Symbolism and Duct Tape

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

“The Army has yet to provide the family with a copy of the original narrative required by Army Regulation to support the award of the Silver Star.”

The simplest truths bedevil chronic liars, even those with multibillion-dollar budgets. So as the family of Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinal football player who enlisted in the Army shortly after 9/11 and died as the result of friendly fire in Afghanistan three years ago, stand their ground with quiet dignity and insist only on a true accounting of what happened to him, I ponder the phenomenon of a society in a state of arrested development.

Who would have guessed that the war on terror and its vast supporting infrastructure — indeed, the whole conspiracy of militarism — depend at some core level on a 10-year-old boy in combat boots, pointing his toy gun at the air and making shooting noises? The Bush administration’s war on terror is a children’s crusade, or the facade of one: unsullied valor in the service of freedom.

The Army tried to make football hero Tillman the poster boy of such a war. When he was killed in action, how convenient. They invented a death scenario that could have fit on a bubblegum card and posthumously awarded him the Silver Star. Turns out this story was as phony as Jessica Lynch’s rape.

How embarrassing for the war effort that Tillman’s parents and friends loved him so much they wanted the truth. They have insisted on it through four military investigations, i.e., exercises in damage control, including the latest one, which wound up recommending that nine officers receive disciplinary action, but managed to find no criminal wrongdoing. The family responded with its simple demand for a full accounting of how their boy died, saying this week: “Once again, we are being used as props in a Pentagon public relations exercise.”

Well, without public relations — symbolism and duct tape — the Bush administration’s brutally ambiguous war on terror would be unpalatable. This is especially true at the level at which the war effort requires a direct sales job: the seduction of the young. The general public can be held at bay with managed news and platitudes, but the boys (and girls) needed to actually fight the war require a direct appeal to their inner hero-warrior if they are to be convinced in sufficient numbers to turn their lives over to the military’s purposes. Tillman as cardboard hero was supposed to have helped enormously with that.

What a simmering little scandal that the war has to be sold so dishonestly, as “cool” and heroic, to aimless kids looking for a future. Last week I wrote about recruitment efforts at paintball ranges. This week I revisited, the videogame site that Army brass hope “will lure teenagers into Army culture,” as a Washington Post article put it a while back. Note the flagrantly operative word in that phrase: “lure.”

The site has millions of visitors, who get to play games with names such as “Insurgent Camp,” “Border” and “Urban Assault” (which is described thus):

“A coalition convoy was raided and the cargo was stolen. It has been confirmed that the insurgents and the cargo are based in a residential area of the city. Due to the dense urban nature of the area it will be necessary to do a house by house assault on foot. A squad from the 172nd Sep. Infantry BDE must conduct an assault to take and hold objectives cargo ALPHA and BRAVO. Once objectives are captured wait for arrival of friendly reinforcements to transport cargo.”

Interestingly, I could find no games on the site called “Friendly Fire” or “Wedding Party Mishap” or “Rape.” These are not games children like to play — but I protest the big lie at this level of perpetration. At this level, the lie is deeper and more psychically destructive than merely bait and switch: the misrepresentation of war’s brutal reality.

At this level, the sell job performs what I call the ritual soulectomy: the dehumanization of an enemy, whose uncomplicated, godless evil makes the game possible. Such an enemy, for instance, “raped” Jessica Lynch in her hospital bed. In reality, Iraqi doctors and nurses used scarce resources to save the wounded GI’s life. But if the enemy we sold our warriors had that much humanity, how could we kill them?

The lie that allows children to kill — to close themselves off to the humanity of The Other — is the root of all war crimes, and guarantees the sort of scenario that undermines everyone’s security: “One of them threw me on the ground and my head hit the tiles. He did what he did — I mean he raped me. The second one came and raped me. The third one also raped me. (Pause, sobbing.) I begged them and cried, and one of them covered my mouth.”

This is a small piece of the testimony of Sabrine Al Janabi, who described her treatment at the hands of U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces, as quoted on the blog Baghdad Burning. I followed a link to it from the site of Iraq Veterans Against the War (, whose members have seen the big lie up close and, with the family of Pat Tillman, want it to stop.