An old soldier once remarked that combining the words "military" and "justice" produces an oxymoron more aimed at finding a scapegoat to protect the particular service and those at its highest levels than producing any semblance of fairness. But when the spotlight gets too hot someone has to be found to pay for the damage, and all bets are off about whom that might be.
People got court-martialed because of Pearl Harbor — many and not the right ones, but enough to satisfy the scapegoat rule.
Recently, two cases that have never really left the public's attention — the friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan and the human-rights violations of those held in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq — dramatically underscore the truth of that assessment. Developments in both have raised serious questions about how the Pentagon handles the not-so-niceties of war.
Death in battle by friendly fire is not rare, whether by misdirected air strikes or artillery barrages or, as in Tillman's case, misidentification by one's own troops. Mostly it goes unnoticed or is chalked up to the price paid in combat where there is always more than a measure of chaos. But when it involves a well-known figure like Tillman, who had given up a promising and lucrative National Football League career to volunteer for military duty after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it becomes another matter, particularly when the Army was extremely misleading about the circumstances of his death before reluctantly admitting he died at the hands of his own comrades.
Now Army Secretary Pete Geren has decided a three-star retired general should be reprimanded and possibly demoted — which presumably would severely reduce his pension — for not revealing all he knew in the matter. Two one-star generals already have received written punishments for their part in the alleged cover-up, which former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top generals testified recently did not exist at their level.
Whether Mr. Geren's action against Lt. Gen. Phillip Kensinger Jr. is aimed at cutting the Army's losses is anyone's guess, but it does come in the midst of congressional hearings on the case — hearings that have become another platform for questioning the policies of the Bush administration.
Would there have been this military soul-searching over one of the more common mistakes of battle had not the victim been so prominent? The brutal truth is probably not. As a Ranger who left the weekly war on the gridiron for the real thing, Tillman was nearly more celebrated than in his football career.
Justice — whatever that means in this case — must prevail and the scapegoat for not owning up must be found, no matter the rank.
In the case of Abu Ghraib, however, the military has been strongly criticized for mainly keeping the responsibility for sadistic interrogation techniques out of the officer corps. Now it seems the Army is about to try a reservist, Lt. Col. Steven Jordan, for his alleged part in the infamous affair, the lone officer to be held criminally responsible. Investigators and regular Army brass claim Col. Jordan is a liar and an abuser who used dogs on at least one occasion during his tenure at the prison.
Col. Jordan's court-martial will be held against a backdrop of denial from military interrogators that he had anything to do with their work at the facility. His alleged use of the dogs apparently came during a search for contraband among Iraqi prisoners, one of whom had been passed a weapon.
Col. Jordan denies he had anything to do with any interrogations or is guilty of anything. He has been sitting in a low-profile job awaiting word of his fate since 2004, unable to return to civilian life, while suffering a variety of physical and personal travails, including a divorce and counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder. He contends the Army decided to quell criticism by throwing a reserve rather than a regular officer to the wolves.
It does seem curious that the military has decided three years after the incident that Col. Jordan should be the one officer to pay. Well, perhaps not so curious when one considers the old soldier's views of "military justice." Someone always has to pay in the end, whether he deserves to do so or not.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.