excerpt from Borderline
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
— 2 Timothy 2:15
[Jessica] Lynch, a 19-year-old supply clerk, continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her. . . . “She was fighting to the death,” the official said. “She did not want to be taken alive.” (Schmidt and Loeb, “She Was Fighting to the Death,” paras. 2–3.)
Susan Jeffords, in her essay “Telling the War Story,” says, “This trend away from the war itself to the people who fought in it shifts the war from a national to a personal experience, making it possible for viewers to forget the specific historical and political forces that caused the war.” This shift is consonant with “support the troops” appeals that oblige the public to drop all critique of leadership or interrogation of geopolitical motives to ensure we do not disempower, and thereby endanger, our loved ones in uniform. We are allowed to have differing individual opinions about a war, provided they are motivated by patriotism (the civil religion), but we are expected to rally round our team once the war is on.
Jeffords focused her studies on war films as an ideological transmission belt for war, but I want to focus on how the actual military now tries to tell war stories in ways that are consistent with familiar war-film conventions. It is a peculiarity of our time that the spectator society, infinitely reflexive, not only creates art, whereupon life imitates art, but that the two are becoming less and less distinguishable. Embedded “reporters” carry cameras as they accompany troops, and we can all pretend that the cameras themselves are immune to Heisenberg: that in the very act of observing, the observer changes the character of that which is observed. Troops, like everyone else, behave differently in front of cameras. Hervé Juvin writes that “self-reflexivity makes every individual his own producer/director, his own eavesdropping audience, generalizing telereality with everyone his own star on his own screen.” Speaking now as an American, with the able assistance of the press, the public can be treated to an irresistible series of lurid and titillating feature attractions that continually reproduce a national mythology.
Sometimes the mythology breaks down.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.
— Ephesians 4:25
I don’t know a great deal about the actual Jessica Lynch, and neither do most people. For those who may not remember, Jessica Lynch was a solider wounded in Iraq who became a kind of national Rorschach test when the military concocted a story about her wounding, her capture, and her “rescue” in 2003.
Jessica Lynch was raised just south of the Ohio River Valley in Palestine, West Virginia. The Little Kanawha River and Hughes River run nearby. Extractive industries, in particular coal and timber, have long colonized Appalachia. As these industries have become ever more mechanized, coal colonies like Palestine have suffered high rates of unemployment. The mountaintop-removal/valley-fill method of coal mining has reduced the mining labor force to 10 percent of its former levels, even as it irrevocably reconfigures the landscapes and livelihoods of the people who live there. The only region in the United States with an overwhelming white majority where the poverty figures are county by county consistently above 15 percent reaches from Scott and Fentress counties in the mountains of northeastern Tennessee, across eastern Kentucky, and includes all of West Virginia. There is only one county in West Virginia with poverty rates below 20 percent: Putnam. Wirt County, West Virginia has only five small towns: Munday, Elizabeth, Creston, Brohard, and Palestine. Wirt County and neighboring Ritchie County are more fortunate than some of their adjacent counties. Wirt and Ritchie have poverty rates — using the federal government’s grossly understated criteria — only around 29 percent. Nearby Calhoun and Gilmer counties have poverty rates above 35 percent.
Whether you are a Marsh Arab from Iraq or an early twentieth century West Virginia subsistence farmer, sometimes the worst luck in the world is to live on top of a large deposit of fossil hydrocarbons. When the fossil fuel age began, the carbon energy, trapped for millions of years underground beneath the blue haze and the lush green forests, was monetized. The mechanical cotton gins of the South and the Northern industrial manufactories that were being born out of slave cotton became insatiable in their appetite for coal. The aspiring coal barons arrived with their gun thugs and the full backing of the United States government, and the whole region of Appalachia was subjugated to King Coal, the cousin of King Cotton.
When mountaintop removal replaced shaft-mining in the latter twentieth century, the majority of those who worked in the mines became not just landless but economically redundant.
Like their counterparts in other poor regions, young people look at their situation and select from the menu of options that are available. Some nurture tragic dreams of celebrity. Some deal drugs and then sink into addiction themselves. A few compete for the handful of public-sector jobs that are available in a shrinking economy. And some get a free ticket out of town, the offer of some training and money for an education, and a regular paycheck, by joining the military.
This is the real story of Jessica Lynch. She wanted to teach school. She needed money to get her education.7 She signed on the dotted line and entered the contradictory world that is the United States Army. There could have been worse things. Pornographers troll for women like Jessica Lynch: slender, blonde, with an air of girl-next-door innocence, the humiliation of which titillates the main (male) consumers of pornography. Perhaps she would have escaped Palestine to be featured in the porn collection used to entertain the staff duty NCO at Delta Force. [reference to earlier chapter] Wealthy men are also quick to colonize young women like Jessica Lynch as models, mistresses, and trophy wives. Just add a little dental work and silicone.
By contrast, even in the masculinist culture of the modern American military, she might find an element of juridical equality and access to some new competencies. This belief leads many young women to choose the military. A supply clerk is a supply clerk, ungendered; the military provides an opportunity for women to enjoy the kind of instrumentality that is the historical prerogative of masculinity. A degree of independence is accessible within the military’s institutional framework, along with job training, a written guarantee of some money for college, and a way out of places like Palestine. Jessica could pay for school with her GI Bill and get a certificate for a public-sector job teaching kindergarten.
As she was undergoing her initial training as a supply clerk, and during her initial assignment to the 507th Maintenance Company in Ft. Bliss, Texas, plans were being drafted and redrafted for the military conquest and occupation of Iraq.8 Jessica Lynch was nineteen when she was deployed to Kuwait to support the impending invasion of Iraq. Like so many young people for whom the military is a sector-selection economic strategy, she was unschooled in geopolitics. They were simply “doing their job” by participating in the upcoming invasion.
The invasion was delayed by international resistance in the form of a massive antiwar movement, and that resistance included the loss of the Turkish and Saudi offensive fronts. The overwhelming and militant opposition to the war around the world forced many politicians in other countries to resist U.S. demands for international cooperation. France, Germany, Russia, and China resisted in the United Nations, while Saudi Arabia and, even more surprisingly, Turkey denied the U.S. access to their countries to launch American or British ground offensives. Consequently, almost the entire United States ground force was forced to drive north into Iraq along a single axis out of Kuwait that would bifurcate into two columns along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The invasion was launched during sandstorm season.
On March 21, an inconceivable mass of military vehicles crawled northwest along the main axis of advance, with units blending and weaving among each other in the open terrain — a small unit commander’s accountability nightmare. Jessica Lynch was driving a five-ton truck with an equipment trailer attached. The sandstorms that had plagued the invasion task force left a heavy residue of dust in every moving part of every machine and weapon, in the corners of eyes and the folds of skin, and between clothing and body. The frantic movement schedules and the sand undermined mechanical maintenance, troop comfort, and attentiveness.
Lynch’s unit was supporting the 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division, the main combat force aimed ultimately at Baghdad. The 507th was not a combat unit, and they never anticipated combat. The intelligence summaries issued by Central Command (CENTCOM) still reflected the triumphalist delusions of Donald Rumsfeld. The optimistic predictions of Rumsfeld’s slick Iraqi advisor, Ahmad Chalabi, were that Iraqi soldiers would surrender on sight.
The convoy went nonstop for a grueling forty-eight hours, using blackout-drive infrared headlights and night vision goggles during periods of darkness. They were gritty-eyed, nodding off, and exhausted. Lynch’s truck, like many others — casualties of the sandstorms and the schedules — died and was hitched to a giant recovery vehicle. She was put aboard her company First Sergeant’s Humvee, where she could nod off fitfully while the bleary-eyed driver, another young woman named Lori Pietsewa, fought sleep behind the wheel. As the horizon-to-horizon convoy approached the outskirts of Nasiriyah on March 23, units were channeled along narrower roads, and the convoy routes were branched. The sun was not yet up when the First Sergeant’s Humvee, leading the 507th convoy, encountered a U.S. traffic control checkpoint at the intersection of Highway 1, their main avenue of advance, and Highway 7, which went due north toward the center of Nasiriyah. No one has established exactly which military policeman was working at that checkpoint, or what his or her directions were, or how exhausted the MP might have been. It was dark. People were stupefied with fatigue. The First Sergeant and the 507th Company Commander, Captain Troy King, had GPS navigation systems. They claim they had no maps to consult when these hi-tech gadgets lied or failed. The truth is that no one in the 507th expected that there would be any need to actually navigate. They were part of a growling, miles-long river of northbound steel and diesel, and these checkpoints were there to direct them as passively compliant traffic. Pietsewa and the First Sergeant, Robert Dowdy, looked at some nameless military policeman, who raised a hand toward Highway 7, and so directed Jessica Lynch into a future of terror, pain, dislocation, lies, and fame.
The sun rose over the 507th as it was creeping steadily along Highway 7, its addled leadership now making excuses to itself for discrepancies in the GPS systems. No military leader likes to admit that a mistake has been made, especially when he is still unsure whether it’s been made or not. He is like the proud father at the wheel of the family car not yet prepared to admit that he is lost. Surely, that day, as the 507th passed through Marine units instead of Army units, the doubt went deeper. But they were traveling generally north, so they drove on. They hadn’t crossed the Euphrates, which was there like a great geographical backstop. The commander bit back his self-doubt while he tried to puzzle out the contradictions between his GPS readings and an operations order that was jumbled in his sleep-deprived brain . . . and still they drove on. In the emerging morning light, they found themselves driving into Nasiriyah with thirty-three sleep-starved support troops and sixteen vehicles. Rising up around them were buildings where most people were apparently still abed.
A bridge suddenly appeared in front of them. They crossed over it, but after a couple of miles — perhaps after an anxious discussion — the leaders realized that they had crossed the Euphrates River. Iraqis began to appear on the streets. Captain King then ordered them to turn the convoy around. They were definitely, oh so very definitely, in the wrong place.
Vehicle traffic began to clutter the streets as the convoy went through the clumsy business of turning sixteen massive military vehicles about in the tight thoroughfares of downtown Nasiriyah.
There were Iraqis carrying Kalashnikovs. Lynch’s unit spotted actual manned Iraqi tanks.
They looked at the Iraqi soldiers, and the Iraqi soldiers looked back. But the CENTCOM intelligence summary had said the Iraqis would either be friendly or they would surrender, and the 507th was not a combat unit. Right?
Their greatest desire now was to be back in the company of a real combat unit. The adrenaline began to make headway against their deep muscular fatigue. At just after 7 a.m. they could hear a fierce firefight in the distance. The Marines they had passed earlier were in contact. Some began to wonder, if they will fire on the Marine infantry and armor, won’t they fire on this collection of mechanics and clerks?
Hearts slamming, the convoy made several false turns in Nasiriyah, becoming ever more confused about their location. Their disorganization became evident to the Iraqis. When they attempted to reorganize themselves, now split over two narrow streets and trying to turn around, an Iraqi pickup truck turned around to make a slow second pass of the convoy, two men inside now frankly and ominously assessing the disorganized American unit. In a few minutes, a second pickup with a mounted machine gun wheeled past them and around a corner.
One portion of the convoy was still out of sight from the other. Their hands shaking and their mouths dry, they began to sense that they had strayed outside of everything they knew and everything they had ever trained for. They were prey.
A few bullets suddenly snapped past them from buildings on both sides of the street.
Orders were shouted and radioed. “Get out!”
Then the sprinkle of gunfire became a storm.
Bullets cracked lethally, on full automatic now, smacking into the vehicles, then RPGs hit with full-throated explosions. As the detachment frantically tried to maneuver their vehicles, Iraqis threw tires into the street to block escape routes. Down another street, a bus was being pulled forward to block that avenue of escape.
Dowdy jumped off the Humvee and attempted to direct the other vehicles back into a semblance of order to escape the intensifying ambush. Moments later he wilted from bullet wounds, dead. Two soldiers whose vehicle had been disabled leapt aboard Pietsewa’s vehicle. Pietsewa, the two who’d jumped aboard, and Lynch careened wildly over the street as if trying to actually dodge the bullets, finding every avenue blocked and now covered by Iraqi fighters, then Pietsewa lost control. Lynch was gripping whatever she could find inside the careening vehicle. The Humvee smashed to a halt under the trailer hitch of one of the convoy’s destroyed semi-trucks. Jessica Lynch saw Pietsewa and the others vaguely, unable to assess their conditions or her own. She managed to drag herself out of the Humvee with a broken femur. She began praying as she crumbled onto the street. For Jessica Lynch, the day was over. The concussion from a gaping head wound sustained during the crash caused her to lose consciousness.
There is a contradiction here yet unresolved, a story that her rifle jammed, which would mean she attempted to put it into action — but in this series of presumptions, I am presuming from the severity of her injuries that she was in shock and it was unlikely she attempted to operate an assault rifle. It happens in the movies, but this was no movie. Her ankle was dislocated. Her femur was fractured and releasing blood into the muscle of her thigh. Her arm was broken (it takes two hands to put an assault rifle into action), and she had a large, copiously bleeding laceration on her head. Pietsewa, her best friend (and a woman of the Hopi Nation), was already in deep shock. Part of the convoy, with Marine assistance that finally arrived, escaped.
Once the attack was over, the Iraqi troops took Lynch and Pietsewa to the Nasiriyah military hospital. Had they not, she would have bled to death. Pietsewa expired en route from her injuries.
Dr. Jamal Kadhim Shwail and Dr. Harith al-Houssona examined Lynch. She was in shock with precariously low blood pressure. Not knowing the extent of Lynch’s musculoskeletal injuries or whether there was spinal damage, they could not afford to jostle her to remove the layers of combat gear, uniform, body armor, and web gear. They had to use bandage scissors to cut away the equipment and clothing, which was still fully secured to her body. She was infused with fluids, including three units of whole blood — two donated on the spot by Iraqi hospital staff — catheterized, splinted, her head sutured, and transported to Saddam Hospital, also in Nasiriyah, for surgery on her dangerously fractured femur.
Dr. Mahdi Khafazi performed the surgery.
During Lynch’s convalescence, Dr. Harith Houssona, a twenty-four-year-old physician, and several nurses befriended Lynch. Iraqi military commanders considered her a prisoner of war but, given the severity of her injuries, gave the hospital staff wide latitude and little oversight. Seven days into the ordeal, most of the Iraqi military left as part of a general tactical retreat to the north, and Houssona ordered Jessica Lynch to be returned to the American military.
One Iraqi officer and an ambulance driver named Sabah Khazaal tried to transport Lynch back to the Americans. The reasoning was that an ambulance is protected under the Geneva Conventions and wouldn’t be fired upon. It didn’t work. When the ambulance came within three hundred meters of the army checkpoint, U.S. soldiers opened fire on it, nearly killing Lynch after she was well on her way to a successful convalescence and repatriation to the United States.
It is probably coincidental that a detachment of SEALs and Rangers were deployed for a “special” mission on April Fools’ Day. One of the Ranger privates on security for this “mission” was Pat Tillman, a former player for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals who had given up a multi-million dollar contract to join the military after September 11.
Several things were “special” about this “mission.” First, special teams like this are generally employed on sensitive missions, for which the tactics and techniques are highly classified. Second, special teams like this, given the classified techniques and tactics they use, would not take along a civilian cameraman who could record classified techniques unnecessarily and possibly become an impediment to the operation’s success. Third, there was no threat to warrant the use of these classified tactics and techniques.
It was well known to American military intelligence, by the time the so-called rescue of Jessica Lynch was planned, that the Iraqi military was abandoning Nasiriyah as tactically untenable. Civilians were moving freely between Nasiriyah and American positions on the outskirts of the city. Wily opportunists were among them, one in particular a lawyer named Mohammed al-Rehaief. The official story is that al-Rehaief reported Lynch’s “captivity” to the Americans, and CENTCOM then organized a special ops rescue mission. Given what we know now, including that al-Rehaief has become rich and lives in the United States, it seems likely that al-Rehaief, whose wife worked in the hospital, told him about Lynch. He went to the Americans, who then began debriefing him. The war was going very badly for American forces at that point. Doubt was emerging in the anesthetized consciousness of America, and to keep the patient asleep, the War Department needed a publicity boost. Al-Rehaief was offered a free trip to America for him and his family, where he would be given a book deal and a lobbying job.
He was sent back to the hospital to gather specific information on floor plans and door locations, while the “special” unit began planning the “rescue” of PFC Lynch. The public affairs officer of CENTCOM was put on high alert, and the whole Department of Defense “Wag-the-Dog Bureau” went into action, including the Rendon Group.
The Rendon Group had been around through both the Clinton and Bush II administrations. It was not the only public relations outfit feeding at the public trough, but Rendon was emblematic. Rendon stage-managed much of the run-up to the 2003 quagmire in Iraq; it was largely responsible for the organization of a new Iraqi quisling regime — dubbed by Rendon the “Iraqi National Congress,” complete with the new regime head and convicted embezzler Ahmad Chalabi. Said one unnamed State Department official in a moment of candor, “Were it not for Rendon, the Chalabi group wouldn’t even be on the map.” Neither would Jessica Lynch’s “rescue,” because a rescue is not what happened. It was a staged military operation — staged for the entertainment media with the purpose of injecting some war optimism into the American mass consciousness, a made-for-television movie short.
Rendon had picked up where Hill & Knowlton, the Gulf War I perception managers, left off. (Hill & Knowlton, on contract with the U.S. government, hatched the story of Kuwaiti babies being thrown from their incubators by Iraqi soldiers that mobilized a press frenzy and massive public support for the Bush I invasion. The story turned out to be a complete fabrication.) John Rendon, former Democratic Party consultant and Rendon Group’s founder, boasted once to the National Security Council, “If any of you either participated in the liberation of Kuwait City . . . or if you watched it on television, you would have seen hundreds of Kuwaitis waving small American flags. Did you ever stop to wonder how the people of Kuwait City, after being held hostage for seven long and painful months, were able to get handheld American flags? And for that matter, the flags of other coalition countries? Well, you now know the answer. That was one of my jobs.”
The shifting fictional account of “What happened to Jessica Lynch?” likely originated in the White House’s Office of Global Communications — an office essentially run by Rendon people. They generated “news stories” to be released through CENTCOM and elsewhere faster than the press could keep up in order to push deadlines and competition and thereby inhibit fact-checking. The stories came apart, but the fabrications were allowed to “linger” without comment, even when they proved inaccurate — and remained uncorrected — a few days later.
“Linger” was an industry term of art employed by military psychological operations (PSYOPS) when I was in Special Forces. This tactic is combined with message control — explaining why masculine bluster like “Americans are not the running kind” showed up in two separate speeches given on the same day by different members of the administration — redefining all opposition to U.S. actions as terrorists, and building false associatoins through repetition: “echoing,” another industry word. How many times did we hear “September 11,” “terrorists,” and “Saddam Hussein” in the same breath? This is a PSYOPS technique, a method to “construct memory,” and the “target audience” is not the enemy. It is the citizenry of the United States.
If caught, they reconfigured stories with elliptical language, then let it linger some more. Weapons of mass destruction became a “weapons program,” a “seeking” of WMD. George Tenet’s CIA “had questions” about the British forgery . . . er, “dossier.” By the time this book is published, who will remember the Jessica Lynch fable, or care?
Some of these constructed tales were so lurid they should have defied imagination. But the American press, always a stronghold of health skepticism, lapped up the Jessica Lynch fiction like Basset hounds around a broken jug of milk. The press pool at CENTCOM headquarters in Qatar dutifully echoed a sham-saga to the entire world.
The pretty, plucky, white American female soldier fights off the degenerate, cowardly, less than fully human Iraqis, emptying her magazine into several of the evildoers until, even though she is multiply shot and stabbed, she is overwhelmed and taken prisoner. CENTCOM solemnly left the question of sexual assault open and let the public imagination run with it. Wicked Fedayeen interrogators reportedly cuffed her around in the hospital.
Then, the epitome of moral American manhood, Special Operations, comes on the set to rescue our heroine, fallen beneath the assaults of the unmanly Arabs. The true Manly Men rescue the Captive Plucky Princess, reaffirming the roles of male and female, in a damsel-in-distress narrative, and the national imaginary is reconstituted in all its proper hierarchies. To paraphrase Susan Jeffords, at a time when American military invincibility is being called into question by Iraqi resistance, a display of heroic, militarized male power can provide a “compensatory national identity.”
Susan Schmidt and Vernon Leob of the Washington Post were positively fawning on April 10 when they regurgitated the “leaked” story of Jessica Lynch’s fight to the death with the deviant Iraqis and her subsequent rescue, complete with subtitles like, “Fighting to the Death,” “Talk about Spunk,” and “Classic Special Ops.” The latter refers to that “daring special operations raid” that “rescued” Lynch. The story “echoed” breathily across the airwaves and the pages of ostensibly respectable magazines and newspapers. The public memory was “constructed” through repetition. As questions were raised, the story was allowed to “linger.”
On May 15th, John Kampfner wrote, “Her rescue will go down as one of the most stunning pieces of news management yet conceived. It provides a remarkable insight into the real influence of Hollywood producers on the Pentagon’s media managers, and has produced a template from which America hopes to present its future wars.” Americans don’t read the Guardian, where Kampfner’s investigative piece appeared. Most still believe the rescue fiction. The Special Operations “raid” was conducted with zero resistance, exactly as they expected. They knew in advance that the Iraqi combatants had already withdrawn. But to give the filmed event the feel of authenticity, they cut the power to the hospital (putting every patient there in danger), explosively breached doors that hospital staff would have willingly opened for them, and gratuitously flex-cuffed two hospital employees, taking one prisoner for several days, as well as two patients, one with an intravenous infusion.
That was edited out of the film version.
Then came doubts as the Lynch fight-to-the-death story collapsed, and then the ellipsis. Lynch’s actual experiences were “still being sorted out,” said CENTCOM. They were obscured by “the fog of war,” a fog generated from the White House Office of Global Communications. Lynch herself, the real person, was held incommunicado. The spinmeisters, taking their cue from Hollywood, mobilized an ersatz feminism and constructed their tale of the spunky woman soldier, kind of a GI Jane meets Courage Under Fire.
In a plural society like the United States, male social power does not assign women one monolithic “script.” Zillah Eisenstein has said that modern society restlessly “renegotiates” masculinity and femininity, often using what she calls “gender decoys” — individual women in power and individual women as spokespersons for enterprises that are still dominated by males and for males. Lynch had been grotesquely exploited by the Army Office of Public Affairs, but now she was going to undergo multiple transformations. Like women in all situations, she was one female body who would now be defined against a diversity of agendas. Her subordination as a woman, her femininity, was not abolished. It was diversified, like a product line that is losing market share.
As quickly as the fiction of the fight to the death was released, liberal feminists came forward to seize this proof of women’s fitness for combat. She was GI Jane. This version ran headlong into a red-meat, reactionary backlash. Anti-feminists seized on the phony reports to attack supporters of women in combat. As the battle-to-the-death story unraveled, the liberals were silenced by the conservatives arguing against women’s “fitness” for combat. Another faction argued against women valorizing military violence. Compassionate conservatives decried women’s “better natures” being at risk. As my friend De Clarke put it, “No one could resist the piñata of political symbolism that was Jessica during her fifteen minutes of fame.”
Jessica Lynch, the person, was invisible, while her definitions were played like instruments in competing orchestras. Why didn’t the press cover the men who died fighting? Why did Jessica Lynch receive a Bronze Star? Why didn’t anyone point out that Pietsewa, a woman, allegedly “lost control” under fire? Lynch’s defenders then portrayed her as a poor, pickedon girl. Jessica Lynch was chosen because she was a white woman soldier, another can of worms. The father of one male soldier — who had reportedly fought fiercely before being killed — excoriated Lynch when her book deal was signed. So did a host of others. Now she would become a gold digger (another female stereotype), a woman ruthlessly exploiting the deaths of brave male soldiers to make money.
So went the perception managers’ attempt to mobilize patriotism and “feminist” sentiment for the war. A big box office, but bad reviews.
Through the firing, Tillman’s voice was heard issuing fire commands to take the fight to the enemy on the dominating high ground. Only after his team engaged the well-armed enemy did it appear their fires diminished.
— From the citation awarding the Silver Star to Corporal Pat Tillman, 2004
As the squabble over the meanings of Jessica Lynch faded, the war in Iraq became more difficult for the American commanders, military and civilian. In early 2004, a Shia rebellion around Najaf, combined with a stunning tactical defeat of U.S. forces in Fallujah, put U.S. forces on their heels. In April, Seymour Hersh advised the government that he was about to release an explosive report on detainee abuse at the U.S. detention facility in Abu Ghraib, complete with lurid photographs of U.S. military police holding detainees on leashes, letting attack dogs at them, torturing them, and forcing them to simulate homosexual acts while nude. The war was steadily losing public support.
While the dust-up over Jessica Lynch died down, Company A, 2nd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment was assigned to a base of operations in Paktia Province, Afghanistan. Pat Tillman, former Arizona Cardinals safety, was a Specialist-4 in that unit, as was his brother Kevin; the brothers had joined the army together in May 2002. Pat was the most famous enlisted man in the United States military.
Tillman was raised by his parents with his two brothers, Kevin and Richard, near San Jose, California. His mother taught school, and his father — who lived nearby after a divorce — was an attorney. The boys lived near a large state park, and they were rambunctious, outdoorsy types. Pat was the eldest. He showed athletic prowess early on. He was also intellectually curious, somewhat self-deprecating, and had a lisp. He married the same girl he’d been dating since early high school just before he enlisted.
The Tillman boys were raised with a very conventional sense of ethics, but they adhered to those ethics, and all of them believed in basic honesty. They were patriotic without being overly demonstrative. After the September 11 attacks, when war began to seem inevitable, Pat and Kevin quietly talked about it, and Pat decided that if other people had to go, then his contract to play professional ball had to take a back seat to his sense of duty. It was a civil religion, to be sure, but at least Pat Tillman could say he wasn’t conflicted about it, because he never professed any sort of “religious” faith. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, in a rare moment of self-revelation about his decision to enlist, Pat explained, “I was dumbfounded by everything that was going on. In times like this, you stop and think how good we have it. . . . A lot of my family has gone and fought in wars, and I haven’t really done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that.” Unlike Jessica Lynch, who saw the military as an economic strategy, a way to get some money for college and a few new skills, Tillman was motivated by the commonly held beliefs that life in the United States was essentially good, that it was good because it was based on principles like freedom, law, and sacrifice, and that men have a responsibility to the polis in times of danger to “lay themselves on the line.” Privilege, like that which he was enjoying because of his athletic talent and his comfortable middle-class upbringing, should not serve as an excuse to let others shoulder that responsibility. While the underlying beliefs are certainly subject to the critique in this book — beliefs about civil religion, about war, and about masculinity — it is also important to point out that, given the episteme that Pat Tillman had, he was making an ethical, a virtuous, and a selfless decision. His attitude about the war, however, would change.
The brothers went to Iraq, and, as indicated above, they played a peripheral role in the faked Jessica Lynch rescue. Moreover, Pat’s firsthand observations of the brutal conduct of the war in Iraq disillusioned him, leaving him to remark to a buddy once, “This war is so fucking illegal.” His brother said that when the decision was taken to invade Iraq, Pat, who understood that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, was taken aback, even though he considered it his duty to fulfill his contract with the military.
The following year, when Pat and Kevin were in Afghanistan, their platoon — 2nd Platoon, also called “The Blacksheep” — was given a reconnaissance-in-force mission, meaning they were to cautiously approach a series of locations, assess the activity there, fight if they made enemy contact or, if not, report on what they observed and did.
Some background is needed before we tell the rest of the story.
Donald Rumsfeld engineered a substantial change in organization and doctrine for the military, placing great emphasis on special operations because of their secrecy, and emphasizing “metrics.” A former pharmaceutical company president and medical biotech CEO, he believed that numbers not only tell the story, but that by increasing the right numbers and decreasing the wrong ones, one succeeds. This is inflected on the system for officer advancement, called the Officer Personnel Management System (OPMS). OPMS gives enormous power to any officer’s “rater,” who happens to be the officer’s immediate supervisor. Platoon leaders are “rated” by their company commanders, company commanders by battalion commanders, battalion commanders by brigade commanders, and so on. The unofficial rule is that any officer who is rated below the maximum after his or her first Officer Evaluation Report (OER) will be “passed over” for promotion when he or she becomes eligible. Given that there are always fewer “slots” for officers as they climb the ladder, this establishes a ruthless Spencerian logic. Any officer who is “passed over” needs to polish that résumé and begin looking for a job outside the armed forces. Raters, in other words, have the power of professional life and death over subordinate officers. This is a system in which tactical acumen and operational soundness are secondary to pleasing one’s rater. This system normalizes a particular kind of officer — one who can perform well enough to make his or her commander look good, but also one who is willing to fit himself or herself to the idiosyncrasies of the rater, a politically alert “yes-man.” Certain competencies are retained, but a certain kind of mediocrity is as well. Any officer who is so competent that he or she causes a less competent rater to feel threatened, for example, will not long survive without concealing his or her superior competence and/or shifting credit for accomplishments to the rater. This system ensures that — as we said in the army — “the shit always rolls downhill.” Not only the shit, but the mindset.
If the secretary of defense is a micromanager — as Rumsfeld was known to be — then the things he likes will quickly become the things that his generals and all their subordinate officers like, and the things he doesn’t like will soon find disfavor in the ranks, too. Rumsfeld was a metrics-man. In short order, every officer in the military was talking “metrics” and seeking ways to accentuate the right metrics and eliminate the wrong metrics. A similar thing had happened under Westmoreland in Vietnam, when “body counts” became the metric, whereupon we either killed more people and called them enemy troops, or we added three chickens and a pig to the four people killed in contact, and doubled our metric.
Rumsfeld was sitting in his office waiting for his metrics, and his Generals were in their offices waiting for their metrics, and the colonels waited for the majors and the majors waited for the captains, and the captains pushed the platoon leaders . . . for good metrics. Good metrics meant a good rating, and mediocre metrics might mean a point below the maximum on one’s next OER, which means hasta luego, hope your résumé is in order, don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.
The Tactical Operations Center (TOC) in Khoust, Afghanistan, on April 21, 2004, housed 2nd Ranger Battalion — in all, around six hundred men at the time. The TOC was commanded by Major David Hodne, who worked for the Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and the Rangers were under his operational control. Major Hodne had an operations center where the various Ranger units in 2nd Battalion could be tracked on their assigned missions. If he had three platoons out, for example, and each of them was given three reconnaissance targets for the next three days, that would mean nine reconnaissance targets. This is hypothetical at this point, because SOCOM missions are highly classified. But completing nine targets would be, in this case, the desired metric. When Major Hodne reported to his supervisor, he told him that he had nine targets in the next three days; and at the end of those three days, if every target was occupied and observed by the designated platoon, Major Hodne would report that nine reconnaissance missions were completed within his sector in the last three days, and he could accompany the report with nine reconnaissance debriefings. Major Hodne remained in the operations center during these missions, and he maintained contact with his subordinate commanders by radio. His focus was on his tracking board where every check mark for a completed mission improved his metrics, and therefore his career prospects.
The Blacksheep Platoon, 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company — Pat and Kevin Tillman’s platoon — was on a non-hypothetical reconnaissance mission on April 22. Their target was a village called Manah. The platoon leader was First Lieutenant David Uthlaut. Late in the morning, near a village called Magarah, one of the platoon’s vehicles, a Humvee, broke down. This presented Uthlaut with a dilemma. The terrain was very inhospitable to vehicles, the roads little more than rocky wadis, and his own vehicles did not have the towing capacity to drag the deadlined vehicle with them. Various attempts to revive or tow the vehicle failed, and after several hours, the platoon began to worry about being stranded on low ground in mountainous terrain in a region that was unfriendly to foreign troops. It was broad daylight, and any Afghani who left the village could easily inform others that there were stranded American troops over near Magarah. The target, Manah, was still several kilometers away, and through the bottom of a long, steep canyon.
Uthlaut called his predicament in, requesting assistance to tow the vehicle or permission to destroy the vehicle. The TOC informed him that towing was not an option given the distance and security concerns, and that destroying the vehicle would give enemy troops a photo opportunity to claim they took out a vehicle. Uthlaut then found an Afghani driver with a “jinga truck” who said he would tow the broken humvee for a fee. Hodne became personally involved at this point, telling Uthlaut that he could bring the downed vehicle in, but only if Uthlaut split the platoon in half — half accompanying the dead hummer, and half proceeding to Manah, where Hodne ordered Uthlaut to “have boots on the ground by dusk.
Metrics were involved.
Uthlaut took a professional risk at this point and argued with Hodne, protesting that the rugged terrain would likely interrupt inter-platoon communications and that splitting the platoon would dangerously degrade the unit’s ability to defend itself if attacked. Hodne overruled Uthlaut, and reiterated his “boots on the ground” directive. It was mid-afternoon, and Uthlaut was forced to reorganize and replan in just over an hour. The platoon was broken into two “serials,” or half-platoons — one to accompany the jinga truck and dead hummer north through Tit, toward the main highway, and the other to continue west through the canyon toward Manah.
Meanwhile, the word had gotten out on the stranded platoon, and a group of two or three Afghani (possibly Taliban) fighters were watching from the top of the canyon, almost eight hundred meters away.
Serial 1 was Pat Tillman’s, and they were headed directly to Manah. Serial 2 had Kevin Tillman and the “albatross” vehicle. When the platoon headed away from Magarah, they were traveling about five miles an hour to negotiate the rocky roads. The sun was getting low.
When they reached the intersection to turn north through Tit, Serial 2 broke away and headed up the steep wadi that joined the main highway several miles away. Serial 1 headed into the sunless canyon. The two or three Afghani fighters followed along above them from the southern ridge, observing down at a range of more than eight hundred meters and more than five hundred feet of elevation. Within minutes after splitting, the two serials lost communication with each other. Serial 2 found the northern road impassable for the jinga truck pulling the “albatross,” so they decided to return to the intersection, head into the canyon, and rejoin Serial 1. When the Afghani fighters saw the second serial return, they let Serial 1 continue unmolested.
At this juncture in our story, we need to pause for a little more background.
Rangers are shock infantry who have special missions like airfield seizure or outer-ring security for outfits like Delta or SEAL Team 6. Like all Special Operations elements, they are the beneficiaries of an officially sanctioned mystique that serves as good public relations and as an ostensible deterrent. So the Department of Defense as well as the National Command Authority above them have a stake in the preservation and propagation of that mystique, which reinforces patriotism and American militarism with a kind of collective pride in these “elite” units. By keeping their missions secret — which certainly has some value in terms of actual operational security — the state can selectively report on their operations in ways that enhance that mystique.
Ranger units are subject to strict discipline and rigorous physical training. They practice certain key missions so often that these predictable missions — like airfield seizure, for example — are inscribed in the units’ collective memory. Reconnaissance-in-force is not a predictable mission; it is akin to what we called “search and destroy” in Vietnam: looking for a fight, then figuring out the tactics once the unit is in contact. Rangers are generally young. An eighteen-year-old can sign up, and if he can hack the various schools and orientation programs, he’s in. There are senior noncommissioned officers in the Rangers who are less than thirty years old; and the average first lieutenant — like Uthlaut — who commands a platoon is around twenty-four years old. Rangers are required to test slightly above average on the army’s version of an IQ, but they are not generally college educated. These young men are very aggressive. They are selected for aggression, and then they are groomed for greater aggression. When the army sends Rangers somewhere, it has to be someplace where the army accepts that a lot of people may be killed and a lot of things might be destroyed. A new Ranger in Pat Tillman’s platoon, in one of the post-incident statements, said frankly, “I wanted to be in a firefight.” Having been in a firefight is a coveted rite of passage; the more the better, as far as most Rangers are concerned. That is why some people refer to them as shock infantry.
Modern Ranger platoons — when mounted as they were between Magarah and Manah that day — carry a staggering amount of firepower: hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition for automatic assault rifles and machine guns; thousands of rounds of 40mm grenades that can be fired on full automatic, each with a five-meter bursting radius; dozens of shoulder-fired antitank rockets; hand grenades with high explosive; white phosphorus (an incendiary for burning equipment and people) and signal smoke. All this in the hands of about forty men who want to use it.
The rules for using this firepower are threefold: (a) Law of Land Warfare (LLW), (b) the unit’s standing operating procedures (SOP), and (c) the theater’s rules of engagement (ROE).
The LLW is part of the Geneva Conventions and forbids certain practices, such as intentionally killing civilians or firing into habitations when no fire has been received from them. All soldiers in the world are subject to this law, whether they routinely violate it or not; and the other two standards — SOP and ROE — are subordinate to this law. SOP and ROE can impose greater restrictions on the use of firepower, but they cannot legally loosen the Geneva standard.
In Afghanistan, the theater command’s ROE stated that no “target” was to be “engaged” (meaning no person was to be shot or blown up) unless the shooter had established a “positive identification” that distinguished that person as friend, foe, or noncombatant.
In the Ranger regiment, the SOP stated that fires initiated by team leaders and squad leaders would serve as a signal to subordinate troops to fire on the same targets. If your nineteen-year-old team leader began firing into a house, you were then obliged to fire into the same house — even though this SOP might cause a solider to contravene the standards established by Geneva (targeting nonhostile civilians) and the ROE (positive identification).
The Ranger SOP is the only one that “makes sense” to experienced infantrymen, for a number of reasons, which demonstrates again what we saw with the Civil War [reference to earlier chapter] about modern war contradicting just-war standards. This contradiction would have consequences for the Blacksheep Platoon.
Serial 1 exited the canyon onto a rocky, rolling hillside with several houses whose inhabitants, when they saw the convoy, went inside, leaving their goats to graze. The convoy halted. The sun was dropping over the horizon, but there was good light. Uthlaut and his radio operator, Jade Lane, walked up alongside one of the houses, trying to get on higher ground and reestablish radio contact with Serial 2, which Uthlaut still believed was heading north toward the highway. The rest of Serial 1 dismounted and formed a hasty security perimeter around the houses. Pat Tillman was with Staff Sergeant Matthew Weeks, one of Pat’s team members named Bryan O’Neal, and one Afghan Militia Force (AMF) solider named Thani.
Inside the darkening canyon, meanwhile, Serial 2 crawled along, bounding over the stony wadi floor, when there was an explosion on the canyon wall above them that rained down debris. One of the Afghan fighters had fired an old Soviet rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) into the canyon from the ridge above. The shot came from almost eight hundred meters away, which meant there was little chance that this two-hundred-meter weapon would hit anything at which it was aimed. This was a fairly typical guerrilla tactic — a harassment ambush — designed to slow people down, confuse leaders, and cause them to burn up ammunition. It worked.
One Ranger believed he might have seen two silhouettes on the ridgeline, and the serial opened up on the ridge — just as ineffectively as the Afghan fighters’ fire had been. Canyons echo and amplify sound, and within seconds, the entire serial unleashed a deafening volume of fire — assault rifles, machine guns, and 40mm — at the now empty ridge. In a situation like this, everyone assumes that someone else knows what they are firing at, so they join in.
Uthlaut’s serial heard this roar of gunfire and explosions, as Uthlaut desperately and unsuccessfully tried to make radio contact.
Serial 2 eventually ceased fire and began to crawl through the canyon again, the troops now in a highly restless state.
Pat Tillman, Bryan O’Neal, Thani, and SSG Weeks were in a position about forty meters north of the road, observing the mouth of the canyon and the distant, stony southern ridge across the road.
Then the Afghan fighters sprayed a short burst of Kalashnikov fire into the canyon and ran southwest away from the action, provoking another apocalyptic and canyon-amplified volume of fire from Serial 2.
Pat observed distant movement on the southern ridge that may have been the Afghan fighters, and requested permission from Weeks to pursue with his team. Weeks told Pat, sensibly, to stay put and wait for Serial 2. Pat, O’Bryan, and Thani then squatted together behind a big boulder to watch the canyon mouth.
The lead vehicle in Serial 2 was commanded by SSG Greg Baker, with seven people aboard — one driving, and the others armed with a pintlemounted .50 caliber machine gun, two squad automatic weapons (light machine guns), one portable crew-served machine gun, and two assault rifles, one with a grenade launcher. As Baker’s vehicle reached the mouth of the canyon, coming into view of the houses, the .50 caliber opened up on the houses (and on Uthlaut and Lane, who were there trying to communicate with them), violating both Geneva and the ROE. The rest of the vehicle came into view of Pat’s position, when someone on the vehicle called out, “Target, three-o’clock!” The vehicular team stopped and opened up on Tillman, O’Neal, and Thani. Thani was killed outright. Tillman and O’Neal took cover behind the rock as it was peppered with fire. Tillman shouted for a cease fire, even calling out his name: “It’s Tillman. I’m Pat fucking Tillman!” Baker’s crew did not hear, so Pat threw a red smoke grenade out from the position in the hope it would signal a cease fire and let them know they were shooting their own people.
The firing stopped. Tillman and O’Bryan stood and waved at the vehicle, which had begun moving again. Then the vehicle stopped once more. Members of Baker’s crew dismounted, opening fire again. Pat was killed instantly when a three-round burst hit him in the face. O’Neal dropped back behind the rock, between two dead men, as the fire continued. Moments later, when Serial 2 realized what they had done, Uthlaut consolidated the platoon and kept Kevin away from Pat’s body. Uthlaut called in the situation.
Once he contacted the TOC, the situation was taken out of his hands. He was told to say nothing, direct the platoon to say nothing, and to prepare for extraction. Kevin was told his brother had been killed, but not that it was by fratricide. Kevin had been near the rear of Serial 2, which was still in the canyon when the friendly fire had happened. Within thirty minutes, a helicopter took Kevin away and another retrieved the bodies of Pat and Thani. Uthlaut and Lane had been wounded, though not gravely. The platoon flew back to the TOC, with strict instructions to speak to no one about what had happened, not even each other.
The most famous enlisted man in the United States Armed Forces had just been killed by his own men in what the military referred to as a “clusterfuck.”
There is one thing no officer or NCO ever wants to do: withhold bad news and risk letting one’s superiors be ambushed by it. Every member of the chain of command wants to know something bad as soon as possible so the damage control can begin as soon as possible. Screw-ups, as we said in the army, are not wine — they don’t improve with age. In this case, Uthlaut’s immediate supervisor was Major Hodne, who had himself, only hours before, given the order, against Uthlaut’s advice as commander on the ground, to split the platoon. As Tillman’s body cooled in the morgue, where orders were given to secure his clothing and equipment, Hodne confronted the fact that his order has resulted in two “friendly” deaths, as Baker was facing the fact that he had opened up on a nonhostile village (violation of Geneva) and on his own troops (violation of the ROE).
Hodne was reporting the fratricide to his chain of command, which traced up to General Stanley McChrystal — then commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) — and to General John Abizaid, commander of CENTCOM. Given the gravity of this situation at a time when the military was facing the serial embarrassments of Najaf/Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, this bad news was certainly passed along to the army chief of staff and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld did not tell President Bush . . . yet.
Within hours, the media were given an intentionally false account of Tillman’s death. Pat Tillman, according to the news release, was killed during intense combat with the enemy, in which he saved many lives; and he was to be awarded the Silver Star for his heroism.
Within days of this ploy to transform’s Pat’s body into a recruiting poster and deflect attention from Abu Ghraib, hundreds of Rangers in Paktia Province knew that their government was involved in a massive public deception. The spin doctors were telling a story of martial masculinity in sacrificial service to the American civil religion.
NBC News ran a story with the headline “Ex-NFL Star Tillman Makes ‘Ultimate Sacrifice.’
Pat Tillman, who gave up the glamorous life of a professional football star to join the Army Rangers, was remembered as a role model of courage and patriotism Friday after military officials said he had been killed in action in Afghanistan.
“Pat Tillman was an inspiration on and off the football field, as with all who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror. His family is in the thoughts and prayers of President and Mrs. Bush,” Taylor Gross, a spokesman for the White House, said in a statement.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the author of a recent book about courage, said he was “heartbroken” and raised the prospect that “the tragic loss of this extraordinary young man” could be a “heavy blow to our nation’s morale, as it is surely a grievous injury to his loved ones.”
Tillman, 27, was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, based at Fort Lewis, Wash. The battalion was involved in Operation Mountain Storm in southeastern Afghanistan, part of the U.S. campaign against fighters of the al-Qaida terror network and the former Taliban government along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, military officials told NBC News.
U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Matthew Beevers said Saturday that Tillman was killed Thursday night in a firefight at about 7 p.m. on a road near Sperah, about 25 miles southwest of a U.S. base at Khost.
After coming under fire, Tillman’s patrol got out of their vehicles and gave chase, moving toward the spot of the ambush. Beevers said the fighting was “sustained” and lasted 15–20 minutes.
Beevers said Tillman was killed by enemy fire, but he had no information about what type of weapons were involved in the assault, or whether he died instantly.
An Afghan militiaman fighting alongside Tillman also was killed, and two other U.S. soldiers were wounded.
A local Afghan commander, Gen. Khial Bas, told The Associated Press that nine enemy fighters were killed in the confrontation. Bas said six other enemy fighters were believed to have escaped. Beevers said he had no information about any enemy fighters killed.
Neither NBC editors nor the public noted some familiar phrases in the story, which was almost verbatim from a military press release. This story was dated April 29, yet the Associated Press, on April 16, almost a week before Pat Tillman was killed, had run a story titled “General Meyers visits Afghanistan,” in which the following text appeared:
Taliban insurgents attacked Afghan soldiers in eastern Khost province, along the border with Pakistan, killing two soldiers and injuring two others, Gen. Khial Bas, the local Afghan military commander, told The Associated Press on Friday. He said nine militants were killed in the exchange of rocket and machine-gun fire on Wednesday . . .
Someone had simply transposed the old story into the new fiction.
The problem was the paper trail. The Silver Star made good copy and supported the fictional version — but a Silver Star is an award that requires three things: a narrative account of what happened, statements from witnesses that support the account, and the signature of a General. Writing false statements and directing others to write false statements are illegal in the military, as are fraudulent awards.
Hodne and Baker — the former subject to having his operational judgment called into question and the latter subject to being prosecuted for Geneva and ROE violations — could breathe easy, because the higher-ups had seen fit to make the actual details of the incident disappear. “We must, indeed, all hang together,” Ben Franklin famously said, “or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” A blanket of silence fell over the chain of command. But in the rush to both cover up and take advantage, a simple fact was incomprehensibly overlooked: hundreds of men knew. Rangers talk with one another. And these hundreds of men would be returning home in five weeks, where they would share experiences with family and drink in bars, and where the total control of the TOC would be replaced by the wide open spaces of Tacoma.
On April 29, 2004, just one week after Tillman was killed, President Bush was preparing a speech in which he intended to cite the heroism of Pat Tillman. General Stanley McChrystal sent the president a secret memorandum in which he said, essentially, Tillman was killed by his own men. Don’t repeat the official story, Mr. President, because if this comes out (the “if ” was emphasized) we will all be embarrassed. Now, even the president was in the loop.
At the end of May, 2nd Ranger Battalion was on its way home. By midMay, the chain of command had come to realize the fact that their secret was going to surface. On May 29, after protesting that he did not want to do it, General Philip R. Kensinger Jr., commanding general of the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), gave a press conference in which he cryptically announced that there was an investigation underway that might suggest that Tillman was a victim of battlefield fratricide.
The whole story came out slowly, after more than two years of intense investigation by Pat’s mother, “Dannie” Tillman. It resulted in a congressional hearing — which softballed the chain of command (thanking them for their service) and let them off without so much as a slap on the wrist. Kensinger was made the sacrificial goat and fired (with his pension intact).
There had been two additional investigations, each of which was conducted with direction from above that influenced its conclusions, and each of which was heavily redacted by the time Dannie Tillman received it. It was too dark to see, they concluded. But a check of the light conditions at the actual time the shooting occurred showed that this was a lie. Tillman, O’Bryan, and Thani were at a position 250 meters away, said the reports. This, too, was a fabrication: the distance was about 35 to 40 meters. The shooters’ vehicle was still moving when they opened fire. Witnesses, after they’d left the battalion, including O’Bryan, said the vehicle stopped twice to concentrate its fire. The troops were keyed up from heavy contact with an enemy force of a dozen Afghan fighters armed with mortars. But no witness ever observed more than one or two persons; a mortar would not have impacted the way the RPG did; and there was not a scratch on a single member of Serial 2 or on any of their vehicles. All the conclusions of the “investigations” were spun to create “a fog of war” to justify the shootings.
Why so many lies? Why so many retrenchments of lies? Because it appeared to be a win-win-win situation. The mystique could be protected. The violations of law and policy would go unanswered. The errors in judgment by the TOC commander would be overlooked. The chaotic nature of the actual war and the recklessness of U.S. forces could be concealed. And the chain of command all the way to Washington, DC, could be shielded from accountability for the original lies: “We didn’t have all the information. It was just a mistake.”
Had it not been for the dogged persistence of Tillman’s mother, who learned quickly that officialdom does not make statements to represent reality but to support its agendas, the cover-up would never have been exposed.
Just as was the case with Jessica Lynch — who appeared at the congressional hearing with the Tillman family — Pat Tillman’s story became public property, appropriated for every conceivable notion and agenda. Prowar people set out to prove that Pat was “still a hero.” Antiwar people seized on the cover-up. Conspiracy theorists claimed Pat was assassinated because he’d read some Chomsky. The real person of Pat Tillman, just like the real person of Jessica Lynch, was simultaneously cast as a character in a war story that concealed the political realities of the war, then recast by competing agendas when the lies were revealed.
But two other realities were concealed in both the propaganda fictions and the agenda-driven accounts. The actual nature of modern war, as it concretely was in Nasiriyah and Magarah, turns the principles of proportionality and discrimination into an obscene joke. And as the bloodthirsty Churchill observed, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
In relating these four stories, two unvarnished approximations of what happened and two official fictions that were subsequently exposed, I have said nothing about being Christian. Now I will raise the question, how do Christians relate to these stories? What do we learn from them? What does it mean to us that this is the face of actual war — that deception is inherent in war, not only for “operational security,” which is predictably cited to justify deception, but also for concealing wrongdoing, incompetence, and even the true motivations of leaders? Perhaps more to the point of this book, how do Christians interrogate accounts of gender? How do Christians interrogate accounts of war? What will make us reliable witnesses? Can American Christians continue to accept the premises of American exceptionalism? Do most American Christians even know what American exceptionalism is? How does American exceptionalism inflect militarism, and vice versa? When it does, and we represent America, is “America” a conquering white male?
A few years after the selectively secret Special Operations commanders had colluded in the film production of the Jessica Lynch rescue, Delta Force and the Rangers allowed a Hollywood director and his staff unprecedented access to facilities, personnel, and even some tactics of these secretive units for the purpose of producing Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott’s account of the Bakara firefight in Mogadishu, in which eighteen U.S. troops were killed and dozens wounded. Access was given precisely because, as Jeffords said, the film took attention “away from the war itself to the people who fought in it, shift[ing] the war from a national to a personal experience, making it possible for viewers to forget the specific historical and political forces that caused the war.
The film accurately reproduced certain key events, inaccurately reproduced others, and omitted several aspects of this protracted street battle. It did not represent the reality of Task Force Ranger in Mogadishu, nor could it have.
In 2012, director Katherine Bigelow received Department of Defense cooperation for her (and the government’s) fictionalized account36 of the killing of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, a film that — like Man on Fire [reference to earlier chapter]— used the “tempo task” to justify torture — even when the story line about the torture was itself a fabrication.
Perhaps the most egregious cover-up, and one that has stimulated neither public outrage nor official investigation, is that of LaVena Johnson, who was murdered and declared a suicide.
Dr. John and Linda Johnson lived in Florissant, Missouri, about ten miles from where I graduated from high school in 1969. Their daughter LaVena was five feet one inch tall and a high school honor student who joined the army in 2005. She was nineteen when she was deployed to Iraq as a Private First Class. LaVena Johnson was black with a “funny black name,” and she wasn’t killed in “the fog of war” or an ambush, but by American men, so her case has received little public attention.
Camp Anaconda, outside of Balad, Iraq, was as big as a town. People could actually wander off and get lost in it. On July 19th, her fellow soldiers saw her leave her tent after dark with a reflective belt for safety, and she went to the Post Exchange (PX, a military convenience store). Her debit card statement showed that she made it to the PX.
Her family and the public were told she committed suicide that night. Johnson is still listed as a suicide by the military, which has refused for reasons unknown to conduct an investigation into her death. She was found dead in the tent of Kellogg, Brown & Root contractors. She was shot with a rifle through the left temple (you have to imagine someone doing this with an M-16, left arm outstretched, holding the hand grip and trigger housing backwards to shoot herself sideways), beaten, her hands burned, and her vagina scorched out with lye. Little else is known, because her family, after looking at the autopsy, asked the government to investigate — but the government ignored them in favor of the suicide thesis. No one ever suggested that she was suicidal, or why someone contemplating suicide would stop of to buy a snack before killing herself in a distant tent. Her nose was broken. She had a black eye. Several teeth were loose and her lip was torn and swollen. Even though her family has been relentless in pursuit of the truth, the army has not cooperated; neither has it ordered an independent investigation. Consequently, little is known about what actually happened to her.
LaVena Johnson’s story does not make a good “war story.”
Rape by fellow soldiers, in fact, was a greater danger for female soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan than enemy action; and it was routinely covered up by local chains of command with little to no intervention from above. These contractors, moreover, are not consultants in suits but armed mercenaries who have been guilty of destruction of property, rape, murder, torture, drug trafficking, and sex trafficking in several theaters.
It is hard to ignore how, in each of the fictions propagated by the government and the press about Lynch and Tillman, the false stories were close approximations of film conventions, mapped onto a pre-existing social imaginary — a narrative about American providential favor, about a hegemonic white masculinity, about “civilization” and the role of the soldier (as well as the militarized police) to police this boundary between Us and Them. The military’s inhering misogyny, its rape culture, its outposts of white supremacy in the “elite” units, do not fit into that narrative. Neither do these inconvenient stories, like Abu Ghraib or the death of LaVena Johnson, fit into a liberal feminist narrative where the only problem with the armed forces is that it hasn’t opened up to enough women.
In a society in which “consumers” have been habituated to being constantly entertained, and a culture where life imitates art imitates life in a kind of infinite and ever more self-conscious reflexivity, where the camera has made of us all both actor and spectator, where war is now reproduced as (boys’) games and (boys’) games are used to train for war, we cannot apprehend the relation between gender and war, between gender and church, between church and war, without some account of the audiovisual motion picture, this voyeuristic probe, this tempter to narcissism, this accountability cutout, this powerful and penetrative tool that can tell terrible truths and frighteningly effective lies.
The war story, as Jeffords says, transfers our attention from social conditions to individuals, to the characters in the story. Triumph or tragedy, our focus is on that person — not on culture, political structures, or history. Context is effaced. The background is naturalized and thereby placed beyond the grasp of critical intervention. Moreover, the bodyguard of lies that accompany war are a form of mass manipulation; and these “war stories” are tools of manipulation. As Christians, this ought to present us with an ethical dilemma. We are called to be truth-tellers, forthright in our relations with others. In this respect, not only war, but our whole epoch, must come under review, because we know that culture forms us personally. What happens to the idea and experience of self in a world where one is obliged by custom and accepted practice to objectify others and manipulate them? That’s something the next chapter aims to answer.