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Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.


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Sunday, April 6

In Iraq, some heroes challenge old conventions

By Chuck Raasch | GNS

WASHINGTON - American soldier Jessica Lynch and an Iraqi man known only as Mohammed had little in common except their humanity. Yet together, they have drawn a portrait of unexpected heroism in the early days of the Iraq war.

Although some details are murky, Lynch's perseverance in captivity and the risks Mohammed took for her rescue captured headlines in the American press.

They are an unconventional pair, a stark contrast to the masculine Americanism of traditional war heroes from Patrick Henry to Audie Murphy to John McCain. And they contravened long-held war pretexts that vilified enemy populations and sheltered women from combat.

Lynch, a slight 19-year-old Army private from West Virginia, is widely described as an ``all-American girl'' who joined the military to pay for a college education. She was captured after her supply truck was ambushed and all of her colleagues were either captured or killed. Early reports that she had been wounded and fought heroically before being captured were later questioned. But the very fact that she had survived capture with a back injury, head wound and multiple broken bones has made her one of the war's first named heroes.

Hollywood - where many major celebrities have opposed the war - is already inundating the family with offers. Book offers will undoubtedly follow.Her rescue by U.S. commandos was made possible when Mohammed, a lawyer, walked six miles to inform U.S. forces of her whereabouts and twice returned to gather intelligence. Mohammed told reporters he wanted to help the young woman after his ``heart stopped'' when he saw her being slapped by a captor.

His actions contrast with the vicious actions of Iraqi fighters, even to their own people, and to the perceptions of past wars, when entire local populations were vilified.

Heroism in war is relative and a complex mixture of fact, myth, desire and propaganda. Saddam Hussein's minister of information described a car bomber who killed four American troops at a checkpoint as a hero.

One can readily define American wars by their heroes. Soldier Murphy and Air Force pilots like Joe Foss and Jimmy Doolittle came along early in World War II when morale at home was fragile and the military propaganda machine was desperately looking for heroes.

Not long before he died Jan. 1 this year, Foss' heroism took a twist. He became the symbol of post-Sept. 11 skittishness when he had his Medal of Honor confiscated by overzealous airport screeners who saw it as a potential weapon.

In Vietnam, one of the most recognized figures was Lt. William Calley, a commander in the tragic My Lai Massacre. Only later, after they came home, did POWs like McCain, now a U.S. senator from Arizona, become heroes of a lost war.

The heroes of the first gulf war were medal-chested generals like Norman Schwarzkopf largely because of the detached, briefings-heavy coverage of Saddam's ouster from Kuwait.

But the Iraq war has been blanketed by "embedded'' reporters providing ground-level, real-time coverage - prime ground for ordinary heroes.

At 19, Lynch comes from the tail end of a generation of young Americans often derided in pop culture as slackers not much interested in the larger world. But a steady diet of images out of Iraq and a heavy barrage of praise from the Pentagon up to the president has challenged that image.

"We know that liberty must be defended by every generation,'' President Bush said in a speech in Philadelphia shortly after the war began. ``This generation is fighting bravely in the cause of freedom.''

The Army that Lynch joined has been pushing this generation-of-heroes theme in recruiting advertisements. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it began running ads that said: "Every generation has its heroes. This one is no different.''

Given the debate about women in the military that raged in he 1990s, Lynch's notoriety is ironic.

Back in 1995, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich sparked criticism when he said women were not fit for ground combat because they were weaker and more susceptible to disease.

Men, the Georgia Republican said, "are basically little piglets. I mean drop them in a ditch and they just roll around and it doesn't matter.''

Women are not toting rifles in combat units in Iraq, but they are flying airplanes and are serving in support operations that put them very much in danger

In Gingrich's defense, he did not say that women could not be heroes. And today, he recognizes that women are also in harm's way.

"Young men and women are risking their lives 24 hours a day right now in real combat against a determined opponent,'' he told Fox News last week.