Military officials are getting a much-deserved scolding for their dishonest efforts to spin some tragic events in Afghanistan and Iraq into heroic military endeavors as a means to gin up public support for these wars.
The congressional testimony from relatives of Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals defensive back, was particularly disturbing.
In 2004, Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, but military officials initially portrayed the event in public and to Tillman’s family dishonestly. They suggested he was a hero who was killed while facing enemy fire, and awarded him the Silver Star posthumously.
It was a moving narrative: NFL star gives up a lucrative contract to serve his country, inspired to action after the 9/11 attacks, then dies from enemy fire during a necessary mission in Afghanistan. The problem is only the first part of the story is true.
A subsequent report revealed that Tillman waved repeatedly at his fellow American soldiers, but they fired on him anyway.
As the New York Times reported, “The investigations found that even though soldiers and commanders suspected almost immediately after the death that it was accidental fratricide, Corp. Tillman’s family was not notified about the true circumstances until more than a month later, a violation of Army rules.”
Specialist Bryan O’Neal testified under oath that he was forbidden by his battalion commander to tell Pat Tillman’s brother, Kevin, what had actually happened. O’Neal also testified, according to the Times, that someone up the chain of command had tampered with statements he had written about the incident to suggest that Tillman died “engaging the enemy.” The Pentagon’s acting inspector general admitted that somehow the statements “got edited.”
“A terrible tragedy that might have further undermined support for the war in Iraq was transformed into an inspirational message that served instead to support the nation’s foreign policy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Kevin Tillman told the House committee.
Also testifying was Pfc. Jessica Lynch, whose ordeal and rescue became a TV movie. As the official storyline went, Lynch fought off Iraqi soldiers, Rambo-like, after her convoy broke down. This, too, was fiction. Lynch said she never fired a shot.
“The American people are capable of determining their own ideals for heroes, and they don’t need to be told elaborate lies,” she told the committee.
Clearly, the Pentagon looked for PR stories that would help the American people embrace a war that has not gone as planned. The Tillman story in particular helped the military divert attention from the shocking scandal at Abu Ghraib prison, where American soldiers abused the prisoners under their charge.
House leaders, such as the committee chairman, Democrat Henry Waxman of Los Angeles, are trying to pin blame for the dishonesty about the Tillman and Lynch events at the highest levels of the administration.
We’re not against blaming President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld if the evidence points to them. But for now the story is bad enough, as it reflects a deep level of deception within the United States military, and serves as a reminder of the natural tendency for government bureaucracies to protect themselves.