With apologies to the authors of the Old Testament, the popular myths of war heroes could well have started with the sacking of Troy, as recorded by Homer circa 850 BC. But in the telling of the Greek poets, heroes weren’t exactly winners. The higher they went, the deeper they fell. However, sometime between then and the mid-twentieth century, the tragedy that clung like a gray ghost to military heroes in the Western tradition withered away. Today there’s hardly an ironic note, much less a tragic one, to be found in accounts of the so-called war on terror.
Counterinsurgency does not lend itself to Homeric heroes. Even when Julius Caesar paraded Vercingetorix, the captured leader of the Gauls, through Rome in a victory celebration, everybody knew something bad was going to happen. In today’s counter-insurgency engagements, there are no Berlins or Tokyos to be sacked. Victories are short, dirty, ambiguous, morally questionable, and often inconsequential. From the muck of the war on terror, heroes have to be invented.
Take, for example, reports on the last breaths of Osama bin Laden. The initial account had the evil, bearded sheikh fighting off the virtuous Navy SEALS while using one of his wives as a human shield, until he was quickly cut down. It was a story so expertly attuned to the American narrative of righteous vengeance that it became an instant legend. Of course, a different story came to light soon after: White House spokesman Jay Carney admitted from his podium that bin Laden was probably unarmed and did not use a wife as a shield. But amid the general snickering about the White House’s correction, nary a note was made of the engagement’s central irony: that the Al Qaeda chieftain, whose reputation was sealed by a surprise attack on thousands of unarmed civilians, was himself shot down, unarmed, by surprise.
Many, starting with President Obama, called that justice. Naturally, to equate, even in a metaphoric way, the killing of an unarmed bin Laden with his liquidation of three thousand innocent Americans on September 11, 2001, is political and journalistic suicide. Perhaps, in time, greater consideration will be afforded to the notion that hundreds of millions of gas-guzzling Americans, so willfully ignorant about their government’s backing of despotic Middle Eastern monarchs and dictators—including, it must be said, Saddam Hussein in the 1980s—weren’t so innocent on 9/11 after all. Self-defense is the first refuge of statesmen and warmongers alike. So it’s hardly surprising that even the government’s corrected accounts of what happened in Abbottabad carried a strong whiff of this rationale—one lone SEAL against the terrorist kingpin, who may or may not have been reaching for his gun.
This welter of hastily revised details recalls a far cheesier war story, the legend of Private Jessica Lynch, the West Virginia waif lionized as a heroic gunfighter during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Lynch had “fought fiercely” when her truck was ambushed on a highway in southern Iraq, the Washington Post reported in a front-page story. She had “shot several enemy soldiers” and kept “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition” before her capture by Iraqi troops. Based on anonymous sources, the Post’s account was an instant, global sensation. It was also almost entirely false—in short, a myth. Lynch was there, of course, because of other myths: that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, that he had obtained uranium from Africa, and that he had close ties to Al Qaeda. What was one more?
The poor woman didn’t deserve it. As I wrote in a review of her unfortunate 2003 book I Am a Soldier Too (authored with former New York Times reporter Rick Bragg), “Jessica Lynch did not ‘fight to the death,’ blasting away at Iraqi hordes; did not suffer bullet and knife wounds; was not slapped, much less tortured, by her captors; was not rescued in a blazing gun battle by U.S. commandos; and was not, as she impishly volunteered in a parade of TV appearances . . . ‘a hero.’” No matter. Wherever Lynch went in her tour of media franchises, from Katie to Diane to David and every stop between and beyond, the hero label was slapped on her, much to her evident chagrin. “I didn’t kill nobody,” the humble twenty-year-old volunteered. “We left a lot of men behind. . . . I’m just a survivor. When I think about it, it keeps me awake at night.”
Then a countermyth arose: that the Pentagon had entirely fabricated the story. But that wasn’t true, either, as W. Joseph Campbell, author of the 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, recently wrote: “The account of her battlefield derring-do probably was a case of mistaken identity or misattribution. It wasn’t Lynch who had fought heroically at Nasiriyah, it most likely was Donald Waters, a cook-sergeant in Lynch’s unit who, after running out of ammunition, was captured by Iraqi irregulars, and executed.” The Post eventually published a correction, also on page 1. One of the reporters on the original story, Vernon Loeb, who covered the CIA, explained to NPR that the erroneous Lynch yarn came from “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington—not from the Pentagon. “Like many media-driven myths,” Campbell writes, “the false narrative about the Pentagon offers a simplistic, easy-to-understand account of an event—a war—that was complex, controversial, and faraway.”
Much the same cycle of official mythmaking enshrouded the martyrdom of Pat Tillman, the star defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals who walked away from a $3.6 million contract to sign up as an enlisted man in the war on terror. The original story of Tillman’s death, as massaged into shape by army commanders and sustained by Pentagon higher-ups, was that he expired heroically in a gun battle with Afghan insurgents. But as with the initial reports about Jessica Lynch, the legend crumbled on closer examination.
“Myths shaped Pat Tillman’s reputation, and mystery shrouded his death,” wrote Steve Coll, then the Washington Post’s managing editor, on December 5, 2004. “Millions of stunned Americans mourned his death last April 22 and embraced his sacrifice as a rare example of courage and national service.” Courage Tillman had, in abundance, Coll wrote. Would that the same could be said about the military leaders who crafted the fable of Tillman’s self-sacrifice. “The records show Tillman fought bravely and honorably until his last breath,” continued Coll. “They also show that his superiors exaggerated his actions and invented details as they burnished his legend in public, at the same time suppressing details that might tarnish Tillman’s commanders.”
Squeezing every last ounce from his honorable life, the army awarded Tillman a posthumous Silver Star for valor. The award certificate was fiction, as Coll documented. In fact, “Tillman died unnecessarily after botched communications, a mistaken decision to split his platoon over the objections of its leader, and negligent shooting by pumped-up young Rangers—some in their first firefight—who failed to identify their targets as they blasted their way out of a frightening ambush.”
A month after Tillman’s death, the head of the army’s Special Operations Command, Lieutenant General Philip R. Kensinger Jr., called a brief news conference to admit that Tillman “probably” died by “friendly fire.” The co-conspirators in this outrage received nothing more than reprimands, while Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, escaped punishment entirely. On the seventh anniversary of Tillman’s death this past April, his mother bitterly complained about the appointment of McChrystal to a panel on military families.
McChrystal, who would later be forced to resign over his alleged impolitic remarks about Obama officials, “deliberately helped cover up Pat’s death, and he has never adequately apologized to us for doing that,” Mary Tillman told Jake Tapper of ABC News. She also suggested there might be more stories like her son’s hidden under the mounting pile of unit citations and awards for personal valor. “I’ve come to learn through this journey that there are many other families that have been lied to by the military about their sons and daughters,” she said. “We feel that what happened to Pat pertains to other people, not just us.”
It’s hard to single out heroes in any counterinsurgency war. By doctrine and necessity, the work is mostly secret, stealthy, and murderous.
Four decades ago, Americans were stunned to learn that more than twenty thousand suspected Vietnamese insurgents had been assassinated in the CIA’s Phoenix Program. Some estimates put the number as high as sixty thousand. CIA director William E. Colby defended the progress by arguing that the other side was doing it, too, in far greater numbers, via sham “people’s trials” of landlords and village officials, after which they were executed on the spot. “But none of these arguments could prevent the program from becoming a focal point of the antiwar movement,” the late CIA director’s entry at the Arlington National Cemetery’s website reads. “Although Colby maintained that the deaths characteristically arose in combat and not as a result of cold-blooded murder, critics of Phoenix labeled it an assassination program and a crime against humanity.”
The threshold for outrage has gotten considerably higher since then. Today in Afghanistan, the US command is running an assassination machine that dwarfs the Phoenix Program many times over. Kill/Capture, a project of the Joint Special Operations Command, is liquidating one thousand suspected insurgents a month. “It’s an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine,” retired army major John Nagl told PBS’s Frontline in a May 10 broadcast.
Such operations are not the stuff of valor. There were few acclaimed heroes to come out of the counterinsurgency efforts in Vietnam—certainly no Audie Murphys or marines raising flags over Iwo Jima. Seven Green Berets who had been charged with first-degree murder—for their unauthorized execution of a suspected North Vietnamese double agent—came home to modest local celebrations, mostly because the Nixon administration had forced the army to drop the charges. POWs such as John McCain got the hero treatment because they survived, not for bombing North Vietnam.
Indeed, the real counterinsurgency lessons from Malaya and Vietnam are that operations must be hidden from cameras and reporters. This kind of killing is just too vicious for current tastes, no matter how effective it is. Plus, the few journalists who have gotten access to Kill/Capture teams have come away wondering whether the nighttime raids and Predator-drone kills might be creating as many Taliban adherents as they’re liquidating. At one thousand a month, that’s a lot of recruits—and nothing to celebrate.
I imagine that if Homer and the other Greeks were writing today’s script, they’d have the gods punish those who cheered bin Laden’s killing. The same for those who celebrate the “industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine” in Afghanistan. It’s hubris. Somebody’s got to pay.
Jeff Stein is the author of A Murder in Wartime (St. Martin's Press, 1992) and writes the blog SpyTalk.