USA Today, July 21, 2003
Americans focus on iconic heroes, stray from reality
By Bruce Kluger
My friend Kathy had a pretty rough six months parenting
two young children while her husband was stationed in
Iraq. Still, the family tried to live its life normally, and when
her husband returned stateside in May, their reunion was
private and quiet.
In fact, the only homecoming image that exists is a photo
that ran in the small Marine base newspaper, featuring
Daddy on his knees joyfully embracing his daughter, while
Kathy and their son watch adoringly.
week, and it's clear America's obsession with celebrity has not only veered off into
the absurd, but also has created a picture of American life that is as far from reality
as The Osbournes.
When Lynch rolls back Tuesday into her hometown of Palestine, W.Va., she will do
so by military motorcade. The day's announced agenda includes her prepared
statement to the media, which has turned her hometown into a feeding ground for
reporters, photographers and camera crews from around the world. Lynch,
however, is not expected to answer questions about the events that brought her
worldwide attention, including the ambush of her convoy that took the lives of 11
soldiers, her 10-day captivity and her rescue by U.S. forces.
Although Lynch hasn't said publicly what she plans to do after her grand return, it's
safe to say that her previous goal—becoming a kindergarten teacher—may go on
the back burner. Not only will she need to continue her rehabilitation, but the 20-
year-old also must sort through the inevitable tsunami of publicity offers.
Lynch has been handed book and MTV deals, appeared on People magazine's
cover and been the subject of dozens of "exclusive" TV reports. And that was when
the military still was keeping her under wraps. By the year's end, Lynch may grow a
bit nostalgic for the battlefield's relative quiet.
The most dangerous byproduct of Americans' now woefully short attention span is
our increased inability to understand—or care about—real life beyond TV's one-
dimensional portraiture. Time and again, the news and entertainment industries
seize complex world issues and events, then strip them down to basics—complete
with good guys, bad guys and the simplest of plots. From the personal victimization
and shame played out on everything from Survivor to The O'Reilly Factor to the
hollow adulation bestowed on dream-team lawyers and American Idol winners, we
have reduced the American character to a caricature.
All too often, that image sticks. In Lynch's case, even as new details about her
capture and rescue conflict with the original dramatic version of her story, Lynch's
star quality hasn't dropped an iota. Once Americans seize on a headliner, they
rarely let go.
Case in point: 9/11 left countless widows, orphans and bereaved family members
and friends around the world. Only four months later, Flight 93 widow Lisa Beamer
was selected by President Bush as the representative of these grieving masses.
Taking her place next to the first lady during the State of the Union address,
Beamer would go on to write a book and, in the media's eyes, become emblematic
of the personal, intimate pain this extraordinary tragedy had brought ordinary
I truly felt for Beamer. Yet I couldn't help but note that she was young, white and
unusually pretty. Why hadn't Bush's team picked the widower I'd seen interviewed
earlier—a middle-aged black man married to a flight attendant on the same flight as
Beamer's husband? My heart broke as he recalled how his wife had given him a
fast update from the plane, then hustled him off the phone in those last horrible
moments so she could join the attempt to thwart the hijackers. Was his story less
picture-perfect than Beamer's?
The more the media winnow down the cast of thousands that populate the daily
news to a single, attractive leading lady or man, the more we lose touch with real
life. Yes, Lynch survived a harrowing ordeal. But let's not forget the thousands of
others who diligently fought and the thousands more still risking their lives in Iraq
every day—away from the limelight.
When I called Kathy this week to ask her how her life has been since her husband
returned home, she commented, almost nonchalantly, that he’d just been approved
for the Bronze Star for his service in Iraq.
“You know,” she said, “Napoleon once said, ‘Give me enough ribbon and I can
conquer the world,’ and now I understand that. It’s just a medal, I know. But we’re
still so proud of it. It may not be money, it may not be fame, but it really means
something to all of us.”
(Photo of Jessica Lynch from family/AP; portions of this essay did not appear in the original USA Today version.)