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Angel and whore
Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England — the damsel in distress and the castrating bitch — symbolize our shifting perceptions of the war in Iraq

THE INEVITABLE COMPARISONS have been painted with the simplistic broad strokes that are possible only when we’re discussing so-called public people about whom we actually know nothing. Jessica Lynch, who was rescued from her Iraqi captors last spring. Lynndie England, photographed humiliating Iraqi inmates at Saddam Hussein’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Both of them young, white women from West Virginia who joined the Army to escape the meager circumstances of their upbringing. One a hero, one a villain.

Newsweek calls England "the anti–Jessica Lynch." Time describes her as "a Jessica Lynch gone wrong." England’s father, Kenneth, attempted to spin the comparison to his daughter’s advantage, telling the Baltimore Sun, "Just like what happened with that Lynch girl, this is getting blown out of proportion, but in a negative way rather than a positive way." On Saturday, England ranked as the number-one "mover" on the Yahoo Buzz Index, beating out The Bachelor. On Monday, a search of Google News for stories referring to both women yielded 171 hits.

Trying to understand what’s gone wrong in Iraq by looking at these two women, though, is like peering through the wrong end of a telescope: what you wind up focusing on is very small and hard to make out. Because this is not about them. It’s about us.

In 2003, the Pentagon — briefly pinned down on the road to Baghdad and needing a public-relations victory — transformed an ordinary kidnapping into a tale of (literally) unbelievable heroism, portraying Lynch as a gun-slinging Amazon who kept mowing down the enemy even after she’d been injured. The media ate it up, only to back down after those who knew what had really happened — including Lynch herself — expressed their disgust.

In 2004, England — whose star turn in those photographs is admittedly shocking — has overshadowed her fellow prison guards, including her alleged boyfriend, Specialist Charles Graner, who may have supervised some of the torture and who is reportedly the father of England’s unborn child. More to the point, England was just a bit player. The International Committee of the Red Cross has reported that US forces had been suspected of abusing Iraqi prisoners for many months. In the New Yorker, legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has made it clear that the abuses couldn’t have taken place without the knowledge, even the encouragement, of higher-ups.

The very word "abuse" doesn’t do justice to what supposedly took place. Reportedly, Americans beat, raped, and even murdered Iraqi prisoners, making that photo of England holding a naked man on a leash look mild by comparison. But it was England whom the Boston Herald dubbed IRAQ’S QUEEN OF MEAN on its front page last Friday. And it was England whom the London Sun proclaimed a WITCH in a screaming page-one headline, followed by EVIL SOLDIER LYNNDIE IN NEW TORTURE PHOTO.

"I do think there’s some truth to the feminist thinking that we in the media tend to portray women as either wonderful things or terrible sinners — as angels or whores. It could be that what we’re seeing is the military portrayal of that," says Geneva Overholser, Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting at the Missouri School of Journalism. "I’m sure Lynndie England has been oversimplified in that it makes her out to be the epitome of this awful chapter. If we are using these young women to symbolize something, they certainly can’t be said to symbolize those who lead the troops."

No, they don’t. Rather, they symbolize our shifting perceptions of the war in Iraq. Jessica Lynch was the feel-good symbol of a feel-good moment, a brave young woman who, during her rescue, became that hardiest of archetypes: the damsel in distress. Lynndie England is a different symbol for a different moment. The occupation is going badly, American soldiers are being killed on a daily basis, and the Iraqi people seem to hate us — a far cry from the grateful masses whom the White House said would greet US troops with sweets and flowers.

Thus the stage was set for England’s arrival on the scene, parading in front of naked men, pointing to their digitally obscured phalluses while giving a thumbs-up sign, even as her own phallic symbol, a cigarette, dangles from her mouth. (Sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette. But not this time.) The damsel in distress has been supplanted by the castrating bitch.

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Issue Date: May 14 - 20, 2004
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