DISCUSSED: Lieutenant General John Riggs, Massively Unfulfilled Recruiting Quotas, Max Schreck, The Vampire’s Liminal Status, Tragic Car Accidents, Jack Kerouac, The Expressive Potential of the Moving Camera, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nightmare Logic, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Inverted Excitability, Victor Sjöström, Private Diabolisms, Western Heroes, Private Detectives, Slovakian Legends, The Demeter, Little Eva, Tiny Tim, The “Glories of Sacrifice”

As of late, spectacular ironies stroll out of the news two or three times a day; even so, one of the more stupefying of the last year or so has to be this administration’s wholesale destruction of its country’s military, particularly the Army. I’m not talking about casualty rates in Iraq. I’m talking about policies—avoidable policies—that seem so systematically self-defeating that it’s hard not to see these policies as determined to destroy what you might expect the neocons to cherish most—the direct embodiment of America’s imperial might. What should we make of this administration’s nickel-and-dime stonewalling—in an all-volunteer army—on the issue of sufficient body armor? Or Humvee armor? Or wounded veterans’ benefits? Or on pledges to limit tours of duty? Sure, the Marines can be abused and sacrificed without much political cost—those sonsabitches are crazy, as one of the grunts half-admiringly reports in Michael Herr’s Vietnam memoir, Dispatches—but this is the all-volunteer Army. And that rank and file does tend to register its own self-interest.

This May we learned that one year earlier, Lieutenant General John Riggs, veteran of thirty-nine years in the Army and winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross in Vietnam, was booted out with a demotion—he was retired as a major general—for having had the temerity to suggest publicly that American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq were stretched too thin. That kind of demotion for straight talk is more or less unprecedented in the military. (Not getting ahead because of straight talk, of course, is commonplace, but demotion is not.) And the fact that the administration calculated it could get away with such vindictiveness indicates how satisfied it is with its success at having weeded out anyone unwilling to toe the line, no matter how disastrous that line might be. (This process started long ago, of course. Remember General Shinseki, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shitcanned in May 2003 for pointing out what’s since been proven: that the Army’s manpower numbers were far too small to pull off what it was being asked to do in Iraq.) So who’s left in the command structure of the Army at this point, then? The deafening silence of all but retired officers at the treatment of Riggs makes the answer unavoidably clear: only the sycophantic and the cowed. And whom are they going to be ordering around? Who’s going to be doing the heavy lifting? Well, in terms of the all-volunteer Army: this country is already rapidly running out of young men who are so badly informed that they’re willing to sign up for an indefinite stay in a meat grinder. ABC News reported that the Army fell 42 percent short of its recruiting quotas this last April.

This administration needs a healthy all-volunteer army. Having to institute a draft would be political suicide and would mean the near-immediate end to their oil adventures. Support for the war remains at its present levels because it’s costing the American people so little, as far as the American people can tell: not only because we’re mortgaging our future, instead of paying the war’s costs as we go, but also because young people who don’t want to go to Iraq don’t have to. Most polls suggest that almost 60 percent of Americans believe the war to be a terrible mistake. So why aren’t we out protesting? Because most of us are willing to pay other people to die for that mistake.

We’re not surprised, then, at the initial play that Part 1 of the Pat Tillman narrative received in the media. Tillman was, as far as Fox News was concerned, the epitome of the citizen-soldier called to his duty to defend his country: he didn’t just walk away from a good job; he walked away from the National Football League. I mean, those were the guys our soldiers in Iraq wanted to be. And he joined them. When he was then killed in a firefight, the country mourned and the administration solemnly put him to use: he was still, after all, the man who turned down fame and fortune to make “the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror,” as the White House spokesman chose to put it. Except it turned out that he was killed by friendly fire, and that that had been instantly covered up by both the Army and the Bush administration. (In the immediate investigation following his death, the Washington Post revealed, there’d been fourteen sworn statements by fellow platoon members that he’d been killed by friendly fire. His last words, in fact, apparently had been “Cease fire! Cease fire! Friendlies!”)

Part of what appalled and radicalized Tillman’s family (“They blew up their poster boy,” his father told the Post) was the baldness of the cynicism behind the cover-up: the palpable sense of disrespect and contempt for Tillman that seemed to be operating alongside the more obvious Machiavellian agenda. Wasn’t Tillman, however he died, the sort of figure whom this administration held in the highest esteem?

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Jim Shepard’s sixth novel, Project X, and second collection of short stories, Love and Hydrogen, were published by Knopf last year.

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