“A person without any sense of shame is no longer a human being.”
Mencius, Chinese Philosopher (c. 372-289 BCE)
The question that is this essay’s title was famously put to Senator Joe McCarthy by Joseph Welch, special counsel for the Army during the red-baiting “Army-McCarthy” hearings of the early 1950s.
In 2007, the American public could do far worse than to demand that the question be asked again–this time put by Congress to those who, in 2004, were in charge of the Department of the Army and the Department of Defense–to include the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue who is both the “commander-in-chief” and the chief executive of the federal government. Specifically:
-To the Army and the ten officers (including five generals) who, despite knowing full well the real facts surrounding the death of Corporal Pat Tillman in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, lied about the circumstances to Tillman’s family and reportedly told enlisted troops not to talk about the incident with reporters;
-To the Department of Defense, which had refused to permit publication of pictures of a Dover Air Force Base hanger half-full of flag-draped coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but was more than willing to “allow” (that is to say, willing to exploit) Tillman’s very public, nationally-televised funeral on May 3, 2004.
-To President Bush for gross mismanagement of the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan after the removal of the Taliban regime in December 2001–i.e., diverting resources needed to help rebuild Afghanistan after 25 years of continuous warfare–to attack and occupy Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which did not pose an imminent threat to the U.S., thus allowing the Taliban and al-Qaeda to regroup and continue fighting.
-To the Department of Defense Inspector General who, after an 18 month investigation that took place only because of pressure from the Tillman family and Members of Congress, issued a report March 26th, 2007 that determined that Army officials made “critical errors of judgment,” “provided misleading testimony” to military investigators, and “mishandled” the original and a follow-up investigation of the circumstances leading to Tillman’s death in the remote mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border–but passed the buck for disciplinary action to the Army.
Ranger Corporal Pat Tillman
Since I had stopped watching professional football in the 1990s except for the superbowl, I may have been the only U.S. adult male on April 22, 2004 who did not know who Pat Tillman was. Ignorance was quickly wiped away by the intense burst of media commentary and the frequent video replays of Tillman’s career as a “safety” for the Arizona Cardinals. After 9/11, according to his family, patriotism impelled him to enlist and request assignment to the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, a legendary light infantry unit whose structure and training made it a logical choice to go after Taliban and al-Qaeda adherents hiding in remote caves of Afghanistan.
The Ranger tradition is one of the oldest in the U.S. Army, dating back to the French and Indian War (1755-64) when British colonist Robert Rogers of New Hampshire formed an “unconventional” unit to fight Native Americans who sided with the French. Remnants of the original Rangers were present at Lexington and Concord at the beginning of the War for Independence, but Rodgers, who had spent a number of years in England, joined the British side after Washington refused to accept his services for fear he might be a spy.
Rangers climbing mountains in Afghanistan looking for elusive enemy fighters harkened back not only to their origins in New Hampshire but also to their exploits at Omaha Beach on D-Day 1944. The determined aggressiveness of Rangers (and of all special operations soldiers), epitomized by Napoleon’s standing order to his generals and field marshals always to “march toward the sound of the guns,” undoubtedly was a major factor in Tillman’s death and stands in marked contrast to the Inspector General’s conclusion that the Army’s investigation into the facts of the fatal firefight was less than aggressive.
Cynics see the five weeks between Tillman’s death, including the award of a Silver Star–the third highest military decoration and one given only for valor–and the initial revelation to his survivors that he might have been killed by “friendly fire” as callous and heartless exploitation of a celebrity’s death. But there is more at work here than a “less than aggressive” enquiry.
The Pentagon–and the Army in particular–were desperate for some positive news to offset the burgeoning scandal at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the other known U.S.- run prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq where allegations of torture were coming to light. One can imagine the psychological letdown when, just a few days after the “heroic” tale burst onto the media scene, it became clear that Tillman died accidentally at the hands of other Rangers.
In this regard, a major point left unclear in the Inspector General’s report is the source of the fictitious narrative that portrays Tillman’s “bravery” in the face of enemy fire. Possibly it originated within Tillman’s platoon as a sort of “reparation” for his death. This might also provide a rationale for why the other soldiers in the platoon burned Tillman’s uniform and body armor the day following his death. However the false narrative began, the written justification and citation that must describe in sufficient detail unusual bravery in the face of a determined enemy to merit a Silver Star incorporated the fiction of enemy fire–and was completed in time for the medal to be awarded posthumously on April 30, eight days after Tillman died. As it happens, the two general officers who wrote the justification of and approved the award of the Silver Star to Tillman–Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal and Brigadier General James Nixon–are still on active duty. The other two generals named in the report–Lieutenant General Philip Kensinger and Brigadier General Gary Jones, commander and chief of staff, respectively, of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command in 2004–have since retired. Kensinger is accused of “providing misleading testimony” about when he knew friendly fire might be involved while Jones is faulted for an incomplete follow-up investigation by failing to interview everyone present when Tillman was killed.
The Army has 30 days in which to review the findings in the report and determine what if any “corrective action” it will take against the five generals (the fifth is General John Abizaid) and the unidentified five lower–ranking officers who made the “critical errors” in judgment.
The Deeper Deception and the Impact of the GWOT
As cruel as is this sorry deception of Pat Tillman’s family, I fear it is but one more example of an Army on the verge (if not already in free fall) of a collapse of its tradition of honor and morality that undergirds the institutional sense of duty and sacrifice whose absence in other countries not infrequently results in a coup d’etat,.
Regrettably, the Army is not the only institution that has let it standards fall: the same decline is evident throughout government and, I believe, gathered momentum from the Bush administration’s approach to governance in general and its conduct of its self-serving, self-proclaimed “Global War on Terror (GWOT).”
In the 1950s, the public issue was communist perfidy as Soviet “agents” tried to infiltrate the government to spy for Stalin. Today it is the federal government spying on U.S. citizens in the name of “U.S. citizens,” lying about what was done or not done, should officials be challenged, in an effort to cover-up their violations of law or to divert public attention from more serious transgressions–most of which are directly related to the GWOT.
To date, the preponderance of criticism of senior officials about their roles in and conduct of the GWOT in general and Iraq in particular has been directed at planning failures related to under-resourcing “boots on the ground,” the duration and intensity of “combat” in Iraq and Afghanistan, equipment deficiencies, the under-staffing and sub-standard condition of military and veterans medical facilities, and veterans compensation system.
Deceit versus Integrity and Honor
These, however, are the visible, material, surface indicators of a much deeper malady infecting multiple levels of the federal government–starting at the very top–that distort policy decisions and program implementation and justifications. This malady is the easy disregard for if not the total discarding of all sense of integrity and honor in too many who hold key positions in government.
Examples abound, starting in the Oval Office. In his January 10th, 2007 speech to the nation, President Bush announced a troop “surge” of 21,500 troops to try to pacify Baghdad and al-Anbar province in Iraq. Within a matter of hours, that number began to mushroom with the “addition” of support troops, extra military police, and an air combat brigade. At last count the total had been bumped to nearly 30,000. Subsequent spin by the White House (“what the president meant to say was 21,500 combat troops”), instead of being seen as a reasonable explanation became–because of earlier incidents where spin was divorced from reality–but another example of the ongoing effort to low-ball troop numbers: that is, intentionally deceiving the public. This was then followed by a notice that the president had agreed to the call-up of 1,800 Marine reservists for duty beginning in October–just in time to replace units that are part of the current surge and allowing the higher numbers of troops to be sustained without having to open the “surge debate” again.
The pattern of deceit and cover-up is found in the office of the vice-president whose former chief of staff (L. “Scooter” Libby) was convicted of lying to a grand jury–ironically in an echo of the Army-McCarthy hearings–about his role in the destruction of the career of an undercover CIA operative.
The virus infected traditionally non-partisan agencies. The head of the General Services Administration was discovered to have participated in highly partisan political discussions with White House political operatives and “field organizers” about bolstering Republican candidates who will be candidates for elective office in 2008. The Secretary of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution resigned because of allegations of exorbitant travel and other expenses charged to the Smithsonian.
Various Executive Departments succumbed. Interior’s Deputy Secretary, J. Steven Griles, lied to investigators about his relationships with Washington lobbyists.
Also infected “big time”: the Department of Justice. The Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, not for the first time has denied involvement in meetings or having knowledge of a chain of events, only to be forced to “re-interpret” his initial statements. The current controversy centers on the apparent attempt to use an “emergency” provision of the anti-terror USAPATRIOT Act to replace eight U.S. prosecutors without subjecting their replacements to normal procedures that would require confirmation by the Senate.
Were this not enough, FBI Director Robert Mueller conceded in recent congressional testimony that the FBI had misused provisions of the Patriot legislation regarding “national security letters” compelling financial and telecommunications firms to provide personal account data to the FBI. Mueller also acknowledged that FBI agents fabricated information on applications to the special surveillance court seeking authorization to conduct “anti-terror” surveillance.
Restoring Honor to Duty and Country
As perfidious as are all these and other transgressions, I regard as most egregious–perhaps because I was part of the military for so many years–the lack of truthfulness, integrity, and honor in the Defense Department among those in uniform. It is the worst because the nation entrusts to the officer corps the lives and well-being of its young men and women in battle–and their care in the aftermath of battle. Such peril demands that those who lead have the absolute trust of those who are led as well as the trust of those who sent them.
Pat Tillman died in the line of duty, killed by fellow Rangers in a tragic accident. That is the simple fact. Unless Congress holds a hearing as the Tillman family wants, the reasons and the “logic” behind the decision to conceal the truth may never emerge.
The family deserves more than apologies; they deserve the full story, all the facts, so they might find some peace. The same consideration applies to the families of every other soldier who dies, whether by enemy or friendly fire or in an accident.
The country deserves more than apologies; it deserves a full accounting from the Army and the officer corps in particular for how standards of truth and morality were permitted to fall so far that they became systemic failures that, like a cancer, spread throughout the ranks and contributed to and “encouraged” the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and other military prisons and detention camps in Afghanistan and Iraq.
West Point’s motto, “Duty, Honor, Country,” expresses the humanistic ideal of selfless service to an entity larger than oneself as a reciprocal obligation for the opportunities afforded those who live in this nation. But today there seems to be a corruption of duty such that its first obligation is to self, with country in second place–sometimes a distant second place.
Such a breach in personal and institutional morality all to readily leads to the substitution of careerism for country that is “spun” into the “duty” to climb the ladder to high rank where power and influence rule. This is why “honor” and a sense of what is “honorable” are so important in junior officers, for if these concepts are followed in the formative years at the lower ranks, they will help sustain, however imperfectly, the spirit of selfless idealism in the hardest of times when even our humanness is tempted and challenged by others. And this suggests that the Army might consider re-ordering West Point’s motto from “Duty, Honor, Country” to “Honor, Duty, Country.”
Similarly, perhaps we as a nation and as a people would do better by placing more emphasis on honor and less on duty. For in being and acting honorably, we are much more likely to discharge our obligations to be ethical–that is, to be human–in dealing with others.
This ideal of the ethical as honorable and human, expressed long ago by Mencius (and others since), was re-iterated less than a year ago near Washington, DC. Judging from events since, it is quite apparent that the occasion was ignored by most people. The date was June 15, 2006, the occasion the Fairfax, Virginia High School graduation ceremony. The unassuming speaker at this unassuming venue–retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Secretary of State Colin Powell–belied the significance of his closing admonition to the graduates, one which all Americans might do well to ponder:
“Live life with virtue and values, have physical and moral courage, build a strong character that emanates in every direction, and always, always have a sense of shame–for shame is that little transistor in your head that will help you know when you are going down the wrong path.”
Col. DAN SMITH is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus , a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.