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September 15, 2008


Writing in yesterday’s New York Times, three 9/11 Commission members debunk a key component of a new book, Touching History, by Lynn Spencer. The book reportedly relates the tale of Major Billy Hutchinson, a fighter pilot operating out of Andrews Air Force Base, whose supposed heroics on 9/11 – scrambling his plane, eyeballing hijacked United Flight 93, and attempting to get a location from flight controllers in order to intercept and shoot down the aircraft himself – proved, in the end, to be utter hokum.

“As we pointed out in the 9/11 commission report,” say the Commission authors, “the radar records of the day indicate that Major Hutchinson did not take off until more than a half hour after United 93 had crashed near Shanksville, Pa…. He could not have seen United 93 on his scope, and could not have intercepted it…. It is about as close to truth as the myth of the Trojan Horse or the dime-store novels about Billy the Kid.”

The point, say the panelists in the Times column, is not that there is any virtue or venality in exaggerating stories of valor. Such tales of derring-do have always helped inspire a nation in times of conflict. Instead, they insist that there is a hidden risk in embracing false chronologies. Especially with regard to 9/11, they point out, “the public was left free to believe anything, and to doubt everything. Many still believe that a cruise missile hit the pentagon; that 9/11 was an ‘inside job’ by American and Israeli intelligence; that the military actually did shoot down United 93. Worse still, by overstating the effectiveness of national command and control by the time United 93 was heading for Washington, the government obscured the central reality of that morning: that the Washington establishment talked mainly to itself, disconnected from the reality on the ground and in the air. Because bureaucrats obscured that disconnect, they didn’t fix it, in terms of national security or any other complicated federal emergency response. Thus the whole world got to see a very similar reaction in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit.”

Thanks to an administration that manufacture facts by the yard (Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction; Private Jessica Lynch was rescued in a daring raid; Pat Tillman was killed by enemy fire; the Abu Ghraib atrocities were enacted by “rogue elements” and not sanctioned from above; we are actually “winning” the war in Iraq); thanks to a Republican ticket that manufactures facts by the mile (Quoth Governor Sarah Palin to U.S. troops, including her son’s unit, en route to Iraq: “You’ll be there to defend the innocent from the enemies who planned and carried out and rejoiced in the deaths of thousands of Americans”); and thanks to a system of breakneck news dissemination that often seeds the clouds above the fog of war, we have ended up lowering our overall threshold for objective truth in wartime, believing that since everything is a lie, we might as well embrace the most plausible falsehoods.

No wonder, then, that we barely flinch when we watch Tropic Thunder and find out that Nick Nolte’s Vietnam Vet character – a soldier who lost both hands in battle yet has gone on to write an epic Vietnam chronicle – actually has two working hands (he’s been covering them with prosthetic hooks) and never set hand or foot in Vietnam during the war.

I hate to say this the week after we’ve commemorated the September 11 attacks. But we’ve been overrun by the warmongers among us. Sadly, many of this country’s respected religious leaders are primed for the Apocalypse. Our kids are accustomed to the remote blood sport of video games. Audiences continue to flock to scores of nuclear-horror films that show the Earth hanging in the balance (from Hancock to Doomsday to Wall-E). And our officials, on occasion, actually set the country’s torture policies by taking their cues from the action heroes on the screen (channeling their inner Jack Bauer).

It is no wonder that we rejected our Last Presidential Action Hero, John Kerry, based on Swift-Boat myths spun by a confederacy of liars. And it is no wonder that in this election we may very well embrace yet another decorated vet, despite the fact he seems even more prone to saber-rattling than the current commander in chief.

Proudly, sometimes bitterly (to quote the Other Candidate), we cling to our guns and sabers and the men and women who would wield them.

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