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Commentary: Clang, clang, clang goes the folly

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 12, 2011 - At one time or another, every reader has experienced the clang. You're perusing a text, immersed in the subject matter, when the fluidity of the prose is unexpectedly disrupted by some jarring inconsistency that clangs in the inner ear. "Say what?"

I recently had a clanging moment while reading "Hellhound on his Trail" by Hampton Sides. The book is a well-written and fairly compelling read that details the intertwining narratives of Martin Luther King and his killer, James Earl Ray, in the period surrounding Dr. King's murder.

Describing an April 8 march through Memphis in the wake of the assassination, Sides relates that National Guardsmen along the route had fixed bayonets on their M-16 rifles. Clang! This was 1968: The standard U.S. infantry weapon at the time was the M-14 -- a larger, heavier rifle with wooden stocks and a steel butt plate.

The light-weight, rapid-fire M-16--nicknamed the "Mattie Mattel Gun" -- was only issued to troops heading across the pond to Vietnam. How, I wondered, had Tennessee National Guardsmen acquired advanced weaponry that was not yet available to stateside soldiers and Marines?

In fact, they hadn't. Photos of the march in question clearly show them armed with bayoneted M-14s. It was a minor error to be sure, but a telling one.

The author's slip-up had passed muster with a proof-reader and editor and found its way into print because there was apparently no one in the review process who knew -- or cared -- what an M-16 looked like. The mistake could have been avoided by using the generic term "rifles," but citing the precise model number lent the recount an illusion of technical expertise that it obviously lacked.

It's been nearly 40 years since the last American was drafted into the armed forces. In the ensuing decades, the quality of soldiering in the all-volunteer force has consistently improved, but the general public's practical understanding of military affairs has correspondingly worsened. The resulting popular misapprehensions often pertain to matters more significant than the nomenclature of a rifle.

The reader may recall the saga of PFC Jessica Lynch. Early in the Iraq invasion, the supply convoy in which Lynch was riding was ambushed by hostile forces and she was taken prisoner. Nine days later, Special Forces rescued her from an Iraqi hospital.

Initial reports painted her as a latter day iteration of Audie Murphy. She'd fought heroically until she ran out of ammo, after which she was shot and stabbed by her assailants. Later, she was gang-raped and beaten in the course of merciless interrogation at the hands of her captors before a daring nocturnal raid returned her to safety. I remember thinking at the time that her story would provide an engaging plot -- for a comic book.

Much to this young woman's credit, she refused to allow herself to be fabricated into an ersatz folk hero for propaganda purposes. Her rifle jammed before she could fire a shot. She was badly injured and knocked unconscious when Humvee in which she was riding crashed. No one shot, stabbed or beat her, and she has no recollection of any manner of sexual molestation.

She was treated humanely in the hospital. A nurse even sang to her one night to comfort her in her loneliness. By the time the rescue team arrived, the hospital was manned solely by unarmed medical personnel who, incidentally, had tried to return her to American lines but had to abort the effort when the ambulance used for transport was fired upon by our troops.

It turns out she was simply a good kid who'd joined the peace-time Army to earn money for college and later suffered a run of bad luck in a combat theater.

The account of Osama bin Laden's demise has undergone a similar metamorphosis. First reports had Navy SEALS engaged in a pitched 40-minute firefight (Clang!) with the heavily armed defenders of the fortress housing the fugitive. This encounter culminated with an armed bin Laden using his 29-year-old Yemeni wife for a shield before being fatally wounded by expert marksmen.

Subsequent clarifications relate a different story. The commandos entered the first floor of the compound where they killed a courier, his brother, one of bin Laden's sons and a woman who was caught in the crossfire. They then proceeded to the second floor where the fore-cited wife attempted to intercede on her husband's behalf. She was shot in the leg after which an unarmed bin Laden was "double-tapped" -- shot once in center body mass and once in the head in case he was wearing body armor.

Though there was reportedly a loaded AK-47 in the room, the would-be warrior allegedly made no attempt to resist. No 72 virgins for this bad boy; he apparently exited this mortal coil frozen like a deer in the headlights.

The raiders then seized computer drives and videotapes for intelligence purposes, threw bin Laden's body into a helicopter and "got out of Dodge." In mob parlance, this sort of operation is called a hit.

Once in possession of the prized corpse, there arose the problem of what to do with it. A traditional grave might provide a shrine for aspiring terrorists so, after it was photographed and DNA samples were obtained, the remains were buried at sea -- a euphemistic way of saying the stiff was dumped into the Indian Ocean. In a fitting conclusion for a hit, Osama bin Laden now "sleeps with the fishes ..."

My commentary is in no way meant to impugn the bravery of the men who carried out this mission. But the danger of glamorized renditions is they tend to lure the uninitiated into delusions of invincibility. Past success does not guarantee future triumph.

Interviewed in the aftermath of the bin Laden action, former SEAL Don Shipley told the New York Times, "There's only two ways to go in these operations--zero or hero." Failure may not be an option, but it's always a possibility. Should someone try to tell you differently, listen for a clang.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.