Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A soldier's message to the government propagandists: "The truth is always more heroic than the hype"

It’s tough enough to track all the current governmental lies, much less catalogue the lies of the recent past. But several of those old lies resurfaced yesterday, lies that tell us much about the dark art of wartime propaganda, and the myriad ways that war marketers seek to manufacture heroes for a naive and credulous public.

At a hearing on Capitol Hill, Pat Tillman’s loved ones finally got the opportunity – after three long years – to vent their anger at the military in an open forum. Tillman, you may recall, was the ex-pro football player who enlisted as an Army Ranger intent on fighting al Qaeda, only to be slain in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. The public was initially fed the story that he died as a hero, killed by evil-doers; he was subsequently awarded the Silver Star, and his May 3 memorial service was nationally televised.

What Americans didn’t know at the time – and what his surviving family members didn’t know, either – was that the military already knew the truth, that Tillman had been killed by members of his own unit in a bungled mission. But the truth was suppressed; whether intentional or not, the timing of this “hero’s death” story was helpful to the Bush administration, which was anxious to blunt the bad news coming out of Iraq from the Falluja seige (which contradicted the Bush scenario of an increasingly pacified land) and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal (which undercut our occupancy of the moral high ground).

And while Pat Tillman couldn't speak on his own behalf to assail the hero mythology, Jessica Lynch did show up yesterday to denounce the same practice.

A teenage Army supply clerk, she was marketed by the military as a true-life Rambo after her capture during the initial phase of the U.S. invasion of Iraq back in 2003. Officials spread the word that Lynch fought off her Iraqi captors by firing her weapon; they said that “she did not want to be taken alive,” and, as a result of her heroics, she was “shot multiple times.” The military also circulated its own video, shot and edited by its own crew, depicting Lynch’s rescue from an Iraqi hospital (where, it turned out, the soldiers faced no resistance; Iraqi combatants had departed a day earlier). The mainstream media – you know, the same media that is depicted by Bush defenders as “the liberal media” – basically accepted the official version of events; the Washington Post and New York Times ran glowing stories that depicted Lynch as a cross between Stallone and John Wayne, and Newsweek gave Lynch a magazine cover.

Yet here was Lynch yesterday, testifying that it was all a crock. She never fired a weapon. She was never shot. She stated that “the story of the little girl Rambo from the hills who went down fighting” was “not true.” She added, “I’m still confused as to why they chose to lie and try to make me a legend. The bottom line is that the American people are capable of determining ideals for heroes, and they don’t need to be told elaborate lies.”

Kevin Tillman, recounting his brother’s case yesterday, didn’t use the term “elaborate lies.” He preferred something stronger, “deliberate and calculated lies.” He testified, "I come from Hollywood. I expect show biz in Hollywood, not from the military."

Example: The April 30, 2004 press release depicted Pat Tillman storming a hillside to rescue conrades pinned down by enemy fire. The military stated, “Through the firing, Tillman’s voice was heard issuing commands to take the fight to the enemy forces emplaced on a dominating high ground,” while Tillman “personally provided suppressive fire with an M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon machine gun.”

This, too, was a crock. It's now known that an eyewitness saw Tillman yelling "Cease fire, friendlies!" shortly before he was killed. Tillman's brother testified yesterday that the government saw his brother’s death as an “opportunity” to send an “inspirational message” at a time when the war in Iraq was bogging down (which was ironic, because Pat Tillman reportedly opposed the Iraq war, and saw it as a drain on the resources that were needed to effectively fight al Qaeda). Kevin told the lawmakers that the government's strategy "shifted the focus from the grotesque torture at Abu a 'great American who died a hero's death.'"

Kevin Tillman was joined yesterday by Army specialist Bryan O’Neal, who was the last soldier to see Pat alive. O’Neal testified that, even though he and the lieutenant colonel in charge of the platoon both knew the truth about Tillman’s death, he was told to stonewall Tillman’s family: “I was ordered not to tell them. He (the platoon leader) made it known that I'd get in trouble.”

Multiple government probes – conducted at the behest of the persistent Tillman family members – have broadly confirmed the coverup, and fingered four generals and five subordinate officers for possible discipline, although none have yet addressed the question of whether senior Bush administration officials knew the truth at the time when the family, and the American public, was being fed the lies. The family is hoping that Congress will pursue that issue. (Indeed, at the risk of stating the obvious, yesterday’s first public airing of the Lynch and Tillman cases would never have occurred had Bush’s Republican enablers retained their control of Congress in the elections last November.)

Perhaps Jessica Lynch should get the last word: “The truth of war is not always easy. The truth is always more heroic than the hype.”


Meanwhile, here in the tumultuous present, we have a fresh half-truth from President Bush. In remarks yesterday, he maligned the Democrats for seeking to suggest a troop withdrawal timetable, and said this: "To accept the bill proposed by the Democratic leadership would be to accept a policy that directly contradicts the judgment of our military commanders."

A policy that contradicts the judgment of military commanders...The sheer effrontery of those Democrats! But wait - I seem to recall that, last autumn, when Bush's military commanders openly voiced skepticism of a troop hike in Iraq, Bush proceeded to contradict their judgment by replacing them.

In the new issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, national security specialist Michael Desch (who teaches at Texas A&M's George W. Bush School of Government) describes what happened in the fall of 2006:

(S)enior U.S. military commanders in Iraq had come to believe that U.S. forces were part of the problem, rather than the solution, as the insurgency had morphed into an interconfessional civil war. So instead of asking for more troops, as they did in the run-up to the war, many senior commanders in Iraq began to argue that the United States needed to lower its profile and reduce its footprint. Less than 40 percent of troops supported an increase in force levels, the Military Times found.

General John Abizaid, the current head of Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in November that he did "not believe that more American troops right now is the solution to the problem" in Iraq. In response to prodding from Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), Abizaid explained that he had "met with every division commander, General [George] Casey, the corps commander, General [Martin] Dempsey [head of the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq]. ... And I said, 'In your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq?' And they all said no."

Abizaid and other senior U.S. commanders believed increasing the number of U.S. forces in Iraq would be counterproductive. As Abizaid explained on 60 Minutes, "There's always been this tension between what we could do and what the Iraqis do. If we want to do everything in Iraq we could do that, but that's not the way that Iraq is going to stabilize." In congressional testimony, he noted, "We can put in 20,000 more Americans tomorrow and achieve a temporary effect ... [but] when you look at the overall American force pool that's available out there, the ability to sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now with the size of the army and the Marine Corps."

But despite such protests, the military leadership was once again overruled by civilians in Washington -- leading to the "surge" taking place right now.

As I said at the top, fact-checking this Washington regime is an arduous job.