may prove a liability because of their inferior strength, which can only benefit the enemy. This is basically true. Since some women are stronger than average men, however, that argument could be nullified by recruiting über-females of East German Olympic quality. The strongest argument—not that it will be heeded in post-Christian America—is moral and spiritual. Essentially, what those who praise Lynch-as-Rambo are advocating is the notion that young women, by virtue of a uniform, should be trained to kill young men—and applauded when they do so. Speak of transgressing nature: G.I. Jane is the inversion of the female role of mother and nurturer of life; killing anonymous young men is the antithesis of the courting ritual. And yet another thread is torn from civilization’s now-tattered tapestry.

The perversion is more revolting, but more effective propaganda for its subtlety, when the poster child for more G.I. Janes retains the appearance of female gentility. Maybe that’s why Lynch—the perky little girl next door, hair done up in a bun and looking as harmless as a squirrel stuffed with nuts—has been crowned a combat hero instead of Spc. Shoshana Johnson, the dumpy-looking black single mother who was captured alongside Lynch. Sex sells, even when hawking death.

It is absurd to place Lynch among such bona fide heroes as Sergeants York and Murphy. These were men trained to do a grim duty that they, like any sane man, did not wish to do. Unlike the West Virginia waif who technically was not supposed to be in combat but was allowed into hostile terrain that she was lucky to survive, York and Murphy did not stumble into killing fields in which they had no right to be. A pawn manipulated by those who would make it military policy to turn young women into mankillers, Miss Lynch is emblematic not of heroism but of propaganda.

(Addendum: How will Lynch use her celebrity compared with York and Murphy? York rejected handsome advertising contracts because he thought it dishonorable to profit from having had to kill to save his comrades. He did accept a farm on behalf of the grateful citizens of Tennessee, who helped him to beat his sword into a ploughshare. Murphy, a poor boy from Texas who professed atheism, rode his laurels into Hollywood, where he starred in several good but many forgettable films. Pfc. Lynch looks poised to take the Murphy route. Reportedly, her family is working with a lawyer to review book, movie, and interview offers. It is hard to blame her for profiting from her own exploitation.)