Sunday, September 25, 2005

Death of a Chomsky Fan 

Former Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman, who gave up a lucrative NFL contract to fight in Afghanistan, was killed by friendly fire in the spring of 2004. That fact was concealed for five weeks afterward so that he could continue to serve his country, even in death, as a PR tool: the Pentagon knew, after all, that the Abu Ghraib story was about to break, and was certainly in the market for an inspirational tale of heroic sacrifice. For the last six months Tillman's parents have sifted through thousands of pages of official documents in hopes of learning the truth about their son's death and the subsequent coverup, and in the course of that long, arduous process they have also learned quite a bit about how the Bush administration operates:
Were witnesses allowed to change their testimony on key details, as alleged by one investigator? Why did internal documents on the case, such as the initial casualty report, include false information? When did top Pentagon officials know that Tillman’s death was caused by friendly fire, and why did they delay for five weeks before informing his family?

“There have been so many discrepancies so far that it’s hard to know what to believe,” Mary Tillman said. “There are too many murky details.” The files the family received from the Army in March are heavily censored, with nearly every page containing blacked-out sections; most names have been deleted. (Names for this story were provided by sources close to the investigation.) At least one volume was withheld altogether from the family, and even an Army press release given to the media has deletions. On her copies, Mary Tillman has added competing marks and scrawls — countless color-coded tabs and angry notes such as “Contradiction!” “Wrong!” and “????” . . . .

For example, the documents contain testimony of the first investigating officer alleging that Army officials allowed witnesses to change key details in their sworn statements so his finding that certain soldiers committed “gross negligence” could be softened.

Interviews also show a side of Pat Tillman not widely known — a fiercely independent thinker who enlisted, fought and died in service to his country yet was critical of President Bush and opposed the war in Iraq, where he served a tour of duty. He was an avid reader whose interests ranged from history books on World War II and Winston Churchill to works of leftist Noam Chomsky, a favorite author.

Although the Rangers are an elite combat group, the investigative documents reveal that the conduct of the Tillmans’ detachment — A Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment — appeared to be anything but expert as it advanced through a remote canyon in eastern Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, on a mission to search for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in a village called Manah.

According to the files, when one of the humvees became disabled, thus stalling the mission, commanding officers split Tillman’s platoon in two so one half could move on and the other could arrange transport for the disabled vehicle. Platoon leader Lt. David Uthlaut protested the move as dangerous, but he was overruled. The first group was ordered out in the late afternoon, with Pat Tillman in the forward unit. Kevin’s unit followed 15 to 20 minutes later, hauling the humvee on an Afghan-owned flatbed truck. Both groups temporarily lost radio and visual contact with each other in the deep canyon, and the second group came under attack from suspected Taliban fighters on the surrounding ridges.

Pat Tillman, according to testimony, climbed a hill with another soldier and an Afghan militiaman, intending to attack the enemy. He offered to remove his 28-pound body armor so he could move more quickly, but was ordered not to. Meanwhile, the lead vehicle in the platoon’s second group arrived near Tillman’s position about 65 meters away and mistook the group as enemy. The Afghan stood and fired above the second group at the suspected enemy on the opposite ridge. Although the driver of the second group’s lead vehicle, according to his testimony, recognized Tillman’s group as “friendlies” and tried to signal others in his vehicle not to shoot, they directed fire toward the Afghan and began shooting wildly, without first identifying their target, and also shot at a village on the ridgeline.

The Afghan was killed. According to testimony, Tillman, who along with others on the hill waved his arms and yelled “cease fire,” set off a smoke grenade to identify his group as fellow soldiers. There was a momentary lull in the firing, and he and the soldier next to him, thinking themselves safe, relaxed, stood up and started talking. But the shooting resumed. Tillman was hit in the wrist with shrapnel and in his body armor with numerous bullets.

The soldier next to him testified: “I could hear the pain in his voice as he called out, ‘Cease fire, friendlies, I am Pat f—ing Tillman, dammit.” He said this over and over until he stopped,” having been hit by three bullets in the forehead, killing him.

He started keeping a journal at 16 and continued the practice on the battlefield, writing in it regularly. (His journal was lost immediately after his death.) Mary Tillman said a friend of Pat’s even arranged a private meeting with Chomsky, the antiwar author, to take place after his return from Afghanistan — a meeting prevented by his death. She said that although he supported the Afghan war, believing it justified by the Sept. 11 attacks, “Pat was very critical of the whole Iraq war.” [SPC Russell] Baer, who served with Tillman for more than a year in Iraq and Afghanistan, told one anecdote that took place during the March 2003 invasion as the Rangers moved up through southern Iraq.

“I can see it like a movie screen,” Baer said. “We were outside of (a city in southern Iraq) watching as bombs were dropping on the town. We were at an old air base, me, Kevin and Pat, we weren’t in the fight right then. We were talking. And Pat said, ‘You know, this war is so f—- illegal.’ And we all said, ‘Yeah.’ That’s who he was. He totally was against Bush.”

Senior Chief Petty Officer Stephen White — a Navy SEAL who served with Pat and Kevin for four months in Iraq and was the only military member to speak at Tillman’s memorial — said Pat “wasn’t very fired up about being in Iraq” and instead wanted to go fight al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He said both Pat and Kevin (who has a degree in philosophy) “were amazingly well-read individuals … very firm in some of their beliefs, their political and religious or not so religious beliefs.”
By all means click through and read the entire article, in which reporter Robert Collier reveals a host of fascinating details about the coverup (for example: Tillman's bullet-riddled uniform and body armor were burned "as a biohazard" -- i.e., they were covered in blood -- before they could be used as evidence in a friendly-fire investigation). Perhaps the most telling bit:
According to the documents and interviews, Capt. William Saunders, to whom platoon leader Uthlaut had protested splitting his troops, was allowed to change his testimony over a crucial detail — whether he had reported Uthlaut’s dissent to a higher ranking commander. In initial questioning, Saunders said he had done so, but when that apparently was contradicted by that commander’s testimony, Saunders was threatened with perjury charges. He was given immunity and allowed to change his prior testimony.

The regiment’s commander, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Bailey, was promoted to colonel two months after the incident, and Saunders, who a source said received a reprimand, later was given authority to determine the punishment of those below him.

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