Now that that's over...

A preliminary post-mortem on "Jessica Lynch Media Carnival Week*"
*Inspired by the real life institution, "The News Media"

First of all, let me admit, I didn't actually witness a lot of JLMCW first hand. I chose the "Elizabeth Smart Story" over the "Saving Private Lynch" movie and I only saw parts of the Diane Sawyer interview (and half of that on a television in a bar with no sound and no captions, although there was much speculation on what the images meant). Most of my analysis is therefore based on daytime TV reports viewed during the Veterans Day holiday mentioned below, and print accounts.

So, if you did follow every minute of JLMCW and take issue with my generalizations, you are probably right, and should probably be ashamed.

Second, the standard disclaimer in media carnival situations: let none of this reflect on the actual person 'Jessica Lynch', who by all accounts appears to be very sensible and nice.

That said...the large theme missing from the whole 'how egregious was the Pentagon's propaganda' debate has got to be what this all means for the role of women in the military. That's really the larger thing at stake here.

This war has been a significant departure from all previous U.S. conflicts in terms of the visibility and participation of female soldiers. (see "War Dames" in the Washington Monthly from the December 2002 issue for a pre-war discussion) When historians write about the full integration of women into the armed forces, as they are now about the integration of African American men, this war will no doubt be a turning point. What will historians find when they look the culture this change took place in? Provided Lexis-Nexis is still being used, they probably won't be able to ignore the Jessica Lynch phenomenon.

And what does that say? While the Pentagon's propaganda package was very much couched in gender-neutral 'fallen hero' rhetoric, the narrative pretty unabashedly played on an 'our women are in danger' subtext. This of course, is part and parcel of nationalist stories mobilized in times of war, only the U.S. cannot claim it so easily, as we aren't really in danger of getting invaded that often. You certainly see it during the Civil War, especially in Confederate propaganda (the dual threat of Yankees and slaves against virtuous southern women), and it of course is an element in the xenophobic campaigns which have accompanied foreign conflicts. But not in the way Israel can foment fear of Arabs by playing on gender, with the enemy a very real and tangible presence.

So the Pentagon knew it had a winner when it capitalized on Lynch's capture, painting a gruesome picture that played on our most repressed fears of what could happen to a 19 year old American girl in the heat of war in a barbaric foreign country. It is a testament to how far cultural mores have come that no one is crying to scale back female involvement in the armed forces, but at the same time, the Army's top-flight production and the incredible life of the story only speak to how sore a point this is with the public.

The question, then, is how long will this define our thinking about women in the military? This explosive intersection of gender and violence cannot be ignored if this process is to be successful, whether at the rhetorical level of the Jessica Lynch phenomenon, or the all too real tragedy of serial rape in the Air Force Academy. A real public debate needs to occur--don't ask, don't tell is not an option.


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