Friday, 27 April 2007
Testifying before a Congressional committee this week, former Private Jessica Lynch told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that she did not continue to fight against Iraqi troops after the vehicle she was riding in was destroyed by a rocket-propelled grenade. In fact, she said, she never even fired her weapon. Furthermore, when she awoke in the hospital some time later, she received excellent care from the Iraqi medical staff, who even tried to return her to the Americans but were shot at in the process. When the military finally did arrive at the hospital and take her back into American hands, there was no dangerous firefight against hostile Iraqi soldiers, because by the time the Americans arrived, all the Iraqi troops had left, leaving the hospital in the hands of the doctors and nurses. The Bush administration desperately wanted someone to be a hero in the war on Iraq, and Jessica Lynch seemed to be the perfect candidate to capture the imagination of the majority of Americans: young, female, attractive, white. Unfortunately, as Lynch testified before the committee, the tales the military told to turn her into a hero were completely untrue. (For a critique of the "official" version of her story dating to shortly after the time it was first reported, see "Why Jessica? What The Birth of a Nation, King Kong, and To Kill a Mockingbird Reveal about the Military/Media Version of the Jessica Lynch Story".)
A similar, though more tragic, set of circumstances surrounds another American soldier in the Middle East, this time in Afghanistan, Army Ranger Pat Tillman. Tillman, a standout safety for the Arizona Cardinals, gave up football and millions of dollars in salary, to pursue a career in the military. The army reported that Tillman was killed in a firefight with Afghan militants while leading a counteroffensive. In reality, Tillman was accidentally killed by one of his own men. The Tillman family was not told the real story initially, and false statements about his death were put in the official report. It was largely due to the efforts of the Tillman family that the army was eventually forced to acknowledge that Pat had died from friendly fire. That the government had used a false version of Tillman's death to turn him into a hero does not sit well with his family. As his brother Kevin Tillman notes, the government concocted an alternate version of Pat's death for propaganda purposes: "The facts needed to be suppressed. An alternative narrative had to be constructed, crucial evidence destroyed."
The government in these two cases--and probably others as well--was more interested in creating a hero than in communicating honestly with the American people. The necessity of selling war trumped the necessity of telling the truth. Unfortunately, the heroes they created were mere comic book heroes, in tights and a cape--Batman, Wonder Woman--not real flesh and blood heroes. That's a shame, because Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman--the real Jessica and Pat--are real heroes.
Lynch, like everyone else in today's military, volunteered to join the service. She could have stayed home, gone to college or work, but she chose to serve. The fact that she was knocked unconscious by an RPG blast in no way negates her service to her fellow soldiers and to this country. It's a shame the military brass and the Bush administration didn't recognize her for the hero she is.
Tillman gave up a lucrative career in football to fight for his country. Some might argue that his decision wasn't well thought through, but it was his decision, and he made it with courage and integrity. The fact that he was killed by friendly fire in no way diminishes his heroism. It's a shame that his superiors didn't show the same integrity in dealing with his death.
People today don't need artificial, comic book heroes. It's fun to watch Spiderman on the big screen, but I know he's just make believe, and so does everyone else. Trying to turn real heroes into cartoon heroes cheapens their service to their fellow soldiers and to this country. As Lynch told the committee, "The American people are capable of determining their own ideals for heroes, and they don't need to be told elaborate lies." Soldiers who serve with honor and distinction do not need their deeds to be embellished to be welcomed home as heroes. They have served their country well, and above all the government owes them one thing: the truth.