Jessica Lynch, Col. West: What's wrong with this picture?

Posted: Nov 16, 2003 12:00 AM

I sometimes wonder whether a nation that sends girls like Jessica Lynch into battle and punishes soldiers like Lt. Col. Allen West is quite in its right mind.

Why is Jessica Lynch's story worthy of a book, a TV movie and a waltz through celebrity central on ABC, NBC, CNN, etc.? Meaning no disrespect to her, and with all sympathy for what she endured, she was nonetheless simply a victim, not a heroine -- something she herself acknowledges.

Her fame and prominence are the result of two inventions. The first, a collaboration between some anonymous Pentagon activist and a willing reporter for The Washington Post, cast Jessica as a great Amazon warrior, who emptied her M-16 into oncoming Iraqi troops and suffered gunshots and stab wounds before she stopped firing. By the time this story was, ahem, shot down, Jessica Lynch was a household name.

That's when the second invention was substituted. Jessica Lynch was now the wholesome girl next door; the sweet, pretty innocent whom any fine American man would like to bring home to mom and dad. Every step in her recuperation was treated as front-page news, and her family home became a small shrine.

We next learned that Larry Flynt has (but does not plan to publish) pictures of Ms. Lynch cavorting topless with other American soldiers. Beneath the layers of spin and fantasy is apparently a perfectly ordinary girl with less than exemplary comportment who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And yet she is probably the most famous American soldier to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Sigh.

Does anyone else find "our little gal at the front" less than appropriate for a nation in a global war against terrorists and fanatics?

Lt. Col. Allen West, meanwhile, a real soldier, is facing ruin. Allen commanded an artillery unit in the 4th Infantry Division before being relieved of his command recently. The Army has charged Allen with aggravated assault.

Here is what happened. Like other American units, Allen's was facing ambushes and attacks. On a tip, West detained a local police officer who was said to be cooperating with the enemy. When the police officer failed to provide any information after initial questioning, West took charge of the interrogation himself and employed tougher measures. He fired his pistol over the shoulder of the man to frighten him.

The tactic worked. The policeman then revealed the names of several plotters, and the Army was able to foil a planned ambush of Americans. Immediately after the interrogation, West reported his conduct to his commanding officer.

Army prosecutors have reportedly offered West a choice: resign before he becomes eligible for a pension, or be charged with assault. The charge could carry a sentence of up to eight years.

Question: Does the Army want all of its soldiers to be Jessica Lynches?

Some readers will recall that nine months ago, I wrote a column in which I shrank from the use of torture even against members of Al Qaeda. By torture, I meant the infliction of severe pain. That pistol shot was not torture. It was rough treatment. It scared the villain into revealing life-saving information. As a recent Atlantic Monthly article argues, our overall victory in the war on terror will depend, to some not insignificant extent, upon success at the "dark art of interrogation."

After all, when it comes to outright warfare, there is no power on earth that can touch us. Those who predicted that the war against Iraq would be relatively easy were exactly right. It required only three weeks to effect regime change. If Turkey had permitted us to use her territory to launch a northern thrust, it would have taken even less time.

But now we are in the more difficult part of the conflict, the battle against hit and run subterranean terrorists and Baath loyalists (a distinction without a difference). And in this battle, reliable intelligence is more valuable than a fantastic infantry and a supersonic air force. And while our soldiers are in part goodwill ambassadors -- and they do an excellent job of stilling suspicion and winning converts (probably better than all of the State Department's diplomats ever could) -- there are some less-than-comfortable tactics that remain necessary. West employed one of them. He undoubtedly saved the lives of Americans.

If he is prosecuted or threatened in any way, it will be a terrible affront to justice and common sense. Secretary Rumsfeld, are you listening?