Lt. Gen. Stan McChrystal’s nomination to head coalition forces in Afghanistan is once again reviving the Pat Tillman controversy.
Tillman, you will recall, was an NFL player who became an Army Ranger and was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. McChrystal was the head of the Joint Special Operations Command at the time and as such he approved a Silver Star citation for Tillman which said he had died “in the line of devastating enemy fire.” Subsequently it emerged that he had been killed not by enemy fire but by “friendly fire”– that grotesque term for accidental casualties inflicted by one’s own forces.
Tillman’s parents and numerous others accused the Army of a cover-up designed to protect its own image. There may be an element of truth here, but so what? In addition to protecting the Army, Tillman’s superior officers were also protecting his own reputation. Much better to die at the hands of the enemy, after all, than at the hands of one’s own mates.
Since time immemorial soldiers have been dying by accident — sometimes because of their own stupidity, sometimes because of the stupidity of their fellow soldiers, more often because a battlefield is a terrifying and uncertain environment and mistakes get made in the heat of action. And since time immemorial commanders have been tidying up accounts of soldiers’ deaths to spare the feelings of their families.
Traditionally, officers will tell parents that their sons died “instantly,” “without feeling any pain,” and that they were heroic defenders of their nation’s honor. Often the reality is otherwise. A soldier may have died a long agonizing death after considerable suffering, and his actions may not have affected the outcome of the battle one iota. But why inflict the ugly truth on the home front?
What purpose does it serve? The only impact of publishing the truth, as the Tillman case demonstrates, is that it leads to hurt feelings all around and somehow diminishes the fallen soldier.
In the end, unless homicide is involved, it really doesn’t matter who fired the weapon that killed a soldier. Simply by being on the battlefield and putting himself (or herself) in harm’s way, the deceased is a hero and deserves to be remembered as such. Personally I would give Tillman’s commanders a medal — not a dressing down — for trying to prettify this typically terrible incident that occurred in the fog of war.