06 April 2003

Private Lynch's Captivity Narrative?

In a New York Times piece today, Melani McAlister argues that the narrative of Jessica Lynch's rescue conforms to those of colonial women held captive by Indians in the seventeenth century.

This is an interesting idea that in the end shows the dangers of making this kind of comparison. Mary Rowlandson did see herself as a captive Christian among heathens, surrounded by dark forces at work in the world. Her narrative, written five years after her redemption, dehumanizes Indians by calling them "Barbarous Creatures" and "Small Devills.". Cultural historians have described this interaction as the classic confrontation between an American (read: European) woman and the moral and cultural "other."

By making this comparison, McAlister has inadvertently reinforced many of the ideas about the Iraq war now circulating: that America is surrounded and hounded by dark forces (ie, terrorists), that Americans are Christians set upon by heathens (ie, the Arab world generally), and that Americans are confronting a frightening and incomprehensible "other" (ie, Iraqis) that makes war more easily justifiable. Yes, Lynch's story resonates, as McAlister says, but for all the wrong reasons.

Instead of using this historical document to reinforce our ideas about war, we should be using it to question both war and the idea of the "other." The cultural divide between Indians and English was too great and the violence too immediate for Mary Rowlandson to view her captors as humans who were also beset with bewildering and disorienting circumstances. One would hope, though, that more Americans, including the current Administration, would have the analytical apparatus to understand why the rest of the world feels threatened by our belligerence.


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