Grief and politics don’t mix. When raw, aching grief and the dirtiest kind of politics meet, a hot volcano of pain and outrage erupts that is unstoppable. But it is necessary. It is the only way things might ever be clean again.
I am thinking of recent casket transfer ceremonies that have taken place at Dover Air Force Base, where senior administration officials have used the solemn occasions – Benghazi, the shoot-down of Extortion 17 – less to comfort grieving families than to lay blame, to establish a narrative, to lie.
Think of Sean Smith’s mother. Think of Tyrone Woods’ father. After the Obama administration’s hugs came the Obama administration’s stonewalling. They still don’t have answers about what happened in Benghazi on the night of Sept. 11, 2012.
We don’t either.
We still don’t know who in the U.S. government gave the order not to rescue Americans under fire for eight and a half hours, and how and why such an unconscionable order was given. We still don’t know who convinced senior White House officials to tell grieving parents meeting their children’s caskets that a video-maker, not jihad against the West, was to blame for the assault that took four American lives – or what the political motivation was.
This is a national disgrace.
But before Benghazi, there was Extortion 17, the call sign of a Special Operations mission in Afghanistan on Aug. 6, 2011. Three months after the strike on Osama bin Laden, 30 Americans – including 15 from the bin Laden strike-team unit, Navy SEAL Team 6, and two other SEALs – were killed in the costliest single-day loss for the U.S. military in the Afghanistan war, and the largest SEAL loss ever. A “lucky shot” in the dark brought down the old CH-47 Chinook helicopter attempting to land them in the middle of an ongoing battle in Wardak Province. Or so the U.S. military claims. The families are not so sure.
Then again, they’re not sure about anything. The runaround, the lies, the callous disregard they have received at the hands of the government and military is similar to Benghazi, maybe worse.
“We go to Dover to see bodies, and we’re all in the hangar down there,” Charles Strange, father of slain SEAL Michael Strange, recalled last week before a rapt audience at the National Press Club, where several Extortion 17 families gathered to call on Congress to investigate. “And President Obama comes up to me and he says, ‘Mr. Strange’ – and he grabs me by the shoulders – ‘Michael changed the way America lives.’ I grabbed Mr. President by the shoulders and I said: ‘I don’t need to know about my son, I need to know what happened, Mr. President.’
Strange continued. “The Secret Service guys grabbed me. I’m crying. He went to give me a hug. I whispered in his ear: ‘Mr. President, Is there going to be a congressional inquiry?’ And Mr. President whispered in my ear – and I could feel his lips touch – and he said, ‘Mr. Strange, we’re going to look into this very, very, very deep.’ Well, I haven’t heard nothing.”
Nothing that makes sense, anyway. A military investigation led by then-Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Colt (since promoted to major general) tells us there was no “eye in the sky” that night. Why not? No forces had been sent in to prepare the area. Why not?
More sickening was the fact that rules of engagement prevented suppressive fire from being aimed at the tower firing on the Chinook. Billy Vaughn, father of slain SEAL Aaron Vaughn, recalled how a three-star admiral explained this breach to the grieving families: U.S. forces couldn’t fire back, the admiral said, because “we want to win hearts and minds.” As Mr. Strange later put it: “What about my heart? What about my mind?”
American hearts and minds don’t count with this U.S. government – and that is our national tragedy until we change the government.
What commander is responsible for assembling so many SEALs in one inadequate aircraft, for this particular landing site, for a mission many believe was in fact unnecessary? Extortion 17 took off three months after the strike on bin Laden, three months after the Obama administration blew SEAL Team 6’s cover in the bin Laden raid, three months after intelligence indicated the Taliban were out for revenge. “The chain of command” was responsible, the families were told. Who were they? No answer.
Why was there no gunship escort that night? What happened in the final minutes of Extortion 17? The black box was never recovered, the military insists. Really? What about the seven Afghan soldiers who joined the mission at the last minute, replacing Afghans previously scheduled to fly? No one knows the identities of this last-minute group, or why they flew that day. More troubling still, military investigators didn’t interview Afghan commanders to find out.
Why not? To win their “hearts and minds,” too? The word for that is “submission.” Such submission also explains the appalling inclusion of an imam at the casket transfer ceremony in Afghanistan – a ceremony preceding the transport of the dead bodies, American and Afghan, to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where they would finally be identified. (This makes families wonder whether American sons lay in caskets draped with the Afghan flag.) There, in the midst of an otherwise ecumenical ceremony (devoid of any mention of Jesus Christ), the imam invoked Allah, while establishing that Muslims reside in heaven and non-Muslims reside in hell.
Standard Islamic fare, to be sure, but this is the same supremacist basis of the jihad that killed the men of Extortion 17. No wonder the families are doubly outraged.
As should we all be. Congress must investigate Extortion 17 and find out exactly what happened, and who bears responsibility. It is the very least we can do for our people.