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A band of khaki liars

Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.

More than seven months after Ranger Pat Tillman died in Afghanistan, the truth comes out. The former football star and famous war volunteer wasn’t killed in a fierce firefight with Taliban insurgents, as the Army brass reported – he was cut down by members of his own platoon.

It’s called “friendly fire.” If you’re on the receiving end, it ain’t fun and it’s definitely not “friendly.” But unfortunately, it will be a part of war as long as humans squeeze triggers and toss smart weapons around. Even whiz-bang stuff is only as smart as its operators – and in battle, where sleep deprivation and being scared beyond belief are the rule, GI Joe and Jane aren’t always as savvy as they should be.

In the dozen conflicts I’ve survived as a soldier or later as a war correspondent, at least 20 percent of the incoming that thumped around me, from Korea to Iraq, was the result of folks on my side firing before they put their brains, training and emotions into gear. That’s because confusion and chaos are always the names of the game in close combat. I’ve been in hundreds of firefights – some lasting a few minutes, some lasting days – where mistakes were made that put good men on the casualty list regardless of the hard training the troops had received.

So I don’t blame the Rangers for Pat Tillman’s death. They do daring and dangerous work every day they’re out on the killing fields and are by far the Army’s finest and best-trained shock troops. But I do blame the Army brass for their shameful cover-up, especially since the powers that be knew from the get-go that Pat Tillman went down by Ranger machine-gun fire.

To make matters worse, a week after Tillman’s death, the Army awarded him a posthumous Silver Star for gallantry in action even though Tillman’s death, tragic as it was, wasn’t from contact with an enemy force and in no way justifies our country’s third-highest award for heroism.

The word is that Tillman did his best to turn off the friendly fire, that he reportedly exposed himself while yelling for it to stop and then was cut down. Under these circumstances a Soldier’s Medal for noncombat-related heroism would have been the appropriate award. But someone with pull pushed for a Silver Star – which had to have been approved by at least a major or lieutenant general.

The bottom line here: A Perfumed Prince with stars approved Tillman’s Silver Star and its use as a Pentagon public-relations tool for the same sick reason the Pentagon brass anointed Pvt. Jessica Lynch, gave her medals she didn’t earn and turned her into an instant Joan of Arc-like heroine. A major in the know at V Corps in Iraq told me that when the Pentagon pressed the Corps commanding general to award Lynch a Silver Star, he reportedly told the brass in very rough terms that he saw no evidence of heroism on her part. Later, she admitted she was knocked out in a vehicle accident and never fired even one round at the insurgent force that ambushed her convoy. But she was still lionized with a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and four other awards.

Why does the Pentagon lie so blatantly? It’s the ingrained nature of a beast with a $400 billion annual habit to protect. It must always put its shiniest boot forward to protect its agenda, and the truth be damned.

I recently reported how the Army Recruiting Command was having a serious shortfall in enlistment and how that could impact on troop strength in Iraq. Within a day of my story’s release, the Recruiting Command put out an order that read: “The daily production report [which I incidentally based some of my article on] … is now considered a ‘For Official Use Only’ … Dissemination of that report with[out] the approval of this HQ … is prohibited.”

As with Tillman, Lynch, the recruiting shortfall and now SecDef Rummy’s slick mumbo jumbo about the lack of armor in Iraq, the truth always comes out. So what’s with all the ultimately ineffectual obfuscation?

But then again, when have the brass ever bothered to learn from the past and clean up their act on their own before someone who cares blows the whistle?