The manufacture of heroes: A critical comparison of the press coverage of the British campaign in Afghanistan and the Jessica Lynch case

Essay, 2011

19 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1.0. Introduction

2.0. The US Media
2.1. Objection, hearsay! Initial Media Reports of Jessica Lynch’s Abduction
2.2. "She did not want to be taken alive." How the US Media Covered the Legend of Lynch

3.0. The British Media
3.1. Counting the Dead. The New Standard of Reporting?.
3.2. “Backing Our Boys.” How the British Media Covers the Fate of British Soldiers in Afghanistan

4.0. Conclusion

5.0. Appendix
5.1. Endnotes
5.2. Bibliography.

1.0. Introduction

Hero/Heroine: „A man/woman, who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities: a war hero, she was a true feminist heroine ” (Oxford 2010). The need for a hero or a heroine is probably as old as humanity itself. Whether it was the mythical Achilles in Greek mythology, Admiral Nelson in British history or Margaret Corbin, a heroine of the American Revolutionary War, in the American one, people always felt the urge to have somebody to look up at.

By the example of two modern heroic legends, Jessica Lynch and the average British soldier in Afghanistan, I want to find out why this need for heroes exists, where it comes from, and how the media deals with it. Additionally, I will try to find out whether the manufacture of heroes serves the interests of the media and the government, and if it does, what interests this could be and how they are pursued.

2.0. The US Media

2.1. Objection, hearsay! Initial Media Reports of Jessica Lynch’s Abduction

On April 3 2003, the Washington Post began its report on what became one of the most controversial stories of the Iraq invasion.

Pfc. Jessica Lynch, rescued Tuesday from an Iraqi hospital, fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed the Army's 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company, firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition, U.S. officials said yesterday. Lynch, a 19 year old supply clerk, continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds (Loeb/Schmidt 2003 cited in Finnegan 2006: 141).

The magazine PEOPLE, which sells about 3.7 million Image 1: Jessica Lynch copies a week according to Martyn (2008: 136), continued the story eighteen days later with the headline “Rescued from Danger”, which suggested that Lynch had to survive captivity and torture before being freed. Additionally, PEOPLE claimed to have been informed by a "Capitol Hill source privy to intelligence briefings about her condition" that "those people - the Iraqi captors - were barbaric," and "with what they had planned for her, she was going to die" (Rogers 2003). The Los Angeles Times reported that Lynch was suffering „from injuries said to include broken legs, a broken arm and at least one gunshot wound", while AP cited a cousin of her who stated that the doctors had found shrapnel in Lynch’s body (Chinni 2003). But only small parts of these initial reports were actually true.i

2.2. "She did not want to be taken alive." How the US Media Covered the Legend of Lynch

The oft-cited quote in the headline stems from an unnamed US-official and was published in a disputed article by Schmidt and Loeb in the Washington Post. It was one of the reasons why Jessica Lynch became a shining heroine for so many, and it was also the reason why she should become a tragic heroine in the eyes of others. Her abduction was tailor made for the media. Lynch had some features that made her the perfect victim: She was a young and seemingly fragile girl, was wounded, and a member of a non-combat unit (thus particularly in need of help). Kumar (2004: 300) observed that the media accordingly dubbed her as a "tiny" and "petite" 19-year old, alongside with pictures that showed Lynch’s small stature. Her alleged rough treatment helped the media to portray her as a heroine.

O´Connell (2006: 38) explains the media’s obsession with the Lynch story with the special fascination captivity stories traditionally have on the minds of many American people. Accounts of women who were captured by Native Americans and carried off to Indian Countryii (a term which many US soldiers still use for enemy territory (Silliman 2008: 237)) proved to be especially fascinating. The captivity story triggered certain reflexes in American public as the New York Times (McAllister 2003) found out: "Americans were primed to expect a story of rescue (...) because for more than two centuries our culture has made the liberation of captives into a trope for American righteousness." The captive had become a symbol, "representing the nation's virtuous identity to itself" by showing the best of the American character in resisting her captors bravely. Kumar (op cit.: 297) points out that using the example of the damsel in distress has a long tradition in war propaganda (e.g. the propaganda poster Destroy this Mad Brute (Haley 2011)). Women were depicted as helpless victims and were used to arouse feelings of protectiveness and masculinity in men. And as a "female hero/soldier she came to reflect the US’s ‘civilized’ and emancipated culture, in contrast to a carefully constructed image of the Middle East as barbaric" (Kumar op cit: 299).

Subsequently, Lynch was given two roles in the media. On the one hand, she achieved victim status as a "little thing". But on the other hand, she was credited as "tough as nails" by an Air Force Captain who accompanied her on the evacuation flight. The media unquestioningly spread the whole story and even declared her broken bones to be the result of torture which Lynch had to endure "to become a hero of the Iraqi war" (Kumar ibid: 301). Additionally, the glossy appearance of pictures of Lynch in the PEOPLE magazine may have added to the impression that Lynch was some kind of star. Representative for many other magazines in the US its story was "rife with unnamed sources, glittering generalities, just folks elements and breathtaking name calling." Also, the article refers to higher powers, which helped during the rescue ("God smiled on us that night" (Martyn 2008: 136-137)).

Rogers (op cit) article goes on to cement the two sides of Lynch’s character: "Part tomboy, part wannabe beauty queen”, “Lynch played with Barbies“ as a child, but also challenged her brother in push-up contests and strength tests. She was presented as the All-American Girl, as a "dream student" who "just made everybody laugh" and "rode a float in the high school homecoming school parade"; all descriptions that make it easy to identify with her. The also noteworthy fate of her best friend Lori Piestewa, who was the first Native-American woman in history to die in combat serving in the US-military, found less attention.

A noteworthy observation is that the media reports of her heroism influenced even high-ranking politicians. Col. David Hackworth (2003) stated that it was a disputed decision to award her the USA’s fourth-highest military decoration, the Bronze Star, for not much more than bravery. He claims that it was actually the initial article of the Washington Post and the uncritical takeover by other newspapers that put the military under pressure by public and conservative senators to award her a medal. Thereby, the media helped to create a myth about which they then reported extensively.

But not all newspapers were uncritical of the Lynch story. The Washington Post soon acknowledged that its initial reports had been inexact and tried to change its coverage of the story, however without issuing an apology or revision. And other newspapers took over reports from abroad, which dealt much more critical with the whole story. One US paper wrote that "what actually happened may be a far cry from what you‘ve been told" (Basu 2003). One month after her rescue the Chicago Tribune ran a piece that re-examined the Lynch story. The newspaper sent somebody to Nasiryah to speak to the doctors who had treated her. Its conclusion was that both Lynch’s tales of heroism as well as the claims that her rescue had been a propaganda operation had been exaggerated by the US media. However, the newspaper wrote that Lynch’s story was "the story of how a modern war icon is made and perhaps how easily journalists with different agendas accepted contradictory self-serving versions of what happened to her" (Chinni op cit).

But many other newspapers continued to report their version of the story, even after in May 2003 the BBC documentary War Spin had accused the US military of staging the rescue of Jessica Lynch for propagandistic reasons. Sussmann (2003 in Martyn 2008: 146) is convinced that "American journalist-storytellers liked their narrative line so much that they held on to it long after its truthfulness sagged under the weight of its own ungainly hype." Kumar (op cit: 306) underpins this accusation with statistics.iii Hanson (2003 in Kumar ibid: 306) says that the reasons why the US media did not report about the turn of the story were a lack of interest in "feel good" stories (also called negativity), the fear of being cut off from government information sources, and the feared implications on the many films, documentaries, and books that were planned with Lynch’s name. It should be considered problematic that some of the news corporations which reported her case extensively belonged to the same media companies that had gained the book or film rights (Kumar ibid: 306).

Chomsky’s and Herman‘s propaganda model (1988: 14), which describes inter alia “how dissent from the mainstream is given little, or zero, coverage” (Cromwell 2002), while the big media corporations report news in accordance with the interests of their owners, helps to understand the Lynch case. It says that to a certain amount objectivity is sacrificed when it comes to the maximisation of profit. As pictures of a young and beautiful GI-Jane sell better than those of amputated Iraqi children, the emphasis was put on this story. And it was exploited to the utmost in accordance with the interests of these big media companies. A TV-Movie, a book about her ordeal, and an exclusive interview showed the importance that media officials awarded to her.

Kumar (op cit: 302) writes that Lynch’s constructed heroism is important especially for the American culture. "The nation is represented by her, while the individual Lynch highlights all that is "good" about American society.“ Lynch’s tale followed clear Hollywood standards of heroism and the Iraq War, together with the growing anxiety towards Muslims after 9/11, served as an ideal playground for her story. On the one side were the roguish Fedayeen, who were considered to be some of Saddam’s most loyal troops. The fact that nobody knew anything about them because of their loose paramilitary structure, added further to their cloak-and-dagger appearance and made them archetypes of the threatening male Muslim villain. On the other side there was the "angelic hero/victim" Jessica Lynch, a white, blonde, and Christian female. Understandably, the US press went for that story. And lost almost all common journalistic sense about it.

Chomsky’s and Herman’s propaganda model includes five filters (“ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak, and anticommunist ideology”) through which information has to pass to become news (Herman 1996). In explanation of their third filter, sourcing, Chomsky and Herman state (op cit: 14) that "the mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest." This seemed to have been the case in the Lynch story. Without reporters and independent sources in the area, the media was condemned to take over the accounts of dubious and anonymous officials. And the lack of reliable sources from the opposite side (e.g. Iraqi witnesses) in the early stages of the event played its part in the imbalance of the initial reports. But the uncritical way the media in the US reported about the Lynch Story could as well have been the fault of the special structure of the US media. Chomsky (Syzkowny 1990: 15) argues that "you can pretty well predict what's going to be on network television (...) by looking at the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post." And he thinks that “for most of the population, television news' framing of the issues is probably much more influential" than its appearance in the print media.

The question whether the military staged a propagandistic event to draw the attention of the American people from the slow advance of the allied forces is an argument for another day, even if the author of Lynch’s biography (Bragg 2003: 153) is convinced that "the war needed a hero then, badly." However, it should be pointed out that Lynch had 919 references in major newspapers, compared to the Commanding General Tommy Franks with 639 and Dick Cheney with 549 (Hanson 2003 in Kumar op cit: 297).

3.0. The British Media

3.1. Counting the Dead. The New Standard of Reporting?

The British media reports extensively about the war in Afghanistan and especially about wounded or killed British soldiers. Numbers are important when it comes to special features of the 100th or 300th soldier killed. It is striking how many times the word hero is used in the reports. In the majority of cases it is not the newspaper

which awards the title, but the Image 2: “Fallen heroes: The 300 soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001”….. relatives. But many newspa-pers use the word without quotes, such as the Mirror (Byrne 2010: 17), which reports how the daughter of a fallen soldier “gives a final wave to her hero dad Chris who was cut down by the Taliban.” Others, such as the Daily Mail, used the term more self-evidently. It compared the soldiers to football players and called them the “real heroes” (Wilkes 2010: 20). The term was also extensively used to describe the homecoming of the 11th Light Brigade on 23 June 2010. The Sun wrote that „10000 greet heroes“, the Daily Star saw „650 heroes“, and even the Times quoted the Duchess of Cornwall saying: „You are all heroes“ (Hampshire 2011).

Only some papers such as the Guardian (Norton-Taylor 2010) used the increasing numbers of deaths to remind their readers about the stagnant situation in Afghanistan. And only a minority of them such as the Standard (2010) reported the critical utterances of the father of a killed soldier who asked the prime minister to explain to him the sense of the war in Afghanistan. Most newspapers focused on the positive attributions that were awarded to the killed soldier.


i "At the same time, tales of great heroism were being told. At my parents' home in Wirt County, WV, it was under siege by media, all repeating the story of the little girl Rambo from the hills of West Virginia who went down fighting. It was not true." (Lynch in U.S. Government Printing Office 2007)

ii Cp. Seaver, J.E., (1824) A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, Who was taken by the Indians in the year 1755. 1st ed. Canandaigua, N.Y.: J.D. Bemis.

iii She made a LexisNexis search with the terms "BBC, Lynch and rescue" in the full text for a two months period after the BBC documentary War Spin had aired and found only 24 news reports in major newspapers. But only a few of them actually reported critical about the military claims, while others defended the military and wrote that such inaccuracies can happen in chaotic war time situations.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


The manufacture of heroes: A critical comparison of the press coverage of the British campaign in Afghanistan and the Jessica Lynch case
University of Lincoln  (Media and Humanities)
War and the Media
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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665 KB
Jessica Lynch, Invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq War, Hero, Held, Irakkrieg, Iraqis, Iraker, Rape, Vergewaltigung, Propaganda, US, US militarz, women in the armed forces, Frauen in der Armee, Washington Post, War Spin, Chomsky, Herman, Propaganda Model, Propagandamodell, GI-Jane, Fedayeen, Taliban, British press, tabloids, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Hero Harry, War, attacks, artillery
Quote paper
MA Urs Endhardt (Author), 2011, The manufacture of heroes: A critical comparison of the press coverage of the British campaign in Afghanistan and the Jessica Lynch case, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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