Why Jessica?

What The Birth of a Nation, King Kong, and To Kill a Mockingbird Reveal about the Military/Media Version of the Jessica Lynch Story

Sunday, 15 June 2003

When I first heard about the spectacular rescue of Private Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital, I was skeptical. Something just didn't sound right. In fact, my doubts about the story actually originated earlier, when she was listed as captured. Despite the fact that several other men and women were prisoners of war, it seemed that the only picture I saw on the newscasts was Jessica. When she, of all POWs, was rescued, I wondered, "Why Jessica?" Was it only coincidence that the most publicized POW was also the one whose rescue from Iraqi clutches was also the most dramatic, in fact, the only one caught on video?

I didn't think so, but I couldn't quite put my finger on the reason for my insecurity about the story. I had read the story in The Guardian, a London newspaper, calling into question many of the details of the official account. According to U.S. military sources, faithfully parroted by the complacent mainstream media, Jessica had been shot and stabbed in the field while fighting her attackers. Once in the hospital, she had been slapped and otherwise mistreated. Only the heroic intervention of U.S. special forces had delivered her from her torments. This official version of the story turns out to be largely fictional. Jessica was severely wounded, it's true, but her injuries were more consistent with an auto accident--there were no bullet holes or stab wounds. (The auto accident was undoubtedly caused by an Iraqi attack on the vehicle she was riding in.) When she was transported to the hospital, her broken bones were set, and she was well cared for. In fact, hospital workers say that after a few days she was put into an ambulance and driven toward the American lines, only to be forced to retreat by U.S. gunfire. A day or two later, after all Iraqi military personnel had abandoned the hospital, the marines landed, and Jessica's dramatic rescue was recorded for all to see.

The facts tell a quite different story than that sensationalized by the military/media junta. I wasn't surprised by the exaggerated claims surrounding Jessica's rescue, yet something still wasn't right. There was something else about the story that was bothering me. Then I heard a couple of days ago about Gregory Peck's death, and it all clicked.

Let me state unequivocally that I don't think Jessica Lynch is at all to blame for the way that her story has evolved. She endured a terrible ordeal with all the bravery and strength anyone could expect. As far as I can tell, she has made no claims about her capture and release that are not absolutely true. The fact that she has said very little about it publicly perhaps speaks volumes. She seems to have much more integrity than those who have twisted her story for propaganda purposes.

When I heard that Gregory Peck had died, I began thinking about To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the greatest movies of all time. The trial scene, where Peck's Atticus Finch makes such a strong case for the innocence of Tom Robinson, only to have the all-white jury return a verdict of guilty, is drama of the highest order. So is the Jessica Lynch story, as told by the military/media cabal, but in a Wag the Dog sort of way. What was there about Jessica that made them select her? Four things: she is a young, pretty, white, woman. All these things are essential elements in the sleazy propaganda concoction of the military/media amalgam. Whether they got their inspiration directly from the movies, or whether deep-seated prejudice is merely endemic among those responsible for this story, is hard to say. What isn't hard to say is that anyone who has seen The Birth of a Nation, King Kong, and To Kill a Mockingbird can see similarities between these tales and the official version of Jessica's story.

The Birth of a Nation is the story of the prelude to the Civil War, the war itself, and the opening years of Reconstruction, told from the perspective of the South. D. W. Griffiths, the director, was the most innovative movie-maker of his day, and The Birth of a Nation was a true epic, both in length (it was the longest movie ever made at the time of its premier in 1915) and in the technology and filmmaking techniques that Griffiths employed. The story, however, was blatantly racist, portraying slaves as leading happy lives before the Civil War, vilifying ambitious post-war blacks, and glorifying the emerging "protector" of southern tradition and honor, the Ku Klux Klan. The point of contact with Jessica's story comes in the second half of the movie, after the North has won the war and Lincoln has been assassinated. A northern congressman, Austin Stoneman, an enthusiastic abolitionist and proponent of equal rights for freed slaves, appoints his right-hand man, a mulatto, Silas Lynch (no relation to Jessica), to organize blacks in defeated South Carolina. Unbeknownst to Congressman Stoneman, Lynch has lustful feelings for Stoneman's daughter, Elsie (it couldn't be love, of course!). After Lynch has orchestrated the emergence of a majority-black South Carolina legislature and gotten himself elected Lt. Governor, the legislature quickly passes a law allowing interracial marriages. It is soon evident that Lynch intends to marry Elsie, primarily to boost his own political position. Aside from the fact that Elsie finds Lynch repulsive, she is also in love with a southerner, Ben Cameron. In addition to this story line, there is another in which Ben Cameron's little sister, Flora, is pursued to her death by a former slave named Gus. Flora flees to the edge of a cliff in order to avoid Gus' advances, whereupon she falls to her death. Both Gus and Lynch exhibit attitudes of self-loathing, believing that their lots can only be improved by marrying white women. In order to avenge Flora's death and to protect Elsie, Ben organizes the KKK, which intends to terrorize blacks and mete out "justice" to blacks who have the affrontery to gaze with desire upon white women. Of course, the KKK was more than happy to terrorize blacks for other reasons, but the protection of white women's virtue is the motivating factor behind the Klan's emergence as a power, according to the movie. Gus is lynched, a play on Lynch's name: perhaps the implication is that Lynch himself deserved lynching simply because of his shameful miscegenous heritage. In the original version of the film, Gus is castrated by the Klan, emphasizing even more the theme of protecting white women. The fate of Lynch himself is uncertain, but his plans are foiled, and even his backer, Congressman Stoneman, turns against him.

King Kong (1933) is based on the familiar motif of Beauty and the Beast. Fay Wray plays the Beauty, Ann Darrow; King Kong, an enormous ape, is the Beast. Kong lives on an uncharted island in the East Indies. The people on the island, a primitive tribe that is protected from Kong by a huge wall built long ago, regularly sacrifice young women to Kong, who feasts on them. When Ann arrives at the island, along with movie maker Carl Denham, first mate Jack Driscoll, and the rest of the crew, the island's natives decide that she would make a better sacrifice to Kong than any of their native women. After kidnapping her, they offer her to Kong, who immediately takes an unaccustomed interest in her. Instead of eating her, he stares at her in wonder, begins to peel off some of her outer garments, and is smitten by her beauty. It is interesting to note at this point that both the natives of the island and the Beast himself consider the white woman Ann to possess greater beauty than the young native women. Denham and Driscoll rescue Ann and subdue Kong, taking him back to New York to be a spectacle in a stage show. When Kong is revealed to the audience and photographers begin to take flash photos of him and Ann, who is also on stage, Kong becomes enraged, breaks his chains, and escapes. He finds Ann, who is hiding in her hotel room, and climbs with her to the top of the Empire State Building. It is clear that Kong intends to protect Ann from harm, and when fighter planes attack him, he puts her gently on a ledge while he swats at the planes. The planes are too much for him, however, and after suffering numerous gunshot wounds, he falls to his death. Despite Kong's obvious love for Ann, it is clear to all in the movie, as well as those watching, that his love is inappropriate. Although he has some human characteristics, he is clearly subhuman, and he has no business falling in love with a beauty like Ann. Kong is a more sympathetic figure than Lynch in The Birth of a Nation, but he is just as unlikely to be allowed to love a white woman as Lynch was. The racial undertones of King Kong are less overt than in Birth, but they are nevertheless present. Aside from Kong himself, a dark-skinned ape, the natives of Kong's island, also dark-skinned, are presented as superstitious, ignorant, and wicked. They willingly sacrifice their own young women in order to save themselves, and they even more willingly endanger a white woman. Their efforts to save themselves by exploiting Ann's beauty are explicitly criticized in the movie, while Denham's intention of making money with Ann, regardless of whether it puts her at risk, is overlooked for the most part. When Kong dies, the crowd--along with Denham, Driscoll, and Ann herself--feel sorry for him, but despite his human characteristics, most notably his ability to love, he was not human, and his death is seen as necessary for the good of the city, particularly for the young beauty, Ann.

To Kill a Mockingbird was released in 1962, and more than forty years later, it continues to speak powerfully to viewers. The centerpiece of the film is the courtroom scene in which Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck, is the defense attorney for a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell. Atticus has been appointed by the judge to represent Robinson; nevertheless, both Atticus and his children are reviled by many of their neighbors for Atticus' role as defense attorney. Atticus presents a masterful case in court. He demonstrates that Mayella is a lonely, uneducated girl who is abused by her father, Bob Ewell. He establishes that Mayella was struck by a left-handed man and that Tom Robinson's left hand and arm are useless, having been maimed in an accident. He further shows that Bob Ewell is likely responsible for Mayella's beating (and rape?), which came in response to the unsolicited affection that Mayella showed for Tom when he came over to do her a favor. Mayella, however, is afraid of her father, so she sticks to the story that Tom raped her, and Bob Ewell likewise claims to have seen the assault. Although the evidence for his client's innocence is overwhelming, the all-white, all-male jury, intent on upholding the honor of a white woman, and certain that "all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women" (words from Atticus' summation to the jury), finds Tom Robinson guilty. Although Atticus believes that he has good issues on which to appeal and begs him not to lose heart, Robinson later tries to escape from police custody and is shot dead. It is clear that the majority of the townspeople, along with the entire jury, believe that a black man cannot be trusted around any white woman and that it is the duty of white men to protect their women. The imagined danger of the black man is perceived as more significant than the actual danger of an ignorant, abusive white father. Only Atticus, his children, and perhaps the sheriff (among the whites in town) believe that blacks deserve equal treatment with whites. As in the other movies, young white women are seen as most vulnerable to attack by the subhuman, dark-skinned male.

Since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, overt racism in the U.S. has become less acceptable in society. Nevertheless, covert racism is alive and well. African Americans have historically been the racial/ethnic group that is most often the target of white Americans' prejudice, but since September 11, hatred of Arabs, Muslims, Sikhs, and South Asians has risen rapidly. The label "terrorist" is applied not only to people like the men who hijacked the planes on that day but also to Iraqis who fight to defend their homeland from invasion. Now almost two years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, perhaps believing that Americans' fear of terrorism was waning, those behind the "rescue" of Jessica Lynch and its official spin apparently believed the time was right to reinvigorate and reinforce that fear. Regardless of how often Iraqi soldiers were called terrorists, most Americans were aware of the difference between a terrorist and an enemy soldier. What the military/media conspiracy needed was a theme that would affect people (especially white males, the group that supported both the administration and its war policies most strongly) viscerally. After a number of Americans had been captured by the Iraqis, someone hit upon a brilliant strategy: select a young, pretty, white woman who has been captured; suggest obliquely in news reports that the military fears that the Iraqis might be torturing and sexually assaulting her; arrange a dramatic "rescue"; capture the "rescue" on film, replete with night vision shots; and edit the film to eliminate any hint that the "rescue" was anything but harrowing.

Whether those who planned the "rescue" of Jessica were film buffs or not, the parallels--intended or otherwise--with The Birth of a Nation, King Kong, and To Kill a Mockingbird are striking. In all three movies a young, pretty, white woman is shown unwanted attention by a dark-skinned subhuman, at least in the minds of the majority of the film's white men. The implication is that dark-skinned males cannot be trusted around young, pretty, white women lest they succumb to their primitive natures and sexually assault the women. Similarly, news reports implied that the dark-skinned Iraqis couldn't be trusted to treat captured females in accordance with the Geneva Conventions regarding prisoners of war.

It turns out, of course, that the Iraqis apparently treated Jessica as well as any other POW. If they interrogated her, they didn't use excessive force to do so. They treated her wounds and set her broken bones in a professional manner. They reportedly even tried to return her to U.S. forces in an ambulance. All Americans are happy that Jessica, along with all other American POWs, was released from captivity. Their experiences were undoubtedly terrifying and psychologically (and in some cases, physically) painful. It should be disturbing to all of us that the circumstances involving any of these brave soldiers would be manipulated for propaganda purposes. That this is apparently exactly what happened in the case of Jessica Lynch is unconscionable.

© Copyright 2003, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology