In war, we hold all sacrifices dear, whether they're made in the bull's-eye of the combat zone or out on war's inevitable wide margin of waste and error. A soldier who drowns when his or her Humvee tumbles into the Tigris is as honored and mourned a casualty of war as a hero of the battlefield. My family knows this in the most direct and painful way. My father's younger brother, Alan Gottlieb, was destined for a career in liberal politics; a protegé of Eleanor Roosevelt, during WWII he turned down a government internship that would have spared him military service, and instead volunteered for the Naval Air Force. He drowned in a ditch in Florida in 1943 when the landing gear froze on a plane he was test-piloting. He had struggled valiantly to save the plane instead of bailing out and saving himself. He is one of the honored dead of World War II just as surely as if he had perished on the beach at Normandy.
Still, it's sad to see another of our military's heroic war-on-terror stories tarnished -- not by the soldier in question, but by the military's own bright shining lies. First Jessica Lynch, whose heroics and peril were overblown in a piece of instant propaganda, and now Pat Tillman:
A long-haired, fierce-hitting defensive back with the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League, he turned away a $3.6 million contract after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to volunteer for the war on terrorism, ultimately giving his life in combat in Taliban-infested southeastern Afghanistan.
Millions of stunned Americans mourned his death last April 22 and embraced his sacrifice as a rare example of courage and national service.
Dozens of witness statements, e-mails, investigation findings, logbooks, maps and photographs obtained by The Washington Post show that Tillman died unnecessarily after botched communications, a mistaken decision to split his platoon over the objections of its leader, and negligent shooting by pumped-up young Rangers -- some in their first firefight -- who failed to identify their targets as they blasted their way out of a frightening ambush.
The records show Tillman fought bravely and honorably until his last breath. They also show that his superiors exaggerated his actions and invented details as they burnished his legend in public, at the same time suppressing details that might tarnish Tillman's commanders.
Today, the plot curdles even more as the L.A. Times reports that local Afghans counter even the Pentagon's chastened, amended report.
Afghan police and militia commanders here, along with local residents . . . say U.S. Army Rangers overreacted to an explosion — either a land mine or roadside bomb — and fired wildly at Tillman and other Rangers. They say there is no evidence that insurgents opened fire in the remote canyon where Tillman was raked by gunfire from a section of his own Ranger platoon.
In other words, the Afghans are saying there was no enemy ambush, that only Americans were firing -- at each other. Tillman screamed "Cease fire! Friendlies! I am Pat [expletive] Tillman, damn it!" until he lost consciousness. His voice was drowned out by the gunfire.
None of this diminishes Tillman's bravery. All it tarnishes is the brass. True, they're faced with a real dilemma: war is ugly and messy, and we desperately need to believe it is noble and glorious. Without that mortician's makeup job, would any democratic public support any war? Still, it must be particularly awkward for the Pentagon to have their hero's family so publicly turn against them:
Tillman's parents say the military has deceived them and stonewalled their attempts to find out how their son died . . . [and that] the Pentagon has tried to cover up deadly mistakes and negligence that night.
"I'm disgusted by things that have happened with the Pentagon since my son's death. I don't trust them one bit," Mary Tillman said in a telephone interview last week from her home in San Jose.
Mary Tillman accused the military of burning her son's uniform and gear in an attempt to cover up the circumstances of his death. . . .
Tillman's father, Patrick Tillman, said in a separate interview Friday that the family has been frustrated by what he described as deception and inconsistent statements by the Pentagon. "The investigation is a lie," he said. "It's insulting to Pat." . . .
Lawrence DiRita, a Pentagon spokesman, said Sunday that family members in friendly-fire cases "are often anguished … and we certainly understand that." Telephone messages left Sunday with public affairs officers at the Army Special Operations Command were not returned.