Monday, April 23, 2007


Captain America is dead. And the U.S. military bumbled and lied. And now a partisan Congress and media are on the case like a hurricane β€” by which I mean a violent mass of hot air rotating counter-clockwise.

Can it get any worse? Stay tuned.

Congress opens an inquiry this week into the death of Pat Tillman. First the Army said the celebrity athlete was killed repulsing a Taliban ambush. Soon, however, it emerged Tillman was cut down by the ugly and all-too-common battlefield reality of friendly fire.

The U.S. military has a habit of turning its mistakes into myths. When the five Sullivan brothers went down to death on the "Juneau" at Guadalcanal in 1942, they were hailed as heroes (certainly they deserved it) and a new ship was named in their honor. Their parents were sent out to tour the country raising war bonds and beseeching the American people to not let their sons have died in vain.

And quietly, and long after it ought to have been done, the U.S. War Department adopted a "Sole Survivor Policy" meant to prevent the blunder of letting siblings serve on the same ship. After the war, grief overwhelmed the Sullivans' father and he died a broken man.

That was then. What made Tillman's officers think a spun story could pass muster with today's contrarian media? Nowadays, we'd hear more from the opposition about Audie Murphy's wrenching experience with post-traumatic stress disorder than about his battlefield heroics. John Burns at Gettysburg would be derided as a bushwhacker and a war criminal. Just as Tillman, after his death, was derided on the domestic anti-war left as a "dumb jock" and a "baby-killer" until he became a poster-boy for Bush Administration chicanery.

The Army already has investigated this case, and punishments are due to be handed down soon against nine officers, including four generals. Whoever decided to lie to the dead soldier's family ought to be punished; that is not, and never can be, acceptable. Whether Congress can shed any further light remains to be seen. The early indications are not promising. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who requested the hearing, is shocked, shocked to learn that hero-tales were "characterized by false stories" and that the military "used the people involved in a way that put the war in a favorable light as a result of their heroics."

Heroes always are manufactured. That is, they are real heroes in the moments of their glory, but away from it they are like the rest of us. George Washington's life story, good as it was, got plenty of padding at the hands of Parson Weems. Americans embraced the Washington myth and left it to the historians and the wretched literalists to remind everyone that George Washington never chopped down a tree, never said "I cannot tell a lie," and never skipped a silver dollar across the Potomac.

Myths continue to be made, because people need them. Heroes are found, plucked from the debris of tragedy and buffed and polished till they shine. Read the hagiographies of some of the Sept. 11 dead.

Pat Tillman was a hero β€” like the Sullivans and Washington and Alvin York and even in his way John Kerry β€” not for his death, but for his life. For the patriotic duty he fulfilled in putting off one uniform and putting on another. For doing the difficult thing he might have avoided. What these hearing will reveal, or not, cannot change that fact. What they reveal about Congress, the military brass, the media and the rest of us, however, might not be pleasant to face.

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