Henny Youngman used to tell the story about the reception nurse who runs into the doctor’s office and cries: “Sir, the man you just treated… he walked out the door of the office and dropped dead right on the front stoop.”
“Quick,” says the doctor in alarm. “Run outside and turn his body facing inward.”
This sort of thing happens everywhere in society, but perhaps more so in military environments. Armies are sensitive, perhaps inordinately, to matters of inward morale and outward pride. When death or damage results from a homegrown goof, the instinct is to scurry off into the woods of denial. Yesterday’s hearings about the death of Pat Tillman, the rescue of Jessica Lynch, and how those were reported, confirm this regrettable tendency to include obfuscation among the martial arts.
When I served in the Israeli army, I was stationed at a base in Dotan (where Joseph was sold), not far from the dangerous Palestinian nerve center of Jenin. Astonishingly, one side of the base was completely unprotected, with no wall or fence. The old fence had been taken down a few years prior as part of a program to expand the facility. An election intervened, and the new administration cut off the funding. No one ever bothered to rebuild; instead, the exposed flank was heavily guarded by soldiers in bulletproof vests. Ludicrous.
During my time there, a tragic episode occurred where three of my unit mates were killed by terrorists while off the base on a training exercise. To show solidarity, the Chief of Staff announced he would pay us a visit the next day. Minutes after that news came, a crew was frantically put to work; they erected a fence hundreds of feet wide in a matter of hours. Although I was a lowly private, I was on duty inside the headquarters building and overheard officers conversing about the project. They kept using an unfamiliar word: kistach. Suddenly it dawned on me: this was an acronym for kisui tachat, covering one’s bottom.
So this is a syndrome endemic to armies at large, not some index to a unique culture of corruption under George W. Bush.
That being said, I do not join the criticism against the Pentagon for trying not to reveal to the Tillman family that Pat was killed by friendly fire. Why is it important to know that? In what way does it alter the nature or quality of his death?
Any killing of an American soldier in battle is part of “heroic engagement with the enemy.” It is a simple, if regrettable, fact of the warrior’s life that when bullets fly in all directions, when decisions have to be made in split seconds, in the dark, in dim light, in unclear circumstances, in camouflaged settings, in blinding sunlight, around treacherous bends, over steep hills, behind hulking structures, through thorny thickets, good people lose their lives at the hands of well-meaning comrades. It is no less admirable to be buried with an American bullet intended for the enemy than with the enemy’s bullet.
Why tell the family such a detail? It adds nothing to their comprehension of events but, human nature being what it is, it can subtract. It tends to make people feel the soldier died unnecessarily, avoidably, meaninglessly. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed the moral thing to do is to withhold that information, irrelevant at best, confusing at worst.
We can demonstrate this from another angle. What about the soldier who pulled the trigger? If we investigate events closely enough, we can probably make an identification. What then? It would be worse than folly to publicize that John Doe of Smithville had caused the death of Pat Tillman through his misjudgment. Worse than folly because it is betrayal. Betrayal of the pact of solidarity between men united in a noble cause. That pact demands that as long as all parties act in good faith all mishaps are the fault of everybody and nobody.
All this becomes academic if the military disgorges its confidences in such short order. If you cannot keep a secret it does not pay to have one. It becomes wisest to play it straight from the word Go. Better to be accused of insensitivity than deception in that instance.
Pat Tillman is an American hero. He put service ahead of personal gain, giving up millions in the NFL to fight our nation’s enemies. There is only one set of feet at which to lay his death: the smelly unwashed feet of the ignorant and malevolent enemy.