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The Return of Comrade Ogilvy


Suddenly there sprang into his mind, ready made as it were, the image of a certain Comrade Ogilvy, who had recently died in battle, in heroic circumstances. There were occasions when Big Brother devoted his Order for the Day to commemorating some humble, rank and-file Party member whose life and death he held up as an example worthy to be followed. Today he should commemorate Comrade Ogilvy. It was true that there was no such person as Comrade Ogilvy, but a few lines of print and a couple of faked photographs would soon bring him into existence.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four ch. 1, sec. 4 (1946).

The conduct of the Bush Administration in dealing with Pat Tillman bothers me a great deal. Maybe I should just “get over it.” But I find that I can’t. We don’t know the exact circumstances of Tillman’s death. We will probably never know, and the Administration’s conduct is a major reason why we will never know. Pathologists took careful note of the close-range bullet marks and insisted on a more precise inquiry, suggesting that the death might well have been a homicide and not friendly fire. But someone intervened to shut that down. And that’s when the process of generating Comrade Ogilvy took over. There was no Comrade Ogilvy, of course, he was a construction—and in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell patiently teaches us the utility of such official lies as war propaganda. As I wrote earlier, Elias Canetti also explored this phenomenon, in greater psychological subtlety even than Orwell’s, in Masse und Macht. But the Orwellian treatment seems somehow to perfectly capture the clinical evil that drives so much of the Bush Administration’s manipulation of the public.

And an editorial in today’s Daytona Beach News-Journal hits the issue squarely on the head:

The military lied to Tillman’s family about the circumstances of his death in Afghanistan the evening of April 22, 2004. Tillman and his platoon were supposedly involved in a firefight. He was killed. The Army knew within days at most that “friendly fire” was the culprit. It told Tillman’s family that Pat died a hero, and didn’t own up to the friendly-fire evidence until five weeks later, on May 29, 2004, and even then, qualified the death as “probably” caused by friendly fire.

As The Associated Press reported in late July, a doctor who examined Tillman’s body said the evidence did not match up with the Army’s scenario of Tillman being shot by his own troops from long range, in the confusion of a battle at dusk. He had three M-16 bullet holes in his forehead, close together, suggesting a close-range shooting…

The failing system wasn’t only the Army’s truth pipeline. It was the Pentagon’s and the White House’s deceptive management of war stories. Just as the Pentagon had made up the story of the heroism of Jessica Lynch, the West Virginia soldier wounded and captured in an ambush in the early days of the Iraq war — the Pentagon said she went down firing her rifle until she ran out of ammunition; in fact, she never fired a shot — it made up a story about Tillman’s heroism until the story couldn’t stand up to the facts. Hasn’t that been the true overriding story of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Using the fallen hero as a tool to silence the critic and whip the masses into mindless subservience is an ancient practice. And a disreputable one. In the end Pat Tillman was a real person. And by concocting a myth about his death, the Administration was not trying to honor his memory—it was attempting to substitute a forgery for a very real person. It was attempting to usurp his memory for its own political agenda. Pat Tillman, we now know, was a patriot. He didn’t think much of George W. Bush or his politics. He was openly critical of the way the war had been cast and peddled. Was the Bush Administration attempting to liquidate that Pat Tillman? That’s a conclusion that hangs close over this entire affair.

Check your pulse. If you’re not outraged by this story and particularly by the conduct of the Bush Administration—including the cascading lies of its senior Pentagon team—there may be something the matter with you.

The Bush propaganda machine is serving us Comrade Ogilvy. But I’ll take the real Pat Tillman, thank you very much.

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