The inconvenience of reality at a time of war

Posted: April 03, 2007

On March 26, the U.S. Army grudgingly released another hand grenade, then dropped to the floor with its collective ears plugged, hoping to ignore the explosion.

Finally, the smoke screen of propaganda floating around deceased soldier and former NFL star Pat Tillman dissipated, and the Army's public-relations spin doctors were left with only the naked truth and the usual excuses to hide behind.

You'll remember that Tillman, who was killed in action in April 2004, was hailed as an American hero, his image hoisted onto numerous magazine and newspaper covers, his sacrifice eulogized as the epitome of our selfless, patriotic mission to bring democracy to Iraq. But yesterday's feel-good story is today's embarrassing controversy.

In fact, the Army now admits, Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire, which at least nine officials knew "almost immediately."

Well, why on earth, you ask, would they simply not release this very pertinent information to the public or, at the very least, to the family? This, too, supposedly can be explained as a "well-meaning attempt to spare the family's feelings."

Getting dizzy from the spin yet? Here comes another whirl. The Army originally summed up the incident as an "administrative error" by "lower-level commanders."

Now, after such a textbook combination of euphemism, misdirection and a failure to admit responsibility, they are ready to come clean.

I'd like to say I'm surprised at the way this story has been so completely recast, but I'm not. Wars require heroes, and when they can't be found, they are often manufactured by those in power. And, not surprisingly, these heroes are tailored to meet the needs of the public. This means that every PR department knows that the best propaganda is the kind that plays on our national stereotypes of beauty and brawn. Consequently, Tillman, like a latter-day Candide, simply fit "the hero's uniform" and was exploited because his story and image met the needs of a war machine bent on demonizing the enemy while idolizing its own sacrifice.

Anyone remember Jessica Lynch? Like Pat Tillman, she was a combination of many familiar American heroic archetypes and proved to be a great patriotic symbol - until the truth came to light.

She was the girl next door who picked up a gun and single-handedly fought the evildoers. Think damsel-in-distress meets G.I. Jane. Box-office potential, right? Or, in this case, potential poll numbers for a war that needed them. Only later did we find out that Lynch was unconscious throughout most of her ordeal and never fired a shot.

But how could the armed forces release a report so at odds with the truth?

"Americans thrill," Paul Fussell, author of Wartime, once noted, "by imagining themselves good-looking Aryans, blond and tall, beloved by slim blond women and surrounded by much-desired consumer goods."

I don't wish to demean either Pat Tillman or Jessica Lynch. I believe that both acted honorably and unselfishly for this country. But is it an accident that a cute diminutive blond and an iron-jawed ex-football player who gave up millions of NFL dollars to play for his country were thrown into the national spotlight? On one hand, we have the supposed personification of feminine vulnerability and courage, and on the other, we have the embodiment of masculine virility and altruism. Are these not the qualities that we want to associate with ourselves? Is it then purely coincidental that these two soldiers were glorified with such an unscrupulous abandonment of the truth? I think not.

That the responsibility for the Tillman misnomer was first placed firmly on the shoulders of "lower-level commanders" is even more troubling. If this sounds familiar, it's because the blaming of "the little people" has become an epidemic since the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Even if the powers that be must concede that a mistake was made - say, people were stacked naked in a human pyramid - better to relegate it to the lowest levels of the hierarchy and divert blame. If nothing is "institutional," there is no problem to correct and responsibility is avoided.

Remember: The Bush administration did not cause the recession a few years back but, rather, inherited it from the Clinton administration, and George W. couldn't have stopped the 9/11 attacks because he had no "actionable intelligence" - beyond a daily briefing screaming that Osama bin Laden wanted to use planes to attack inside the United States. The buck doesn't stop here but is instead passed like a hot potato.

The final insult was defining the lies about Tillman's death as "an administrative error," which reveals that under all its patriotic fervor lies a callous organization completely out of step with its own soldiers. Blurring the facts of a story and spewing it to the entire American public as patriotic truth is bad enough, but embarrassing a family who gave their son to the cause is worse. It serves to remind us that what is most important to this administration and its armed forces is not human decency but power. And what could be more powerful than reimagining the truth to fit the cultural stereotypes in which we ourselves so fervently want to believe?

Fussell concluded that it is often difficult to recognize that most enlisted men are "regrettably, quite unromantic" and are "usually alone, unwrapping a gift watch sent by the folks" or "celebrating the possession of a candy bar." These are images that don't resonate with Americans, images that the military cannot use to soft-sell the brutality that is war.

In the wake of such a willful smothering of the truth, it's time we demanded a new candor from the military and from this administration. We must demand that these nine officers be held responsible for their callous mishandling of the reality or we must be prepared for a steady diet of heroic stereotypes - targeted to fit our own idealistic needs.

Daniel Holland ( teaches English at Whittier College in Whittier, Calif.

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