The rural hamlets of Palestine and Fort Ashby sit at opposite ends of West Virginia. I've never visited either town, but having spent most of my life in a small community in a neighboring state, I can envision life in these places. I see February's gunmetal skies and snowy fields, summer's blooming honeysuckle groves. With eyes closed, I hear the hunters' leaf-crunching steps and the raucous cheers of Friday night football crowds, smell the musty October fog that rises from chilled creeks.
The young people of Palestine and Fort Ashby and thousands of similar towns grow up familiar with such local colors. As adults, these memories will supply the chords of nostalgia's sweetest songs, but to a high school student, the proximity of these wonders also sullies them. Like adolescents the world over, the teens of Palestine and Fort Ashby ache not only for new experiences but also to define themselves far from the judging eyes of families and churches, from the schools that have been evaluating them since their first day of kindergarten. For the majority of such young people, cable television and the internet mold the perception of what lies beyond the Mountain State's coal-sooty rivers and pine-topped ridges. With the exception of brand names and chain store logos, this virtual world of riches and opportunities and excitement must seem incongruous to their reality, a conceptual schism that leaves them feeling like outsiders in their own country.
Students nearing graduation in these hardscrabble locales face difficult decisions. Finances often cripple dreams of college. Local industries limp along, offering pitiful paychecks, little security, and a breed of mindless labor that shackles its young employees to the communities many had dreamed of escaping. No wonder the military recruiters gravitate to blue-collar schools. In their uniforms and polished boots, they hand out brochures and promises that, to kids like Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England, must have seemed like a rescuer's lifeline.
Early on, we confront the unreliability of the spoken word. Bedtime stories and nursery rhymes test a child's budding notions of truth and fiction. In classrooms and playgrounds, we are introduced to lies and deceptions. Grasping the lesson of Don't believe everything you hear is an integral facet of growing up, and by the time a child leaves elementary school, he or she has come to the sober realization that words are not only slippery and pliable; they can also be honed into barbs that hurt more than any black-eye punch.
Children are also taught Pictures don't lie. The preacher or politician may stand tall and deny the accusations hurled their way, but are damned by exiting a brothel or accepting a money bundle. We believe that vision, our dominant sense, equals truth. We see and we believe. Yet what happens when the experience of witnessing becomes secondhand and robbed of context? Our eyes are fooled--we see and we believe. Videos are edited, transforming reality into a pastiche that reflects an editor's whims. The silence of photographs lends them the illusion of neutrality.
The images of Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England, visceral and seemingly candid, struck us at a level much deeper than words alone ever could. We often wonder how we would react if thrust into a realm of dire circumstances and shadowy morality. Unforeseen world events whisked these two young women halfway across the globe, and the documentation of their behavior spoke to the deeply rooted notions we have of ourselves and the people we wish to be.
The photographs from Abu Ghraib were never intended to reach the public. In the back of our minds, we understood prisoners were being tortured. Our leaders had pounded home the fact that this was a different type of war, one that required new strategies and methods. Our enemies had proven themselves ruthless and unwilling to abide by the normal rules of military engagement. Once provoked, we declared we would beat them at their own game. Imagine an iced-over pond. Our implicit yet thankfully unchallenged knowledge of the cruelty at work in our prisons and interrogation cells lurked far beneath the ice--cold, distant and easily forgotten.
Then came the photographs, stolen heartbeats rife with wordless themes of sadism and humiliation. We had little choice but to identify with the captors who posed like gleeful hunters over their olive-skinned victims. The pictures shattered the ice and plunged us all into the frigid muck, and as a nation, we panicked to escape. Lynndie England's crime wasn't torture--her crime was being present in a series of images that exposed a truth we'd been struggling to ignore. There was little doubt of her guilt--her beaming face attested to her willful participation in the scenes' brutalities--but her culpability spilled out from those horrifically captured moments for she was also guilty of being sucked into a poorly defined situation by her government and her misguided love for a sadistic man. She was guilty of not being pretty and imitating her peers and of being caught in an atmosphere where the humiliations documented by those photos and no doubt much worse were being carried out by special operatives savvy enough to leave their prisoners' sufferings unrecorded.
The photos and the tales they spurred alchemized into the fodder of the twenty-four-hour news outlets. The story's facts--its who, what, where, and why's--were swiftly consumed, and into the ravenous void flowed the speculators, the pop psychologists, the military analysts, the pro and antiwar proponents. Pundits from across the ideological spectrum shared, for a change, a zeal to distance themselves--and, by proxy, us--from Ms. England. As a nation, we united to label this woman as "the other." Word by word, the political and social machines forged the links that bound her to a crime in which she was the pettiest of players. None of us reached out to save her as she sank into the cold water. The ice reformed, a metaphor reinforced by her swift court martial and subsequent confinement in a military prison outside San Diego. Soon, the news channels gravitated toward fresher scandals, and the thought of Lynndie England faded.
If the Lynndie England pictures proved to be an embarrassment, a miscue along the order of a catwalk stumble in the administration's meticulously orchestrated presentation of the war, then the Jessica Lynch story was intended to be the show's dazzling centerpiece. Had the mission to save her failed, few outside Palestine, West Virginia would know her name. Thankfully, Ms. Lynch was rescued, and to document the daring mission, one member of the crack commando team wielded not a rifle but a video camera. Recorded in the pixilated green-white of a night-vision filter, the image of a bewildered young woman whisked to safety was readily consumed by a nation familiar with the first-person-removed perspective of reality television. The video, far less jerky than one might expect, featured the telescope-cropped framing of an old silent movie, a technique which echoed the scene's cinematic sensibilities of the cavalry and the saved heroine. A diversionary attack's explosions lit the night as Ms. Lynch's stretcher was loaded into a waiting helicopter. Once the helicopter rose into the sky, the film returned to grainy color. Ms. Lynch, dazed yet smiling, gazed into the lens as one of her rescuers placed a folded flag upon her chest.
Within a day, the video and the Pentagon's accompanying story of the brave nineteen-year-old whose convoy had been ambushed flooded the airwaves. A wrong turn had been taken, the darkness ripped asunder by explosions and small-arms fire. Eleven soldiers died that night. Six were captured, including a young woman who dreamed of one day becoming a kindergarten teacher, a woman who, according to the military's press briefings, ignored her serious wounds as she fought alongside her comrades, the sand around her littered with the smoking casings spit from her M-16.
A breath of pride filled our chests. Ms. Lynch's high school yearbook portrait was splashed across the newsstand's glossy weeklies and CNN. Blessed with an unassuming, wholesome beauty, she'd risen above her circumstances while avoiding the darker lures which so often claim our self-centered youth. The story, fleshed out with interviews of family and friends and beaming politicians, transcended into the mythic. Here was a hero. And in saving her, we--no matter how far removed--were heroes, too. As a nation, we rushed to embrace this girl and her saviors. We longed to identify with her bravery, her humble nature. We wrapped her in praises and hoisted her high, cheering her rehabilitation and her endearing modesty.
The stories of these two privates hinged on their accompanying images. Without the pictures, their reporting would have been little more than a blip, a sentence or two parroted off a teleprompter. Accusations of abuse would have been dismissed with a curt Pentagon response. A tale of a daring rescue would have been applauded before the latest breaking news from the worlds of sports or entertainment.
The visual breathed life into these stories and imbued them with a type of longevity words alone couldn't provide. Robbed of their deeper context, these images were culled then prepared not so much as news but as consumer goods. Ms. England and Ms. Lynch stopped being human beings and instead transformed into curious types of commodities, their faces masks for behaviors and emotions we yearned to define--whether through identification or avoidance--within ourselves.
Months would pass before we realized that neither of these stories were what they initially appeared to be. Government spokesmen continued to cloak their answers concerning the treatment of detainees in ambiguous statements, dodging questions of torture and status until the public, through confusion or fatigue or willful ignorance, dropped its pretense of outrage, content to assign its memories of Lynndie England and its notions of guilt to the bottom of consciousness's icy lake.
Jessica Lynch, displaying a brand of bravery that should have been met with greater accolades, later debunked the story of her capture. She hadn't even fired her rifle, and curious again was the public's acceptance of this with a nod and a shrug. The story's fabricators went unpunished, the fact that our government had manufactured another deception to garner support for a war conceived upon deception obviously less a crime than jaywalking or smoking a joint. In the cases of Ms. Lynch and Ms. England, we'd been sold a pair of products, and when we discovered them damaged, we deemed it more convenient to throw them out rather than examine them to understand what had gone wrong.
Ask any five Americans why we're in Iraq and you're apt to receive five different responses. We're there to fight Al-Qaeda. We're there to stop the threat of WMDs or to bring democracy to the Middle East. We're there for oil or perhaps to rearrange the geopolitical map for a new world order. Our government can't tell us how long we'll maintain our presence, and our troops on the ground often have difficulty determining who is the enemy.
The reason these two women so thoroughly captured our attention goes beyond the convenience of the images that accompanied their tales. As a people, we prefer simplicity over complexity. Give us our heroes and villains, our blacks and whites. The never-ending shades of gray that choke our reality exhaust us and leave us yearning for a simplified conceptual world. The war in Iraq, with its lack of a clear-cut goal and its absence of a moral core, lies beyond our collective comprehension. What we can understand, however, are two human faces.
Jessica Lynch's true bravery of slaying her own legend was largely disregarded because it underscored the more unsettling lies we've forced ourselves to swallow. Lynndie England was found guilty of conspiracy and the maltreatment of prisoners. The rest of us, cloaked beneath a submissive silence, became her coconspirators; all of us guilty of, at the least, intellectual laziness and, at worst, cowardice.
Now step back and take a picture of our country. Study the photograph. This is not the whole story, yet this image reveals a telling hint of who we are now.
Curtis Smith's stories and essays have appeared in over sixty literary journals and have been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. His latest books are Bad Monkey, a collection of stories from Press 53, and the novel Truth or Something Like It from Casperian Books. "Two Women from West Virginia" will appear in his upcoming essay collection, Witness, due to come out later this year from Sunnyoutside Press.