In briefing the news media hours after the U.S. air strikes against Libya, the Defense Department spokesman noted that the attacks had been successful in part because they achieved complete surprise. Later, in a more extensive assessment, the same spokesman expansively elevated claims of success into something historic.
"This was a near-flawless professional operation under extremely difficult circumstances," he said. "I don't think there's been anything like it in U.S. military annals."
Granting the natural instinct for exaggeration in the midst of military engagements, that was a ludicrous statement, one that affirmed the wisdom of Sen. Hiram Johnson's oft-quoted remark during World War I. "The first casualty when war comes is truth," the old California Republican progressive observed then. His words are equally applicable now.
Those American claims for historical military achievement came on the same day that Pentagon briefers reported that almost one-third of the land-based U.S. planes were forced to abort their mission and failed to carry out their planned attack and after one of the remaining 13 planes over Libyan targets was shot down, its two crew members killed. The "surgical" attacks did not turn out to be confined to military targets. Civilian facilities, including foreign embassies, were hit. Civilians, including women and children, were wounded. Some were killed.
Even in an era of "smart" bombs and astonishing technological military advances, these are the inevitable consequences of any such operation, especially a night bombing attack carried out at great distances against targets in heavily populated areas. No matter how carefully conceived, daringly led and superbly executed they are, the unforeseen will occur, the innocent will suffer. It does the Americans who risked their lives carrying out their orders a disservice to pretend otherwise.
Not that Americans are alone in bending truth or making excessive claims. The Soviets claim that five other U.S. planes were shot down in the attack, and the Libyans conduct official propaganda tours to show damage to civilian areas, some of it of suspicious origin. As always, truth is the casualty.
These are only symptoms of a deeper concern growing out of this fateful episode, and something about it has bothered me for a week.
Like most Americans, I support use of force against terrorism, assuming, of course, that the evidence unmistakably points to the perpetrators, the response can be justified as essential and measured and the long-term rewards of undertaking such a mission clearly outweigh the risks.
But I have been appalled by the official swagger and unseemly tone of glee and chortle permeating Washington since the attacks on Libya. I take no pride, either, in my country launching a surprise attack in the middle of night against a small foreign nation with which no formal state of war exists. If that's the only alternative to do a necessary, dirty job, fine. But don't boast about it.
Worse has been the display of jokes and offhand remarks that demean the seriousness of what has been happening and make light of death and destruction that result from the ultimate human tragedy, war.
When the president of the United States calls the leader of another nation "a mad dog" and "flaky" and a "barbarian" and disparages that head of state's courage by responding to shouted questions with such remarks as "he's staying under cover while the shooting is going on," he descends to the level of the person he attacks.
When he engages in banter with members of the media about how he's been "working long hours . . . burning the midday oil" and then quips about how much of a dog that foreign enemy really is, he diminishes his stature as much as that of the ascribed foreign enemy. When anonymous "administration officials" are quoted publicly as saying of that same leader, "He's obviously a coward. He's scared now . . . . He knows we're going after him," their unnecessary rhetoric makes a bad situation worse.
When presidential spokesmen engage in debates about whether adoption papers exist for a child killed in the air attack and said to be the daughter of that foreign leader, such insensitivity to human suffering is unworthy of officials of a great nation.
None of this changes the necessity for action, nor does it justify, excuse or make more palatable the actions of Muammar Qaddafi, who demonstrably has either sponsored or countenanced acts of terrorism that have taken innocent lives. But our leaders should temper their rhetoric and follow an old American adage: Keep cool, and keep your powder dry.