The Associated Press has just posted the results of an investigation into the death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. Pat Tillman in life was an icon of US patriotism after 9/11. In death, he has become a symbol of the rising death toll of US soldiers and the failure of leadership from the White House down.
He was a famous football player who gave up an extraordinary career to become a common soldier. That means, of course, that the death of an ordinary soldier has received extraordinary attention. And it is tale of cockups. It is a modern version of the story told so magnificently by Norman Mailer in the Naked and the Dead. The enemy are nowhere, it is all a tale of incompetance within an army leading to Pat Tillman's death at the hands of his own comrades.
It is worth quoting an excerpt at length:
the doomed man waved his arms, pleading for recognition as a friend, not an enemy.
"Cease fire, friendlies, I am Pat (expletive) Tillman, damn it!" the NFL star shouted, again and again.
The latest inquiry into Tillman's death by friendly fire should end next month; authorities have said they intend to release to the public only a synopsis of their report. But The Associated Press has combed through the results of 2 1/4 years of investigations — reviewed thousands of pages of internal Army documents, interviewed dozens of people familiar with the case — and uncovered some startling findings.
One of the four shooters, Staff Sgt. Trevor Alders, had recently had PRK laser eye surgery. He said although he could see two sets of hands "straight up," his vision was "hazy." In the absence of "friendly identifying signals," he assumed Tillman and an allied Afghan who also was killed were enemy.
Another, Spc. Steve Elliott, said he was "excited" by the sight of rifles, muzzle flashes and "shapes." A third, Spc. Stephen Ashpole, said he saw two figures, and just aimed where everyone else was shooting.
Squad leader Sgt. Greg Baker had 20-20 eyesight, but claimed he had "tunnel vision." Amid the chaos and pumping adrenaline, Baker said he hammered what he thought was the enemy but was actually the allied Afghan fighter next to Tillman who was trying to give the Americans cover: "I zoned in on him because I could see the AK-47. I focused only on him."
All four failed to identify their targets before firing, a direct violation of the fire discipline techniques drilled into every soldier.
The first soldier saw hazy hands in the air, but didn't take that as a sign of surrender. The second started blasting because it seemed like the thing to do. The leader had tunnel vision... The whole thing is a dreadful farce. Further in the report we read that Tillman and comrades had been wandering around lost, in broad daylight, forced to buy a goat for provisions.
The realities of a military struggle, the fog of war, can make the liberal arguments for military intervention sound callow. A scene like the one above reveals deep confusion and terrible side-effects. And yet, many still talk about young men with machine guns being the solution to sectarian conflict, builders of community relations, and constructers of liberal democratic institutions. Military force in the abstract has an almost antiseptic feel to it. Military metaphors dominate every field of life - expect the military itself. There surgical metaphor seem to rule. But the reality...