One segment of the May 4th edition of CBS television’s 60 Minutes provided an update on the struggle of Mary Tillman, mother of NFL star-turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman, to get the full story of the circumstances of her son’s death while in action April 22, 2004 in Afghanistan. (May 3rd was the anniversary of Tillman’s funeral that the Pentagon so shamelessly exploited through the media, including the posthumous award of the Silver Star, the second highest military decoration for bravery in the face of enemy fire.)
But Tillman had not died from enemy fire while taking on a large enemy force and giving his comrades time to regroup and eventually survive the encounter. Yes there was a very hot firefight between Taliban /al Qaeda adherents and the mixed Afghan/ U.S. Army Ranger unit hunting them in the rugged mountains of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. Given that first reports are invariably wrong, when Tillman’s spouse and parents were informed of his death, a simple “we are still investigating” should have been the “explanation” proffered – especially to the media. But even today, Mary Tillman believes the Pentagon still has not told the whole truth about her son’s death.
Sunday’s New York Times carried another story of lies, deception, and fraud that resulted in death by electrocution of at least twelve soldiers and marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. These deaths did not come while the soldiers were on patrol or by unexpected encounters with downed “hot” wires. These “accidents” happened in facilities used as base camps for U.S. units, camps that were to have been completely refurbished – including the wiring – under terms of a $30 billion no-bid contract awarded to the one-time Halliburton subsidiary KBR (formerly Kellogg-Brown-Root).
The deaths reportedly all were the result of shoddy workmanship in the grounding of electrical sources, both in permanent structures and in machinery when in use. The problem is not new: in 2004, Army units in theatre were alerted concerning the potential for accidental electrocution. American electricians working for KBR in the war zone observed and notified KBR and even the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA), the office that monitors contractor performance, of numerous instances of poor workmanship by undertrained and underpaid Iraqi and Afghan “electricians.” According to the Times, nothing was done to remedy the problem because DCMA has neither the staff to monitor whether the specifications of a contract are being met nor “subject-matter experts” with the knowledge to inspect electrical wiring to insure all safety issues are resolved.
As if it had learned nothing from Tillman, the Army again lied to the family of at least one victim, Staff Sergeant Ryan Maseth, electrocuted while showering at his base camp. The Pentagon first told his family he had taken an electrical device into the shower. A few more days brought a different explanation: the large number of exposed live wires surrounding the shower area. Maseth’s family is suing KBR for wrongful death.
That’s where the record is now. But there is more to come as Congress is holding hearings on contracting irregularities, corruption, bribery and war profiteering. The Defense Department’s Inspector-General has an enquiry of his own in progress. But unless Congress and the IG include in their investigations the influence that the KBR forgeries had on delaying subsequent maintenance and inspection schedules (as the logs would be taken as accurately reflecting what had been done) that might have corrected deficiencies, the real evil in this saga – that no one, not even those whose forgeries materially contributed to the deaths of 12 soldiers will be held accountable – will not be excised.
This is not simply corruption and fraud but a question of deaths for which specific individuals can and should be held accountable in a criminal court. Moreover, in these deaths, there is not even the excuse of the “fog of war” as appears may be the case in Pat Tillman’s death. Many deaths were at fixed installations, the rest involved large generators. Contractors had pledged to provide “life support” services in return for $30 billion, but there was from the beginning no possibility that the Pentagon could exercise proper oversight as – according to the just-resigned Agency head, Keith Ernst – the DCMA had no “technical capability to exercise oversight.”
Lewis Carroll’s Alice had to go down a rabbit hole to discover a world where everything was the reverse of “normal.” In Wonderland, “yes” meant “no” (or at best, maybe), “no” meant “yes” (or a “differently-interpreted” maybe), and records were written, approved, and filed before any work described therein or event actually happened. (After all, how can one possibly know what is to be done by whom and in what order unless everything has been carefully detailed beforehand?)
Don’t look now, but that Mad Hatter world seems to have ascended the rabbit hole and now is in full swing about us. And its inhabitants seem determined to stay for as long as they can. But what else can one expect when national identity is based on war – the ultimate madness?
Col. DAN SMITH is 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.