"He's getting hard. "--Lynndie England
The day that the image of Private Lynndie England holding a leash attached to the neck of a dehumanized Iraqi prisoner was published on the cover of several national newspapers (USA Today, the Washington Post, the New York Times), Thursday, May 6, it was inevitable that someone would make the connection between her and Jessica Lynch. The two have identical backgrounds: They come from very small towns in West Virginia (Lynch's, Palestine, has 300 folks; England's, Fort Ashby, has a thousand more); both are of the same age (21), from the same economic bracket (working class), and joined the Army for the same reasons (to pay for college--Lynch wanted to become a kindergarten teacher; England a meteorologist). They even have the same build (petite), and are, of course, of the same race (white American). But, as the Associated Press put it on Saturday, May 8, one woman, Lynch, now "symbolizes the war's glory," the other, England, its "shame."
Lynch was the perfect symbol during the early part of the war, back when the Bush administration was still trying to sell us on the idea that Iraq had done something to us, that Iraq had a hand in 9/11. Lynch had been victimized by evil Iraqis just as all of America had. England is the perfect symbol for this stage of the war, when it's clear that Iraq had done nothing to us, had no role in 9/11. Iraq has been victimized by the United States, not the other way around, and England symbolizes that very neatly.
"One came home to... medals and a nation's warm embrace," wrote the AP reporters. "One returned a symbol of the dark-side." The reporters fail to name what this dark-side is (America? the war? women?), and also fail to ignite the explosive connection between these young soldiers. A connection that could blast the American present into a thousand revealing fragments.
Just over a year ago, Jessica Lynch was famously rescued from a hospital near Nasiriya. The Pentagon, desperate for positive stories during the early days of the war, made a hero out of her. Then as now there was little international support for the war, the weapons of mass destruction were not showing up, and the American public was not as unified behind this military operation as it had been in Afghanistan. The necessity for someone or something that would symbolize what was "good" about the war was so pressing that the military actually filmed the rescue and edited it. The story of Lynch's rescue was a movie long before it was made into a TV movie. And even though the Pentagon's version of the events (she fired at her enemies; she was shot and stabbed; Special Forces saved her from death during a shootout with her captors) was debunked by Lynch herself, she still became what they wanted her to be: an American hero.
The Pentagon's version of events was the stuff of Hollywood Cold War movies. They wanted a straight story with no ambiguities, which is why Jessica Lynch was so perfect: She was very white, blond, "the girl next door." It was easy to understand why Lynch had to be rescued from her dark-skinned, dark-haired captors. Similarly, it was easy to understand why Shoshana Johnson, the black American soldier who was taken hostage at the same time as Lynch, did not need to be rescued. (Indeed, Johnson was found by accident nearly three weeks after Lynch was "liberated.") According to the Pentagon's understanding, very little would have been gained from paying the risks of rescuing Johnson. Also, saving Johnson would have immediately presented the American public with ambiguities: Not only was she dark-skinned, like the "enemy," but a single mother too.
The Pentagon would also have been quick to save Private Lynndie England, if she had been taken hostage by the dark forces. Though not as attractive as Lynch, England's appearance (small woman) and background (small town) came close enough. England, however, did not need to be saved from others but from herself.
"Male prisoners can be abused, but aren't vulnerable in the way women are," wrote Rich Lowry in March 2003 on Townhall.com, a website devoted to conservative opinion. "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, like [Shoshana] Johnson, have no idea of what they were signing up for--have been put in danger of terrible abuse in Iraq."
Aside from the fact that there is now conclusive evidence that Iraqi men are vulnerable to abuse at the hands of American women, what is important in this passage is the implied matter of Lynch's rape. This is what Lowry is really concerned about--he wrote his piece shortly after Lynch was rescued and it is her vulnerability, not Johnson's, that concerns him. He mentions Johnson so as to avoid being so obvious about it. As Lowry and everyone in America knows, the rape of a black woman doesn't have the same value, or inspire the same degree of horror, as the rape of white women. And Shoshana Johnson is--how can I put this? She's no Tyra Banks. Lynch, on the other hand, at least suggests a Bridget Fonda. If Lynch had been an ugly white woman, the rescue mission wouldn't have been as impressive or celebrated. In order for the plot to work, the men of Special Forces had to be seen saving a beautiful white woman.
And as beauty was important to Lynch's rise to fame, a lack of it is currently important to England's fall to infamy.
We know almost nothing about the sex life of Jessica Lynch. The press protects her virginity; even the owner of Hustler, Larry Flynt, has apparently locked up images that would strip Lynch of her innocence. England, however, is five months pregnant. The father is reported to be Specialist Charles A. Graner Jr., the man she is seen posing with behind a pyramid of naked and prone Iraqi male bodies. But with all of the sexual activity going on in the Abu Ghraib prison, it is easy to believe that the father of England's baby is not American or white but possibly one of the unfortunate men whose penises we've seen her gleefully pointing at, a cigarette dangling from her mouth suggestively.
As with Lynch's virginal vulnerability, England's sadistic sexuality presents the likes of Rich Lowry with another reason for banning women from the frontline. If it is the case that the father of her baby is Graner, why were they fucking in the middle of a war in the first place? When and how did they find the time to drop their guard and have a romance? And if Garner and England were fucking, then others must be wasting taxpayers' dollars fucking under the sun and bombs of Iraq. The proposed solution to this problem will inevitably be the removal of all women (beautiful or otherwise) from the frontline. They are, after all, either too vulnerable, like Lynch, or too available, like England.
The Future of the Two
Because Jessica Lynch is white, the "girl next door," and a victim, she is absolutely loved; because Lynndie England is white, the "girl next door" (as Time magazine calls her this week), and a victimizer, she is absolutely loathed. Evidently, white girls who live next door can inspire in us the most extreme emotions. If, in the end, the war is a success, it is Jessica Lynch who shall be remembered; if it fails, which will most likely be the case, the world shall never forget Lynndie England.