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The story of another Pentagon war lie

May 4, 2007 | Page 12

NICOLE COLSON reports on hearings into the cases of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch.

CONGRESSIONAL HEARINGS last week into the cases of Pfc. Jessica Lynch and Cpl. Pat Tillman exposed more of the Bush administration's war lies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The stories of Lynch and Tillman were two of the most celebrated by pro-war hawks. Lynch was injured and captured during the initial invasion of Iraq, but later rescued by U.S. forces. Tillman, a pro football player who left a lucrative NFL career to enlist in the military, was killed in Afghanistan in 2004, supposedly in a hail of enemy fire.

Both stories turned out to be fabrications.

Although the Defense Department initially reported that Tillman and two other Army Rangers had been killed by enemy combatants while leading an attempt to rescue U.S. troops in Afghanistan, it finally emerged five weeks later that he was killed by friendly fire.

Today, the full scale of the cover-up is still being exposed. What is known, however, is that military officials immediately attempted to keep the truth about Tillman's death quiet--while concocting an alternate story designed to exploit his memory as an example of wartime heroism.

As Kevin Tillman--Pat Tillman's brother, who served in the same unit--told Congress last week, "To our family and friends, [Pat's death] was a devastating loss. To the nation, it was a moment of disorientation. To the military, it was a nightmare. But to others within the government, it appears to have been an opportunity."

In the immediate aftermath of Tillman's death, a sergeant in his unit was ordered by a superior officer to burn Tillman's uniform, socks, gloves, body armor and notebook in a 55-gallon drum in a secured tent. Tillman was posthumously awarded a Silver Star, based on falsified reports. Even at his funeral, an Army official prodded a friend of Tillman's to mention in his eulogy how Tillman had died "taking the fight to the enemy."

"We believe this narrative was intended to deceive the family, but more importantly, the American public," Kevin Tillman testified. He said that "intentional falsehoods" were designed to give his brother's death a "patriotic glow"--in part, out of desperation to avoid yet another scandal, since photos of U.S. soldiers abusing prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison were released in the same month.

"Revealing that Pat's death was a fratricide would have been yet another political disaster in a month of political disasters, and a brutal truth that the American public would undoubtedly find unacceptable," Kevin testified. "So the facts needed to be suppressed. An alternative narrative had to be constructed."

Instead, he concluded, "A terrible tragedy that might have further undermined support for the war in Iraq was transformed into an inspirational message that served instead to support the nation's foreign policy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

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LIKEWISE, THE government made a concerted effort to transform the story of Jessica Lynch into an "inspirational message" of patriotism.

Lynch was just 19 years old when she was injured when her convoy was ambushed in Nasiriya during the opening phase of the war in April 2003. She was portrayed by the Pentagon, she told Congress last week, as the "little girl Rambo from West Virginia."

At the time, military officials claimed Lynch had witnessed other soldiers in her unit being shot, but kept fighting, even as she was first shot, and then stabbed, by attacking Iraqi forces. "She was fighting to the death," an unnamed Pentagon official told the Washington Post at the time. "She did not want to be taken alive."

In a celebrated mission--filmed by the military and immediately released to the media--Special Forces troops invaded the Iraqi hospital where Lynch had been cared for in order to "rescue" her.

But as Lynch told Congress, the official story surrounding her injuries and rescue was wholly manufactured. Though she did receive multiple injuries when her convoy was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, she was never shot or stabbed. She never fired a single shot because her weapon had jammed.

"Tales of great heroism were being told," Lynch testified. "My parent's home in Wirt County [West Virginia] was under siege of the media all repeating the story of the little girl Rambo from the hills who went down fighting. It was not true...I am still confused as to why they chose to lie and tried to make me a legend."

The unanswered question remains: how much did officials of the Bush administration know about these two cases?

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WITH THE occupation of Iraq continuing to drag on, the exposure of the lies in the Lynch and Tillman cases are a symptom of growing sentiment against the war and public distrust in an administration that resorted to repeated fabrications to carry out its war aims.

But while the facts of these two cases are finally becoming known, the everyday violence and cover-ups in Iraq and Afghanistan still receive little attention.

The recent release of a report on the slaughter of 24 Iraqi civilians by Marines in the Iraqi town of Haditha in 2005, for example, illustrates the military's disdain for the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

At the time, the Marines claimed to have killed "insurgents" following a roadside bombing attack. But video shot by an Iraqi journalist showed the bodies of children and elderly civilians--and interviews with injured residents told how Marines had barged into homes and indiscriminately shot entire families, as well as stopping a car and summarily executing the civilians inside.

Though an initial inquiry concluded that the Marines did not intentionally kill civilians, when Time magazine broke the story of the massacre, the Pentagon was later forced to open another investigation and admit that what had happened was improper--while claiming it was an "isolated" incident.

But as a recently released report makes clear, the massacre in Haditha is the direct result of the military's ignoring "obvious" signs of "serious misconduct," and commanders fostering a climate that devalued the life of Iraqis to the point that their deaths were considered insignificant.

In his 104-page investigative report--completed in June 2006, but only recently declassified--Major Gen. Eldon Bargewell commented, "All levels of command tended to view civilian casualties, even in significant numbers, as routine and as the natural and intended result of insurgent tactics."

Bargewell's report concludes that the military looked the other way when confronted with reports that civilians had been killed--in spite of photographs circulating among junior Marines that showed women and children shot in their beds.

"I found that the duty to inquire further was so obvious in this case that a reasonable person with knowledge of these events would have certainly made further inquiries," Bargewell wrote. "The most remarkable aspect of the follow-on action with regard to the civilian casualties from the 19 November 2005 Haditha incident was the absence of virtually any kind of inquiry at any level of command into the circumstances surrounding the deaths."

As Bargewell admitted, "Statements made by the chain of command during interviews for this investigation, taken as a whole, suggest that Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as U.S. lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing business."

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