The discrepancies in Washington’s description of the death of Osama bin Laden are not the first that have forced the US military to clarify information or backtrack on it. Nor is this the first time it has had to admit that the facts, as they were initially presented, were patently incorrect.
In 2003, Private Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old US Army clerk from Palestine, West Virginia, became a poster girl for the Iraq invasion.
Despite being badly wounded when her company came under attack near the town of Nasiriyah in March that year, the soldier kept her finger on the trigger of her gun until her ammunition ran out. Nor did her pluck exhaust itself there: Lynch also survived abuse and interrogation at the hands of local hospital staff until she was rescued by US special forces after a fierce firefight.
The only problem with the official account is that it was untrue. In fact, Lynch’s gun jammed and she did not fire a shot; Iraqi hospital staff treated her kindly and tried to return her to US forces; and, there was no need for a raid by US Army Rangers and US Navy SEALs, as the Iraqi military had fled the day before. Nor, contrary to initial reports, had she been shot or stabbed — her injuries had been caused after her truck was hit and crashed.
The rescue operation — which was filmed — was described by one doctor as “like a Hollywood film. They cried, ‘Go, go, go,’ with guns and blanks and the sound of explosions. They made a show — an action movie like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan, with jumping and shouting, breaking down doors.”
Giving evidence at a US Congressional hearing four years later, Lynch said: “I am still confused as to why they chose to lie and tried to make me a legend when the real heroics of my fellow soldiers that day were, in fact, legendary ... [The] bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals of heroes and they don’t need to be told elaborate tales.”
Nor was Lynch’s an isolated case. In 2002, moved by the devastation of Sept. 11, Pat Tillman gave up a lucrative career playing professional football to enlist in the US Army. His selfless decision was hailed by then-US president George W. Bush, and when Tillman was killed in Afghanistan in April 2004, the footballer-turned-soldier was held up as the epitome of US heroism. The Pentagon described him as a war hero and he was posthumously awarded the silver star and the purple heart.
Despite the initial suggestion that he died “in the line of devastating enemy fire,” he was killed by his own side.
His family was not told the truth about how he died until five weeks after his memorial service was broadcast on national TV.
In a biography published two years ago, it was claimed Tillman regarded his president as a cowboy who had led the country into an illegal and unjust war in Iraq.
Tillman had noted in his diary his suspicion that the rescue of Jessica Lynch was “a media blitz.”
Until the killing of the al-Qaeda leader, the most recent inaccurate account of a high-profile incident came in October last year, with the botched mission to free the kidnapped British aid worker Linda Norgrove.
Members of US Navy SEAL Team 6 — the special forces unit that killed bin Laden — were sent to rescue Norgrove from eastern Afghanistan, but one of them accidentally killed her by throwing a fragmentation grenade close to where she was sheltering.
The SEAL did not own up to what happened and initial reports suggested she had been killed when an insurgent detonated his suicide bomb vest. When the mission’s commanding officer reviewed surveillance videos he saw an explosion after one of the SEALs threw something in Norgrove’s direction.
US General David Petraeus, the commander of the NATO-led campaign in Afghanistan, announced that finding out how Norgrove died was his “personal priority,” and a number of the SEALs involved in the failed rescue were disciplined.