Jessica Lynch: She Is a Victim, Too
Christmas in the Trenches

December 18, 2003

Jessica Lynch. She Is a Victim, Too
By Gar Smith

An Idea for a Campaign Button. If Dick Cheney were to die from a heart attack, George W. Bush would need a new running mate in 2004. Earlier this year, a Jessica-Lynch/George-Bush would have looked unbeatable. But now that Lynch has complained about the government telling lies and "using" her, GWB had better hope that Dick keeps his defibrillator handy.
Army Private Jessica Lynch has gone from being America's Sweetheart in Khaki to the right wing's latest Bleeding Heart Target.

Following Lynch's candid admission that she felt used by Pentagon handlers who filmed and propagandized her "rescue" from an Iraqi hospital bed, callers to conservative radio talk shows responded like jilted suitors. Some berated Lynch as a disgrace to her uniform while other male callers expressed the desire to "knock her teeth out."

On Veteran's Day, the Sunday supplements of many US newspapers featured an essay by Lynch that seemed intended to draw attention to her new book, I Am a Soldier, Too.

Doubtless many readers were "deeply stirred" by the Lynch article, a heart-felt attempt to come to terms with what it means to "Be an American."

But if one strips away the verbal bunting, the ceremonial cliches and the emotional confetti that such patriotic ramblings inevitably call forth, it was possible to discern a somewhat different and profoundly disturbing reality lurking behind the drumrolls.

If we are to believe this young American woman who nearly lost her life because of a wrong turn in someone else's country, "Being an American" is primarily defined by confusion, pain and loss.

With so many lives at stake in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Lynch's essay deserves a closer - and more critical -- second read.

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America," Lynch begins. "It was one of the first things we learned. I didn't know what it meant, really. It was just something we said, like the ABCs or our multiplication tables. We memorized that pledge just like everything else that our teachers wanted us to know. We were little kids. We wanted to play and eat cookies."

So What Does It Mean to Be an American?
For Lynch it meant being indoctrinated at a very early age by schoolteachers paid to encourage unthinking obedience to the prevailing political order.

I mean, we all knew who George Washington was and stuff like that, but if you had asked us what it meant to be an American or what the flag stood for, we'd have just said we didn't now or said we loved our country -- although we didn't know what that meant either. It was just what you said because it was what you were supposed to say.

What Does It Mean to Be an American?
For Lynch it meant being exposed to an educational system that fails to educate; that fails to instill an active, searching skepticism; that fails to teach critical thinking.

Indivisible? Justice? Liberty? Even after I got older and learned the meaning of the words, after I studied them in school and knew American history, I didn't really know what they stood for.

What Does It Mean to Be an American?
For young Jessica Lynch it meant growing into adulthood with no clear understanding of the core values of a free society. To have no real or deep personal appreciation of the importance of the social and civil freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

Then, a few weeks ago, the Ohio Veterans of Foreign Wars had a ceremony and made me a lifetime member.... When the old guys say that pledge, they know all about that stuff -- about liberty and justice for all.... They said I belonged with them because I had been in a war too. I finally know what the pledge is about. It's not just about flags and presidents.

What Does It Mean to Be an American?
To combat veteran Jessica Lynch it means being part of the ever growing "respected underclass" of US combat veterans.

They went off to fight for it ["liberty and justice for all"].... I also know that the price tag for all of it ["liberty and justice for all"] is high -- so high. I'd heard soldiers tell about it [war and combat], about what they saw, but it never sank in. It seemed like a movie, not something that could happen to you.

What Does It Mean to Be an American?
Being an American means being divorced from the realities of conflict. To be willing to join the Armed Forces based on the concepts of bravery and heroism promoted in megabuck Hollywood movies produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.

I now know that there was nothing anybody could say to really explain what serving your country meant or what being an American means to you if you go off to a place like Iraq. It's ... I guess it's complicated.

What Does It Mean to Be an American?
It means to take comfort in ambiguities. Lynch survived a close call with death in Iraq yet returned to the US still confused about what it means to be an American. Lost in uncertainties, she discovers that understanding comes not from personal experience but from hearing the words of an older generation of combat veterans. But even then, she confesses, no one's words can explain "it."

Serving your country isn't just putting on a uniform. It's putting on a uniform and putting your life at risk.

What Does It Mean to Be an American?
It doesn't mean working in the fields to create the food that feeds the nation. It doesn't mean working in the inner cities to combat hunger and social injustice. It doesn't mean organizing politically to demand economic justice in a poverty ridden town like Palestine, West Virginia, where the only ticket out of town is held by an Army recruiter who promises educational benefits and a "guaranteed" assignment to Hawaii. The lesson that Lynch was taught throughout her life is less complex: You can only become an American by risking your life in combat.

It's being scared, so scared. It's being hurt, hurt so bad you think you're gonna die. It's trying to hang onto hope when common sense tells you that there isn't any reason to hope.

What Does It Mean to Be an American?
Being an American means being exposed to exactly the same range of physical and emotional pain that any other human being would experience.

It's remembering, even when you can't fight or hide or run away, that you are still a soldier.

What Does It Mean to Be an American?
It means that even when logic and adrenaline dictate that you "hide or run away," you dare not surrender to the instinct for self-preservation because "you are a soldier."

If someone asks me now what it means to be an American, I can't just say stuff like pride in my country or pride in my flag or pride in the Army. It's not just words. All my life, when I think about what it means to be an American, I'll think about Lori [Piestewa, Lynch's friend who died in the attack, leaving behind two young children] and about what was lost -- to be an American soldier.

But being an American also means that the circle will close around you when you are hurt or threatened.

So now I know why we said that pledge -- and why people wrap themselves up in the flag in times of trouble and why they wrapped me up in it.

But the pledge will never just be words again, because now I know that none of it ["liberty and justice for all"] comes for free.

What Does It Mean to Be an American?
Jessica Lynch's conclusion is that freedom is not free. In short, the Bill of Rights is no longer our birthright as Americans. Instead, we must be willing to suffer death and painful loss in exchange for enjoying any political freedoms.

These are all parts of what it means to be an American. "But mostly," Lynch concludes, "it's loss. It's losing someone you love."

So, Finally, What Does It Mean to Be an American?
"Mostly, it's about loss. Losing someone you love."

If this has come to be the definition of being an American, how sad it is for our country.

Gar Smith is the Editor of The-Edge, an online magazine of investigative reporting and environmental journalism.

Christmas in the Trenches

This song is based on a true story from the frontlines of World War I France. Ian Calhoun, a Scot, was the commanding officer of the British forces involved in the story. He was subsequently court-martialed for "consorting with the enemy" and sentenced to death. Only George V spared him from that fate.
-- John McCutcheon

Silent Night (the photo appears on the cover of Weintraub's book).
My name is Francis Toliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago, the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany, to here,
I fought for King and country I love dear.

'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung.
Our families back in England were toasting us that day:
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound.
Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!" each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.

"He's singing bloody well, you know!" my partner says to me.
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony.
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more,
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent,
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen struck up some lads from Kent.
The next they sang was Stille Nacht, "'Tis Silent Night, says I.
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.

"There's someone coming towards us!" the front-line sentry cried.
All sights were fixed on one lone figure trudging from their side.
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's Land.
With neither gun nor bayonet, we met there hand to hand.
We shared some secret brandy and wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell.

We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home.
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own.
Young Sanders played his squeeze-box and they had a violin,
This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more.
With sad farewells, we each prepared to settle back to war.
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night:
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"

'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore.

My name is Francis Toliver, in Liverpool I dwell.
Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well:
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.

Words & Music by John McCutcheon.
copyright 1984 by John McCutcheon / Appalsong

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