IT’S just as well women in the US military are sent into the thick of the action. People may argue that they lack physical strength, are emotionally unstable or distract their male counterparts in the heat of battle: but there’s nothing like a pretty young private plucked from the jaws of death to push images of screaming Iraqi children off the front pages.
After a fortnight of wall-to-wall gloom, the rescue of Pte Jessica Lynch (whose slim figure and yellow tresses are reminiscent of a young Goldie Hawn) provided the coalition with its first morale-boosting image: a smiling teenager on a stretcher, rescued in an audacious raid on a hospital in Nassiriyah.
The coalition may not yet have convinced many Iraqis they want to be liberated (shots of civilians welcoming soldiers in the suburbs of Najaf have been conspicuously absent from our television screens), but the US army has managed to liberate one of its own, and it has no intention of playing the achievement down.
Dogged by friendly fire incidents, the US was badly in need of a feel-good story, and boy, did they get it. With the possible exception of the fact that Lynch hails from a village called Palestine, her story was tailor-made for military spin doctors.
The Lynch family - father Greg and mother Deadra, brother Greg, also a soldier, and sister, Brandi, come from God-fearing farming country in West Virginia, where the people tied yellow ribbons round oak trees and "prayed hard" for her return. When news of her rescue broke, they came tumbling out of their wooden cabin on the hillside like their Blue Ridge Mountain neighbours, the Walton family.
Even her great uncle Ira was wheeled out to give his home-spun tuppence-worth. "It is wonderful how the Lord has worked in this," he pronounced, before heading off to celebrate with a bowl of Ma Lynch’s apple pie.
Better still, this is the second time supply clerk Lynch has been liberated by the US army. The first was when recruitment officers turned up at her door and offered her a way out of her honest, but restricting poverty in a state where unemployment runs at 15%. Joining up gave her status and a means of paying for her education.
Never mind Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Jessica’s tale couldn’t have been a greater propaganda coup if it had been simulated in a Hollywood studio by the fixers in Wag the Dog - the satirical film about the staging of an entirely fictitious conflict through fake TV images in an attempt to distract voters from the US president’s sexual peccadilloes.
The potential of Jessica’s tale wasn’t lost on their real-life counterparts, who arranged an immediate press conference. Timing was of the essence: they wanted the grainy night-time footage of Jessica’s rescue to be carried on the evening news across America.
Still the special forces managed to drape the stars and the stripes over her bullet-riddled body before their cameras captured her being carried into a Black Hawk helicopter. Later a statement was issued describing how she fought to her last bullet to defend herself.
As an army spokesman declaimed: "We in the US never leave our heroes behind: never have, never will," you half expected to see closing credits roll and the lights to go up.
In the face of such good television, it ceased to matter that Jessica’s 15-strong group - part of the 507th Maintenance Company - was attacked, not while fighting for control of a bridge or airfield, but because it made a wrong turn and was ambushed. The fact that a dozen of her comrades are still unaccounted for, with two of them feared dead, paled into insignificance alongside the celebration of her safe delivery, and the tired old "with God on our side" message that went with it.
But there are other, more subtle messages to be taken from Lynch’s experience.
Despite suspicions that women soldiers would be beaten and raped if they fell into enemy hands, Jessica appears to have been reasonably well-treated. Contrary to what we are led to believe, then, chivalry and a sense of fair play is not a purely western trait.
And what about the message the rescue mission sends about the US’s own priorities? Would the impact on the nation’s morale have been quite as dramatic if it had been the black face of Shoshana Johnson or the native American features of Lori Piestewa - two other missing PoWs - that had stared up from the stretcher?
All of this is not to undermine the heroism of the rescue mission, carried out under cover of darkness as decoy attacks diverted the attention of the Iraqi soldiers elsewhere.
But one spectacular mission should not be allowed to distract us from the mounting deaths, many of which were the result of accidents or errors.
So far, more than 80 coalition soldiers have been killed (around half of them in combat). More than 1,250 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives and 5,103 have been injured.
Nor would I wish to trivialise Jessica’s ordeal. We know she suffered a wound to her head as well as a broken arm, and broken legs, and a spinal injury, and her physical pain was clearly reflected in her strained smile. She watched some of her comrades die, spent nine days in an Iraqi hospital and feared the US army would never find her.
What truly trivialises Jessica’s experience, however, is the determination of some newspapers and television channels to tack on a happy-ever-after ending.
All last week, pro-war commentators were exhorting the rest of us to wake up to the reality of the battlefield: it is brutal, they said; it claims lives and there is little point in "collapsing on the sofa with the smelling salts" with every fatality that is announced.
There is some truth in that (although I wonder if the same commentators would be quite so blas if it was British and American children who were being bombed and shot at). But it applies to Lynch as well as to Iraqi civilians.
Celebrate her release by all means. But let’s not pretend the US rescue mission has given her back her old life.
Who knows if she will ever now realise her dream to become a primary school teacher (which was the reason she joined the army in the first place)?
Perhaps Jessica is resilient as her friends suggest, and will suffer no lifelong scars. But my guess is that, at least in the short-term, her dreams will be stalked by the shoot-out.
Whatever - despite the concerted effort to convince us otherwise - her experiences in the Iraqi war zone are unlikely to be obliterated by a good, old Wirt County hoe-down.