WASHINGTON (IPS/GIN)–An attractive and spirited young woman, held captive by sadistic foreigners and saved by coolly efficient, red-blooded, all-American males–it is a story straight out of romance novels, not to mention the “yellow journalism” that propelled the United States into the Spanish-American War and the beginnings of empire just over a century ago.
The stories of Pvt. Jessica Lynch, held captive by “cruel” Iraqi officers in Nasiriyah in the latter part of March 2003, and Evangelina Cisneros, held captive by “cruel” Spanish officers in 1897, are strikingly similar not only in their basic plot line, but also in their effect on rallying public opinion behind a war. The only major difference is the color of the two heroines’ eyes and hair.
“Hollywood could not have dreamed up a more singular tale,” gushed Time magazine about the harrowing story of Pvt. Lynch’s capture, captivity and the “daring rescue” that cheered millions in the U.S. public just when the military thrust deep into Iraq appeared to be bogging down in late March.
Indeed, Hollywood studios launched a bidding war over the rights to the story of the pretty, young, blonde soldier who, according to unnamed Pentagon sources, had “fiercely” resisted her Iraqi attackers in a gun battle “to the death,” after she and her company were ambushed in the early days of the war. “She did not want to be taken alive,” one of the sources told the Washington Post.
Taken to a hospital in Nasiriyah with “multiple gunshot wounds,” according to the anonymous officials’ breathless accounts, she was “slapped” in the face by an Iraqi officer–just one of a series of brutalities no doubt inflicted on her by her cruel, mustachioed captors–until the stunning night-time raid by U.S. Special Forces. Cameraman in tow, they shot their way into the hospital, which had been used as a base for paramilitaries, and whisked her back to civilization.
Within hours of the rescue, Central Command officials summoned journalists to a special briefing at their base in Doha, Qatar, to deliver the news of the first successful rescue mission of a U.S. prisoner of war since World War II, as the Chicago Tribune later described it. And the next morning, video footage in hand, Gen. Vincent Brooks called the mission “a classic operation, done by some of our nation’s finest warriors, who are dedicated to never leaving a comrade behind.”
The media followed every stop of her long trek back from Iraq–from her flight first to a U.S. military hospital in Germany until she was brought back to her family’s home in Palestine (of all places), West Virginia.
It was a great story–one repeated endlessly by both broadcast and print media over the days and even weeks after her rescue. But, like much of what is now coming out about the month-long U.S. military campaign, it was not entirely true.
Accounts by the BBC, the London Times and Daily Mail, and the Tribune now make clear that Pvt. Lynch, who reportedly remembers nothing about the ambush, sustained fractures in her limbs–no gunshot wounds–when the vehicle in which she was riding overturned.
And her heroic rescuers encountered absolutely no resistance of any kind in or around the hospital. “They could have walked into the hospital and no one would have stopped them,” one neighbor told the Tribune.
Staff members at the hospital quoted by the newspaper said Pvt. Lynch was cared for by two nurses 24 hours a day. “She was never mistreated,” according to one of the nurses, Furat Hussein. Hospital staff even donated blood for her.
At one point, they tried to drive her by ambulance to a U.S. checkpoint, but they returned to the hospital after coming under fire from U.S. troops. Two days later, the commandos arrived, guns blazing, blowing the locks off the hospital’s doors, terrorizing patients and staff, some of whom were handcuffed, and even spiriting off the hospital’s assistant manager, who was held for two days before being released.
Unlike Pvt. Lynch, Ms. Cisneros was not a soldier, but a Cuban nationalist who was charged with conspiracy to assassinate a Spanish military officer, thrown in prison in Havana and subsequently adopted by press mogul William Randolph Hearst as a cause celebre “who would do more to open the eyes of the country” to Cuba’s plight “than a thousand editorials or political speeches.”
As with the anonymous Pentagon sources who insisted that Pvt. Lynch fought fiercely before being injured and subdued, Mr. Hearst and his staff transformed the reason for Ms. Cisneros’ captivity from attempted murder to defending “her chastity against the lustful advances.”
Described as a “fairy-tale little Cuban maiden” and as a “Cuban Joan of Arc,” the Hearst press interviewed former Havana prisoners who “swore they had seen her rudely treated” during her long captivity, according to a 1999 paper by academic Karen Roggenkamp.
“The story of Cisneros was not a dry presentation of documentary evidence,” Ms. Roggenkamp wrote. “Rather it was a testimony to her goodness and heroic nature, filled with the melodramatic adventure, unforgettable characters, and forbidding settings of one of the most popular genres of the 1890s–the fictional medieval romance.” The impact on public opinion was electrifying.
Mr. Hearst even went so far as to arrange a rescue worthy of the legend of Robin Hood and his Maid Marion. He sent his adventurer-reporter Karl Decker (who also later capitalized on the story with a book of his own) to Havana with the mission, as Ms. Roggenkamp described, of “breaking Hearst’s innocent maiden out of her squalid jail cell and riding off with her on a white steed–or at least to put her on a steamer bound for the United States.”
Mr. Decker rented a room opposite Ms. Cisneros’ prison cell and during the night suspended a plank between the two rooms nearly 40 feet above the ground. With two Cuban accomplices, he sawed the cell bars open and pulled her out. “She reached her hands to us with many little, glad cries, rippling out in whispered Spanish benedictions for our efforts to save her,” Mr. Decker wrote.
Smuggled out of the country aboard a steamer, Ms. Cisneros remained a daily fixation of the nation’s readers as the Hearst chain covered her trip north until she sailed triumphantly into New York Harbor, the toast of the nation and the inspiration for a war that set the United States firmly on the road to empire.