Video: Investigating Pat Tillman’s death

By Military analyst
updated 8/6/2007 1:04:56 PM ET 2007-08-06T17:04:56

A few days ago, Secretary of the Army Pete Geren reported on the Army’s investigation into the death of Corporal Pat Tillman. The results of the study have satisfied some people, but, predictably, have also provided many others with an opportunity to coin political capital or to manufacture risibly improbable causes for the events.

The basic facts of Tillman’s death are not much in dispute. There has been some uninformed speculation that he was murdered, but eyewitness testimony to the contrary is persuasive.  He was well liked and highly respected by the rest of his unit, and in any case it would have been virtually impossible to engineer the ludicrous tactical circumstances that actually took place. Those who speculate that Tillman was murdered have no military experience, and people who have not been in combat are unreliable observers of what actually happens in a firefight.

The day after the report by Geren, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Henry Waxman, grilled a number of people about the incident and the disgraceful mishandling of its reporting. Among those who agreed to testify was former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

In theory, the principal purpose of such hearings is to inform lawmakers.  But instead they typically serve as platforms for lawmakers either to extol or to excoriate witnesses, since senators, representatives and staffers usually appear to have formed opinions in advance of hearings. This is nothing new, remember, but it puts into perspective committee members’ emotive theatrical performances, especially when the proceedings are televised live.

Waxman’s committee offered little reason to lift the public’s low opinion of our elected representatives, but for his part Rumsfeld also did nothing to disprove the widespread view that he was an awful Defense Secretary. Among other things, Mr. Rumsfeld professed ignorance of how and when he first learned that Tillman had been killed.

This, of course, strains credulity. Nobody expects the Secretary of Defense to know everything that takes place in his massive organization, but it is almost impossible to believe that he may have first heard of Tillman’s death in the press, as he suggested during the hearing. The Secretary is briefed daily, and he undoubtedly was advised that Corporal Tillman, perhaps the enlistee with the highest profile in the war, had been killed. The one intelligent aspect of Rumsfeld’s appearance was that he showed up to testify at all, since he could have been compelled to do so, and his professed ignorance of the events would have looked, under duress, far worse than it did. My guess is that Rumsfeld’s off the hook…for now.

But aside from the tragedy of a gallant patriot’s avoidable death, the most enduring legacy of the episode may be the change in an Army regulation that now requires a formal, independent investigation into the death of every American in a hostile area. Had this provision been in force since the beginning of the war in Iraq, there would now have been almost 3,700 investigations.

Now, one may argue that the precious resource of American lives demands as much attention as we can give them when they are lost, and that a formal investigation is a small price to pay for making absolutely certain we know everything about the loss. Others would argue just as strenuously that the administrative burden attendant to verifying that which we already know is a waste of scarce resources and an avoidable administrative nightmare.

The real conclusion to draw, though, is something else entirely: the Army’s motivation is to establish a protocol to prevent commanders from lying about the cause of soldiers’ deaths. This is sinister in the extreme. It is an admission that the Army cannot trust anyone in any combat chain-of-command to act honorably, that the actions of Lt. Gen. Kensinger are not an aberration but the anticipated behavior of professional soldiers.

The poisonous implication of this reporting requirement is very corrosive, indeed, based as it is on the insupportable assumption that everyone in the chain-of-command is a liar. To be sure, as in all wars, there have been errors both of omission and commission in Iraq, and there will be more. The nature of human endeavor always guarantees some percentage of mistakes, poor decisions and imperfect leadership, especially in an environment that provides little room for even honest error.

But to assume that the Army needs to legislate honesty is a sophomoric reaction to the malfeasance of a very few among the patriotic many, the immature commentary of a mindless bureaucracy on a noble profession of which it has little understanding.

Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.

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