Euphemisms

April 29, 2007

Let's start by using Kevin Tillman's word: "fiction." The original story of the death in Afghanistan of his brother Pat, the one-time pro football player turned Army Ranger, bore so little resemblance to the truth that Kevin could find no other word to describe it during his passionate congressional testimony last week. The Army had taken a horrible, stupid death - at the hands of a fellow American soldier who kept shooting when he shouldn't have - and recast it as an inspiring fable of bravery, duty and sacrifice.

Jessica Lynch testified, too. She wasn't as angry as Kevin Tillman was over the way the Pentagon scriptwriters had invented a totally new and heavily improved story about her capture in the early days of the war in Iraq, but she was offended at the disregard for the truth and at the condescending depiction of her as a spunky gal from the hills of West Virginia, shooting her big heart out at the oncoming enemy soldiers.

Does it matter? Didn't Homer make heroes out of the ancient Greeks at Troy? He did - but these are not Homeric times, and the administration is not staffed by poets. Clumsy fictions start to look an awful lot like falsehoods, once you get enough of them strung together.

And they reveal a way of thinking, too - one that places a higher value on emotional impact than on actual facts, that betrays a lack of curiosity and an assumption that the public is equally incurious, and that prefers to regard the rush of events as a series of comforting and uplifting and easily understood stories.

President Bush probably did imagine that on some level the Mission had been Accomplished when he landed on that aircraft carrier four years ago Tuesday. It was an exercise in delusion, willingly entered into. He looks foolish now, and callous, too, considering that 38 Americans died in Iraq in May 2003. (As of Friday, 90 Americans have been killed this month.) John McCain, strolling through a heavily guarded Baghdad market on April Fool's Day and pronouncing himself satisfied with the progress of the war, shows that this sort of delusion has no expiration date.

Sometimes, instead of Boy Scout fictions and the sort of scary ghost stories the administration loves to tell around the national campfire, facts are worth having. Right now is one of those times. David Halberstam incurred the wrath of official Washington by reporting what was actually happening all around him in Vietnam, and demonstrating how it had become a quagmire for U.S. ambitions. When he died last week, it struck us just how important that was, and how important that sort of talent and courage still are. The press loves a good story, too, and the history of the war in Iraq will someday show that at crucial moments, it was tempted to neglect its obligation to the truth, and to fall instead for the fictions and falsehoods that made this war possible.

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