Wednesday night I led a discussion following a screening of “The Tillman Story” at the Naro Cinema in our nation’s most heavily militarized town, Norfolk, Va., where almost half the economy is military. What an incredible tragedy that film relates!
Pat Tillman was so good, so decent, so brave, and of such misguided integrity that what happened to him is excruciatingly painful to watch. For all the politicians’ talk about the troops, the troops, the troops, almost never does a troop have a name and a face and a voice. Reflecting on this, one realizes that every person killed in war has a story and a family, just like Tillman did, including even the over 99 percent of our war dead who are non-Americans.
And one notices the uncomfortable position it puts the masters of war in to have a troop with a voice. In researching my forthcoming book “War Is A Lie” I looked at lots of private discussions by war planners, transcripts and memos, and never once did anyone propose continuing a war for the sake of the troops, even though in public “support the troops” is the incessant cry of those who want a war continued. The idea is that you can’t oppose a war without opposing the young men and women in it on your nation’s side, without in effect joining the other side in the war, even though what you want is for the war to cease to exist. What a threat, therefore, to this rhetorical house of cards for the one troop with a voice to turn against the wars and call them illegal. What a danger Secretary of War Donald Rumsfeld may have had in mind when he wrote a memo advising that the military keep a close eye on Tillman.
Just as Saint Martin has been transformed from a conscientious objector into a warmonger and November 11th from a day to end all wars into a day to praise war, Tillman was transformed in death from a soldier who had turned against the wars and considered them illegal into a saint who chose to “sacrifice” himself in the Global War of Terror. This was eased by the fact that Tillman had started out a true believer. The movie makes him look unique in having believed the lies and enlisted to defend his nation from the terrorist Muslim hordes, even if thrill-seeking was another motivation. His military buddies are depicted as having had no such interests, and yet Tillman was not unique at all. A great many Americans enlisted for similar reasons without the celebrity fanfare. One reason the war makers pretend our occupations are acts of benevolence whether the occupied people understand it or not is because of the good intentions of potential recruits.
And the American public at large went through the same process Tillman did. A majority supported going into Afghanistan and Iraq, and a majority now says we should never have gone in. The trick is of course to get a war started, because it can then continue forever on the rhetoric of “support the troops” and “sacrifice.” When I argue that the lies told about Tillman are not unique, that everything we are told before, during, and after wars is a lie, people ask if I actually believe war can be ended. I lay out the overwhelming evidence that it can be ended in chapter four of my book, and I look at the origins of the notion of sacrifice. For most of our history we were not warriors or predators, but prey. When a human was lost to a lion or bear, it may have been more pleasant to pretend they had intentionally been sacrificed. The first gods were constructed out of lions and panthers and fed meat, including human meat. Tillman also died for no good reason at all, shot by U.S. troops, and his “sacrifice” too was lied about, but we have been telling those same lies since before the birth of war propaganda in the form of cave paintings of predatory animals.
Tillman’s football career, like his military career, involved team loyalty, group emotions felt by participants and spectators alike, including the chills that derive from the vestiges of a physiological response to danger that made our ancestors’ hair stand on end to enlarge their appearance. Instead of outgrowing such pleasures, we brush logic aside to indulge them. Tillman’s mother did not want him and his brother to join the military, yet told them that their grandfather and great-grandfather had “served” their country by participating in wars based on lies very similar to the lies on which the current wars are based. The idea that there might be nonviolent ways in which to similarly serve one’s country is missing.
The deepest offense felt by the Tillman family came after they had dug and researched and pressured and raised hell to arrive at a portion of the truth sufficient to compel Congressman Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) to put on the pretense of an investigation. The military brass all came in and brazenly lied, and although the family knew what questions to ask, the congress members did not, and the Democratic Congress had long since made clear that no one would be forced to testify against their will and no one would be impeached. At the end of the hearing, Tillman’s father had to scream repeatedly at a fawning congressman to “get the hell away from me.” When Congressman Dennis Kucinich introduced 35 articles of impeachment against Bush and included one covering the Tillman coverup, it was understood his colleagues would ignore their oaths of office.
Tillman didn’t die on a battlefield. He died outside a village in Afghanistan. It appears likely there was no “enemy” present at all, as Americans shot at Americans, but had there been, they would have been defending their homes just as you might defend yours. Certainly al Qaeda was nowhere near, and had we wanted to put al Qaeda’s leaders on trial we could have done so without a war.
Why is it that we trust our government less on every other topic than on the one topic that has been almost exclusively lied about for millennia? In this one case, the government took on the wrong family. When will we finally be able to say they took on the wrong nation?
DAVID SWANSON is the author of the forthcoming book “War Is A Lie.“