The Controversy Over Jessica Lynch

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We may never know the full truth about the capture and rescue of Private First Class Jessica Lynch. When the American war prisoner was freed from an Iraqi hospital on April 1, she immediately became a symbol of U.S. resolve, a much needed hero in a war that seemed in danger of bogging down. Now it seems certain that media accounts of her ordeal were distorted — and the Pentagon did little to set the record straight.

A recent BBC special has questioned the almost mythic quality of the Lynch story line. But in trying to show that the U.S. stage-managed the rescue, the British network may be guilty of exaggeration itself, with its claim that the Pentagon manipulated information to produce "one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived." The key controversies:


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WAS LYNCH SHOT? On April 3 the Washington Post, quoting unnamed officials, described the harrowing events of Lynch's capture. Portraying her as a female Rambo, the sources explained how Lynch, 19, continued to fire at Iraqi soldiers even after being shot several times. Many news organizations (including TIME) reiterated this version of events, citing the Post. The BBC program implied that the Pentagon publicly released details of her stab and bullet wounds (in an article in the British paper the Guardian, the show's producer explicitly states as much), then presented the Iraqi doctors who treated her asserting that she had no such wounds. But the Pentagon initially said very little about Lynch's condition — merely that she was stable. Only after she had been examined by doctors in Germany did the Pentagon detail her injuries, acknowledging that she had not been stabbed or shot. Susan Schmidt, who co-wrote the original Post story, told TIME that her article "was based on intelligence reports gathered by the U.S. government at that time."

DID THE U.S. USE TOO MUCH FORCE? American soldiers stormed Saddam Hospital in Nasiriyah with overwhelming power, but according to the BBC, the Pentagon knew it was needless. The BBC says U.S. forces had been tipped off by Nasiriyah resident Hassan Hamoud Awad that no Iraqi soldiers were in the hospital. Hassan told TIME the same story: that just minutes before the rescue, a U.S. translator approached him and asked if fedayeen (irregular Iraqi forces) were stationed at the hospital. Hassan said they were not. Iraqi forces had been stationed there but had fled by the time U.S. troops arrived. The Pentagon does not deny that U.S. forces met no resistance inside the hospital, but spokesman Bryan Whitman says, "This was a facility that was hostile and could have potentially had a lot more resistance than what was encountered."

DID THE U.S. USE BLANKS? Doctors at the hospital told the BBC and TIME that U.S. forces fired blanks during the rescue, bolstering the claim that the drama, filmed by the military, was all for the cameras. They note that no hospital personnel were injured and say the spent cartridges they found did not appear to be from live ammunition. "It was all a big show," said Dr. Khodheir al-Hazbar. Pentagon spokesman Gary Keck calls the charge "ludicrous" and says the Pentagon would never send soldiers into such a situation with only blank ammunition.

The one person who could settle the questions cannot do so, at least for now. Lynch might have some memory loss (it's unclear how much) and has yet to give a public account of what she recalls of her ordeal.