It’s hard to imagine what Saddam Hussein was thinking. But whatever it was, it backfired. On Jan. 20, just two days after Lt. Jeffrey Zaun’s A-6E Intruder attack jet went down, the Navy navigator-bombardier was trotted in front of the TV cameras and forced by his Iraqi captors to bad-mouth the American war effort, “I think our leaders and our people have wrongly attacked the peaceful people of Iraq,’ ” said Zaun. The words, delivered in a chilling monotone, sailed right by us. We were glued to his face.
Cut, bruised, bloated, it loomed on the TV screen like a lantern from hell, making an evil empire visible. For most Americans, it was the Face of War—and not just any war, but the gratuitously nasty affair being waged by a sadistic madman. After Zaun’s March 4 release, he said that some of his injuries occurred when he ejected from his damaged jet just 36 hours after the war began and that, in addition to the beatings he endured at the hands of his captors, he had struck himself in the head, hoping to avoid the humiliation of denouncing his country. No matter. Zaun’s battered visage had already taken its place as a rallying point for America’s outrage.
Six months ago, Zaun, 28, was a gung ho Annapolis grad going off to his first war. Today he is a more complex individual, uncomfortable in the hero role cast upon him. In April, about 50,000 people turned out for a parade in his honor in his hometown of Cherry Hill, N.J. Zaun smiled and waved the flag, but the parade appeared to vex him almost as much as it cheered him. “The Vietnam POWs stared down death for seven years,” he said. “I was there for two months. And I get all this hero’s welcome.”
Zaun, who is single, says he wants nothing more than to return to being Jeff Zaun, Naval officer. But for now he remains Jeffrey Zaun, the Face—a prime symbol of why the war against Saddam was considered necessary.