Saturday, August 27, 2005

Sometimes war stories are like "fish stories"

This story is a good reminder that criticial thinking is needed even about veterans' and soldiers' stories.  Especially since everyone is falling all over themselves to show how much they "support the troops."

Historians and journalists who write about wars know that particular care is required when working with eyewitness accounts of combat.  Because in addition to the usual problems of faulty memory and emotional distortions that affect all kinds of eyewitness testimony, war stories can be affected by considerations particular to the wartime setting: guilt, fear, a desire for glory or sympathy.

The story from the Chicago Tribune (aggravating registration required) reminds us that it's not just combat veterans who sometimes come up with misleading war stories: HOAX! Did Sgt. Dan Kennings die in Iraq? Not really. Did Sgt. Dan Kennings even exist? Well, no. So who was that little girl writing the letters? by Ofelia Casillas, David Heinzmann and Rex W. Huppke Chicago Tribune 08/26/05.

Word that Sgt. Dan Kennings had been killed in Iraq crushed spirits in the Daily Egyptian newsroom. The stocky, buzz-cut soldier befriended by students at the university newspaper was dead, and the sergeant's little girl--a precocious, blond-haired child they'd grown to love--was now an orphan.

They all knew that Kodee Kennings' mother had died when Kodee was about 5. The little girl's fears and frustrations about her father being in harm's way had played out on the pages of the Daily Egyptian for nearly two years, in gut-wrenching letters fraught with misspellings, innocent observations and questions about why Daddy wasn't there to chase the monsters from under her bed.

It turns out Daddy didn't exist. And neither did Kodee.

The Tribune went to southern Illinois to learn about the bond between Kodee and Dan Kennings, and the life Kodee would face without her hero.

Instead, eight days of reporting revealed elaborate fabrications and intricate lies. There is no soldier named Dan Kennings. The charming girl people came to know as Kodee Kennings is someone else entirely, a child from an out-of-state family led to believe that she was playing a part in a documentary about a soldier.

One reason I find this to be a particularly good reminder that scams get pulled around news stories is that, for one thing, this one is not particularly political, and, for another, the actual motive seems very unclear.  It could be a case of someone just wanting to see if they could pull it off, or suffering from some kind of psychiatric condition that attracted her toward confabulation, or who knows what.

The woman involved used an acquaintance to play Kennings, going so far as to take him and the little girl to a church in Detroit this spring, where they spoke to a group of children inspired by their story.

The acquaintance - Patrick Trovillion, a registered nurse from Marion - said he was led to believe he was playing a cocky soldier in a legitimate movie. He was shocked to learn Thursday night that it was a farce and that his character had died.

"This really chaps me a little bit," Trovillion said. "That ain't no way to treat our armed forces."

I also wonder if may be one effect, an eccentric one for sure, of the extreme sentimentalization of soldiers that has grown up in the United States around our all-volunteer force.  (The "backdoor draft" of extended tours of duty is now straining the definition of "all-volunteer", of course.)

You would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the story of the pretty little orphan girl whose father had sacrificed all for his country.  But in today's climate, with the Iraq War fans going all-out to identify the prowar cause as identical to "supporting the troops" and to brand war critics as enemies of the soldiers, people are even more likely to shut off their critical thinking abilities around stories involving combat casualties.

Andrew Bacevich in The New American Militarism (2005) chronicles some of the ways in which conservative  Republicans in particular promoted this sentimental attitude for political goals.  Ronald Reagan was particularly successful in promoting this stance.  And it has had a tremendous lasting effect:

Present-day observers might still argue the relative merits of Reagan's legacy for subsequent U.S. military policy. With regard to the political benefits that he accrued fromidentifying his own cause with that of "the troops," no room for argument exists. Reagan showed that in post-Vietnam America genuflecting before soldiers and playing to the pro-military instincts of the electorate wins votes.

Given their pronounced political utility, neither the myths that Reagan conjured up—about past American wars, about the purposes of American military power, and about those who served in uniform—nor the techniques he devised to exploit those myths disappeared when Reagan himself retired from office. Rather they became enshrined as permanent aspects of American political theater. No one did more to affirm the Californian's military mythology and to perpetuate the use of soldiers as political props than did Bill Clinton.

Clinton's problems about his efforts to avoid being drafted are well known.  And after years of hearing today's authoritarian-minded Republican Party recreate reality on a regular basis for the higher glory of Dear Leader Bush, it hardly seems surprising in retrospect that both avoiding Vietnam service (Clinton) and serving in Vietnam (John Kerry, Al Gore, Max Cleland) are equally sinister in the eyes of Republicans - at least when it's Democrats doing either.  While the successful efforts of Dear Leader, Dick Cheney, Rush "don't-bogart-that-OxyContin-my-friend" Limbaugh and other Republican Party notables to avoid Vietnam War service is cheerfully accepted by the rightwingers.

But the sentimentality is there.  And Bacevich gives a very good description of why Clinton and other Democrats felt they had to embrace and promote this attitude in the wake of the Reagan Administration:

By the time Reagan left office, Republicans had managed to brand Democrats as national security wimps. Democrats had gotten the United States into Vietnam, had made a hash of things, and then had washed their hands of the mess they had made, leaving it to Republicans to clean up. When it came to military matters, therefore, the Democratic Party was untrustworthy. Worse, among the party rank and file, undercurrents of anti-military sentiment persisted. Democrats didn't understand and didn't much like soldiers - so at least the story went.

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