What does it mean to be a nation at war? Is it possible to exercise democratic control over a wartime government that dismisses honest criticism as unpatriotic? What should citizens do when members of their military not only commit crimes — as happens during every war — but also rely on propaganda to hide mistakes and to embellish or even create victories, as happened in the cases of Army Ranger Pat Tillman and Private Jessica Lynch?
Those are big questions, but a few things are clear. One is that the secrecy, deception and constraints sought by wartime administrations are anathema to the transparency, accountability and freedom necessary to democracy. As James Madison warned, “Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.”
Another truism is that citizens retain the right to receive information and provide guidance to their government during wartime. The last is that, while security concerns may legitimately restrict what information can be shared when, maintaining civilian oversight of war operations helps ensure that human rights standards are upheld.
Perhaps the most important effort to provide oversight of ongoing U.S. wars was the April 24 Congressional hearing on battlefield misinformation. The hearing focused on the wounding, capture and rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq in March 2003, and on the death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan in April 2004. For more than four hours, the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform heard a remarkable amount of information. There were often emotional first-hand accounts; analyses by a medical doctor, dedicated family members and military inspectors; and many questions from members of Congress.
Ideally, news media would have covered the hearing in depth and hosted wide-ranging discussions and debates of the issues raised. Instead, the overwhelming majority of news outlets only showed, quoted or described the opening remarks of the hearing’s first witness panel, and then moved on to their next story.
What went unreported were shocking truths about the Lynch and Tillman incidents and the many remaining questions, as well as new insights into military misinformation. The exchanges highlighted below, drawn from testimony given throughout the hearing, fill in these blanks. (For an analysis that places the hearing in the context of news coverage at the time of the incidents, see Robin Andersen’s article, “‘Mission Accomplished,’ Four Years Later.”)
Other Soldiers, Other Questions
Perhaps the most under-reported aspect of the hearing was the list of U.S. soldiers whose injuries or deaths remain mired in secrecy. Pat Tillman’s brother and fellow Army Ranger Kevin Tillman advocated strongly for other families still waiting for answers. Kevin told the stories of the following soldiers, all of whom were killed in Iraq:
* First Lieutenant Ken Ballard: “His mom, Karen Meredith, was told that Ken was killed by a sniper on a rooftop,” recounted Kevin. “Fifteen months later, she found out that he was killed by an unmanned gun from his own vehicle.”
* Private Jesse Buryj: “His family was told he was killed in a vehicle accident. A year later, they received the autopsy report, and they found that he was shot in the back. The Army was forced to concede that he was accidentally shot by a Polish soldier. Just recently, out of nowhere, a Lieutenant showed up at their family’s house and told them that an officer in his own unit had shot him.”
* Staff Sergeant Brian Hellerman: His wife, Dawn Hellerman, called Kevin Tillman late one night. “She was tired of receiving new official reasons why her husband had died. She was desperate for help. … The system had failed her.”
* Sergeant Patrick McCafferty: “The family was told, it was — quote — ‘an ambush by insurgents.’ Two years later, they found out that those — quote — ‘insurgents’ happened to be the same Iraqi troops that he was training. Before his death, he told his chain of command that these same troops that he was training were trying to kill him and his team. He was told to keep his mouth shut.”
Members of Congress named other soldiers whose families have received misleading information:
* Sergeant Eddie Ryan, who was wounded in Iraq: “He sustained two gunshot wounds to the head and, thankfully, is still alive,” said House Oversight Committee Chair Henry Waxman. “He didn’t find out the truth about his injuries until five months later, even though his fellow Marines knew immediately that his injuries were due to friendly fire.”
* First Lieutenant Sarah K. Small, who died during a military training exercise in Egypt.
* Private First Class LaVena Johnson, who died in Iraq from what the Army says was a self-inflicted gunshot wound, a claim contradicted by multiple pieces of evidence. “For almost two years, Dr. and Mrs. Johnson have been trying to get at the truth about what happened to their daughter,” said Rep. William Clay. Later in the hearing, Clay listed the key information requested from the Army, on behalf of the Johnsons: “A CD containing the original photos from the criminal investigation into Private Johnson’s death and the original autopsy photos, missing medical records from Private Johnson’s file, all psychological evaluations that may have been made of Private Johnson, and the identity of the lead investigator into her death.”
Private Johnson’s family has filed a Freedom of Information Act request, as have the Small and Ballard families. But it’s unclear whether these requests — and the memory of their loved ones — will be honored by the Pentagon.
Creating the Narrative
Most of the Congressional hearing focused on Private Jessica Lynch and Corporal Pat Tillman. In addition to uncovering new information and raising unanswered questions, the Lynch and Tillman testimony showed how well — and, at times, how irresponsibly — the U.S. military manages the media.
Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Lynch became renowned as a plucky young soldier who bravely resisted an enemy ambush, but was seriously wounded and captured. After U.S. soldiers rescued her in a nighttime raid, Lynch’s story became an allegory for the courageousness and righteousness of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Except that it didn’t quite happen like that. British reporters quickly debunked Lynch’s rescue as a staged media event, and, once she was well enough to realize and respond to the narrative, Lynch herself disavowed the rest. During the hearing, Rep. Waxman added another wrinkle — evidence that the “rescue” operation had been delayed, for publicity purposes:
Rep. Henry Waxman: The military had an opportunity to rescue you, when you were captive for ten days. But there was a whole day, before they captured you, when they were preparing not just to rescue you, but to videotape the rescue. Were you aware of that, or aware of it now?
Private Jessica Lynch: Not at the time, I wasn’t aware that they were videotaping me, no. But after the fact, yeah I knew about it and now, you know, I kind of understand why they did it.
Waxman: Well, maybe you understand it. … I come from Hollywood. I expect show business in Hollywood, not from the military and not to support a story that was a fabrication. … Our staff interviewed Jim Wilkinson, the director of strategic communications at CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command). He informed us of the plans of your rescue operation. He informed the press operation a full day before it happened.
Waxman later questioned Lt. Col. John Robinson, who was a CENTCOM spokesperson during the Lynch incident:
Rep. Henry Waxman: Lt. Col. Robinson, you were interviewed about this rescue video by the Washington Post. … Your statement, according to the Post, was — quote — ‘We let them know, if possible we wanted to get it. We’d like to have’ the video. ‘We were hoping we would have good visuals. We knew it would be the hottest thing of the day. There was not an intent to talk it down or embellish it because we didn’t need to. It was an awesome story.’ You say you let them know that you wanted to tape the rescue. Who is the ‘them’ you were referring to — the rescue team, the operations folks? … Do you recall the quote?
Lt. Col. John Robinson: No, sir, I don’t remember speaking to them about Jessica Lynch, but I can tell you where the visuals would have come from. The visuals would have come from an officer who was assigned to the SOP [Special Operations] unit, who had an additional duty of providing visuals back to the press center. These were not the only visuals that we received from this unit. And we got visuals all day, every day, throughout that particular operation. And so, these visuals that we received would have been visuals that we would have requested as soon as we found out that there was a potential rescue.
Much like the dramatic rescue footage was essential to the Lynch story, the televised memorial service and posthumous award given Corporal Pat Tillman cemented and promoted the false narrative around his death.
That football hero turned soldier Pat Tillman had been killed by his fellow troops in Afghanistan was known immediately, and rapidly reported up the chain of command. However, for more than a month, Tillman’s family and the U.S. public were told that Pat had been killed by the enemy, while bravely protecting other U.S. soldiers.
During the House hearing, Rep. Bruce Braley asked Specialist Bryan O’Neal and the Acting Inspector General of the Defense Department, Thomas Gimble, about the statements used in Tillman’s Silver Star Award:
Rep. Bruce Braley: In addition to being an eyewitness to Corporal Tillman’s death and reporting this incident up the chain of command, you were also involved in writing a statement that was used to award Corporal Tillman the Silver Star. Do you remember that?
Specialist Bryan O’Neal: Yes, sir.
Braley: … Was this a situation where they gave you a sheet of paper and told you to write down, in your own words, your best recollection of the events that had happened, or did someone prepare a statement for you to review and sign?
O’Neal: What happened, sir, was I got sat behind a computer and I was told to type up my recollection of what happened. And as soon as I was done typing, I was relieved to go back to my platoon, sir. And that was the last I heard of it.
Braley: So when you finished typing your statement, it was in a digital format that had not been printed out. Is that correct?
O’Neal: Roger that, sir.
Braley: … Did you ever sign, in your handwriting, a statement that you had reviewed and verified the authenticity of?
O’Neal: Negative, sir.
Braley: Now I want to ask you about the statement that was ultimately used in the Silver Star commendation. … This version of the statement also says you — quote — ‘engaged the enemy very successfully’ — end quote. That the enemy moved most of their attention to your position which — quote — ‘drew a lot of fire from them.’ Did you write these sentences, claiming that you were engaged with the enemy?
O’Neal: No, sir.
Braley: Do you know who made the changes to your statement, to make it appear as if you were receiving fire from the enemy, rather than from your own platoon?
O’Neal: No, sir.
Braley: Mr. Gimble, the Inspector General’s office investigated these alterations to the witnesses’ statements and flagged these differences as well. But in the course of your investigation, did you ever discover who specifically changed this language and why that language was changed?
Hon. Thomas Gimble: … The citations that we got were part of the package that we got of the General Jones investigation [into Tillman’s death]. And they were not signed, it just had stamped as ‘original, signed.’ And my investigators went back to Specialist O’Neal and the sergeant and said, ‘Did you write these?’ And they said no, that they did not. … We were unable to determine who in the chain of command actually did the alterations.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Stephen White was a friend of Pat Tillman’s and the only active-duty military member to speak at the televised memorial service. During the hearing, White explained that he based his memorial service speech on the altered Silver Star documents:
Rep. William Clay: You were not with Corporal Tillman in Afghanistan when he was killed. Is that correct?
Senior Chief Petty Officer Stephen White: That’s correct, sir.
Clay: Then how did you become aware of the details surrounding his death?
White: The initial, sporadic stuff that I got was from Kevin [Tillman, Pat’s brother] himself. The morning of the memorial, I don’t recall exactly how I got word but, I knew that they wanted me to … let the family know, that he was going to be presented with the Silver Star. In order to do that in the presentation, I wanted to, basically, to surmise what had happened on the target site. I called an enlisted person whose name I cannot recall. I believe he was with the 75th Ranger Battalion. The morning of, he read the citation to me, over the phone. I summarized in my own words, asked him if that was an accurate summarization. He said it was, and that’s what I went with in my speech.
Hiding the Truth
For false narratives to gain currency, the truth must be suppressed. In Private Jessica Lynch’s case, her injuries kept her from correcting the public record for some time. But her doctor was another matter.
Dr. Gene Bolles, a neurosurgeon and military contractor at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, was one of the first people to examine Lynch following her “rescue.” During the Congressional hearing, he said it was clear that Lynch had no bullet wounds — contrary to already widely-reported stories of her combat heroism — and that her wounds were consistent with a serious vehicle accident. Then Rep. John Yarmuth asked Bolles whether he had been restricted in his public remarks at the time:
Rep. John Yarmuth: Did you have to sign any kind of nondisclosure agreement?
Dr. Gene Bolles: Yes, I did.
Yarmuth: … Were you asked to sign this specifically for the Lynch case?
Bolles: … Before she left, the day before or the day of, I was asked to sign something to say that this would not be discussed, also.
Yarmuth: And you had never been asked to sign anything like that, involving any other patient of yours?
Bolles: No, sir.
Yarmuth: … Did you think it was peculiar, that you were asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement for one patient?
Bolles: At the time, no. I’m not sure I do now. …
Yarmuth: Looking back at it now, are you suspicious? … What do you think was behind their action?
Bolles: I really don’t think I have an opinion on that, sir. It may have been standard procedure for a highly visible situation such as Private Lynch was. I don’t know.
With regard to Corporal Pat Tillman’s death, eyewitness accounts and reports quickly relayed up the chain of command blatantly contradicted the U.S. military’s preferred narrative. During the House hearing, Rep. Elijah Cummings described what is known about these high-level communications:
Rep. Elijah Cummings: We have an email that was written on April 28, 2004, six days after Pat Tillman’s death. … It describes how the White House was asking for information about Corporal Tillman, for the President to use in a speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. … The next day, April 29, 2004, an urgent communication was sent to the highest levels of the Army command structure, alerting them that friendly fire was the suspected cause of death. This communication is called a Personal Four, that is P-4, memo. … It [the P-4 memo] goes on to express concern that the President or Defense Secretary might suffer — quote — ‘public embarrassment, if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death become public’ — end of quote. … When the President spoke at the Correspondents’ Dinner, he was careful in his wording. He praised Pat Tillman’s courage, but carefully avoided describing how he was killed.
During the hearing, several members of Congress and witnesses asked: Which military and government officials were rapidly informed that Tillman had been killed by “friendly fire,” but kept that truth from his family and from the public for more than a month?
Reps. Cummings and Waxman wondered if President Bush’s cautious words at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner indicate that he, or someone in his office, knew. Based on then-CENTCOM chief John Abizaid’s trip to Afghanistan shortly after Tillman’s death, the number of high-ranking military officers who definitely knew, and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s previous correspondence with Tillman, Pat’s mother Mary Tillman said she believes that Rumsfeld knew the real cause of Pat’s death.
The hearing also brought to light a chilling account of the “friendly fire” incident, which Mary Tillman paraphrased from an investigation by Brigadier General Gary Jones:
Mary Tillman: At this particular moment, they [the soldiers who shot and killed Pat] got excited. They were not afraid. When they were asked about this particular engagement, not once did they say they were afraid. Not once did they say they were being fired upon. They said they were excited. Or one said, I wanted to be in a firefight. General Jones asked, ‘Did you PID [positively identify] your target?’ ‘No, I wanted to be in a firefight.’ When they asked, ‘Did you see waving hands?’ ‘Yes, we saw waving hands.’ ‘What did it look like,’ General Jones asked. ‘It looked like they were trying to say, hey, it’s us.’ And yet, they fired at them.
Strangely, the Army’s criminal investigation found that the soldiers who killed Tillman had not broken the rules of engagement.
Civilians Are People, Too
Following the hearing, Oversight Committee Chair Waxman sent letters to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and White House Counsel Fred Fielding, asking for documents clarifying “how and when” high-ranking Defense Department and White House officials “learned of the circumstances surrounding Corporal Tillman’s death.”
Of course, battlefield misinformation doesn’t just surround U.S. soldiers. Many more Afghan and Iraqi civilians have died under questionable circumstances. The New York Times recently reported new information about U.S. military assaults on civilians in Haditha, Iraq and in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
The Haditha revelations eerily echo the circumstances surrounding Pat Tillman’s death. Immediately following the November 2005 U.S. assault, the Iraqi civilian deaths were reported up the chain of command. However, that information was suppressed, because the Haditha killings represented, in the words of the Times report, “a potential public relations problem that could fuel insurgent propaganda against the American military.”
U.S. soldiers also attempted to deny the truth about the March 2007 Jalalabad killings, destroying photos and video that journalists had taken at the scene. A military official explained that “untrained people” might “capture visual details that are not as they originally were.” Two months later, the U.S. military apologized and paid $2,000 to the surviving family members of the 19 civilians killed.
What happened in Jalalabad and Haditha, to Pat Tillman, Jessica Lynch and LaVena Johnson, and to many other soldiers and civilians caught up in U.S. wars isn’t due to malicious intent. Tragedies and lies happen whenever human beings are put into a war zone. This doesn’t excuse them. It does mean that U.S. citizens should accept a share of the responsibility, and insist upon truth and accountability, lest our democracy become wartime “collateral damage.”