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The Tillman Affair and the Moral Decay of the Army: "Have You No Sense of Decency?"

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Message Daniel Smith

"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:

The Questions

-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.

The Deception

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.

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Colonel Daniel M. Smith graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1966. His initial assignment was with the 3rd Armor Division in (more...)

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