And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound;
Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be call'd
The field of Golgotha and dead men's skulls.
--William Shakespeare, King John
To a certain degree, Pfc. LaVena Johnson's death came to me as a random event. I'd meant to write about the coverup in Cpl. Pat Tillman's death and the subsequent congressional investigations into it. But just a half hour's worth of googling found plenty of questionable deaths in Iraq and plenty of families in the Tillmans' situation.
I opened with the Shakespeare quote because it's old enough to show a historical theme -- in war 'kin with kin and kind with kind confound' or, more simply, people kill people on their own side. LaVena Johnson and Pat Tillman are just a few we know of. The best place in the world to get away with murder is on a battlefield. There are more names we'll never know and more murderers who'll get away with it. Once you fire up the war machine, anyone who gets caught in the gears gets chewed up. It doesn't matter who's uniform they wear. War is game theory, about winners and losers. It doesn't have an ideology and is, therefore, amoral at best and immoral at worst.
To a certain degree, it's hard to understand why anyone would expect all soldiers to behave honorably. We take them from home and drop them down in a foreign culture. We tell them that what is a crime at home is their job here, that doing evil is good, that hate overrides love. Anyone who comes out of that with their head still screwed on straight is admirable, at the very least. Sending people from home to bass-ackward moral reasoning-land and back home again would be damned confusing. Actions that make you a hero on the battlefield make you a criminal in Boise or Cedar Rapids or Los Angeles. It's hard to imagine that people in war aren't all a little mad for a little while. We hear a lot about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but nothing about the trauma as it happens and what that does to the person in the moment. We concentrate on what happens after, but not what happens while -- as if the insanity of war doesn't hit you until you're out of it.
We all know what happened to Cpl. Tillman. And we know because he was famous. It doesn't detract from his service to point that out. He's getting the congressional investigation he deserves -- without a doubt. But people like LaVena Johnson aren't. They're just dead, without any good explanation, and that's supposed to be that. They don't get the congressional investigation because, I guess, they aren't worth bothering over. Yet their deaths are just as questionable as Tillman's.
Welcome to Pottersville:
On July 19th, 2005, Pfc. LaVena Johnson was found dead in her tent, a single bullet wound to her left temple (she was right-handed). Her nose was broken. One of her lips was battered so badly that a mortician had to reconstruct it. Two of her front teeth were knocked loose. Her shoulder or elbow was dislocated. A trail of blood led from her tent to outside.
A slam dunk, right? You'd think even an Army sawbones half a step ahead of a civilian malpractice suit and the laziest, most jaded and indifferent Army CID officer would rule this a murder, right?
Instead, the Army initially ruled her death a "non combat-related" one as a result of a self-inflicted wound. Not officially a suicide, but a death due to an SIW. When pressed to reopen the case by a St. Louis television news station and Johnson's parents, the Army then planted its second boot squarely and firmly in Bizarro World and ruled LaVena Johnson's death a suicide.
She was nineteen years old -- not even old enough to drink in most states. And now she's just gone. There's undoubtedly a murder here. And the nation she gave her life for doesn't give a good goddam -- we're protecting her murderer because this war must produce only heroes.
Why was she killed? Dunno. Maybe we'll never know. But, as in the death of Pat Tillman, motive is irrelevant. The crime was committed and the reason for the commission can only be an excuse, not an explanation. But, again, we drop people in the middle of a hell where good is evil and evil is good and expect them to behave rationally. We teach them that killing people solves the problems facing nations, then are shocked when they kill to solve their own problems.
This isn't to let the killers off the hook. But the fact remains that when governments go to war, they make this sort of thing so damned easy. That's in the absolute best case. Our's is the worst case -- the government and the military become accomplices in murder because they're so afraid of bad press.
We need a congressional investigation of Cpl. Tillman's death, without a doubt. But we need investigations into deaths like Pfc. Johnson's as well. Fame should not be the deciding factor in who's murders matter. Johnson was no more or less loved than Tillman and is no more or less missed. Grief doesn't consider fame.
Back in April of this year, Congress held hearings on Jessica Lynch, who's 'rescue' by US forces was supposed to be a PR coup, and the misinformation surrounding Pat Tillman's death. It didn't get a lot of press. In testimony, we learned of other deaths and other questions and other crimes.
Center for Media and Democracy:
First Lieutenant Ken Ballard: "His mom, Karen Meredith, was told that Ken was killed by a sniper on a rooftop," recounted Kevin. "Fifteen months later, she found out that he was killed by an unmanned gun from his own vehicle."
Private Jesse Buryj: "His family was told he was killed in a vehicle accident. A year later, they received the autopsy report, and they found that he was shot in the back. The Army was forced to concede that he was accidentally shot by a Polish soldier. Just recently, out of nowhere, a Lieutenant showed up at their family's house and told them that an officer in his own unit had shot him."
Staff Sergeant Brian Hellerman: His wife, Dawn Hellerman, called Kevin Tillman late one night. "She was tired of receiving new official reasons why her husband had died. She was desperate for help. ... The system had failed her."
Sergeant Patrick McCafferty: "The family was told, it was -- quote -- 'an ambush by insurgents.' Two years later, they found out that those -- quote -- 'insurgents' happened to be the same Iraqi troops that he was training. Before his death, he told his chain of command that these same troops that he was training were trying to kill him and his team. He was told to keep his mouth shut."
None of them are famous, none of them went on to get their own congressional investigation, and all of them are just as dead, just as needlessly and senselessly, as Cpl. Pat Tillman. Their deaths will very likely go uninvestigated and unpunished. Their families will never have answers. The flag that covered their coffins, folded into a triangle and put over the mantle, will be just about all they ever get for their loss and their sacrifice. Their children, their husbands, their wives are gone and the military's response to their questions is a big ol' honkin' "Fuck you."
Almost all wars follow the same pattern -- it's a process. First, there's a period of diplomatic conflict. Next, a period of human sacrifice. Then, a diplomatic solution and peace. See a stupid and pointless step in there? In this completely irrational period of human sacrifice, it's predictable that someone will think that one more person on the altar won't matter all that much. In war, death is a statistic, not a tragedy. Human life is completely devalued.
Except at home. Those families value what they've lost. That the government doesn't see that value is just one more crime. The Johnsons and the Tillmans, the McCaffertys and the Buryjs, the Ballards and the Hellermans, all deserve much more than they're getting.
I'd write a little more, but to tell you the truth, I'm damned sick of this. I let William Shakespeare get this post in the air, but I'll let James Madison land it; "Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other."
Amen, brother. War and justice don't mix.
Technorati tags: politics; Iraq; Afghanistan; Pat Tillman; LaVena Johnson; Ken Ballard; Jesse Buryj; Brian Hellerman; Patrick McCafferty; The term 'war crime' is redundant