I don't claim to know how Staff Sergeant Yance Tell Gray would want us to honor his memory, one year to the day after he was killed in Iraq, but I think a good place to start would be if all of us fiercely insisted on the same respect for the truth that Gray and six of his fellow soldiers demanded.
Gray was one of the leading forces behind a landmark op-ed article published in the New York Times thirteen months ago, "The War As We Saw It," an unprecedented anti-war statement by seven soldiers serving in Iraq. Gray and his fellow soldiers made clear they would do their duty in Iraq, and Gray was widely admired as a soldier's soldier who took out more than his share of the enemy, but the brave servicemen also made clear that part of their duty as Americans was demanding that the truth be told.
"Viewed from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed surreal," the article began. Near the end, it continued: "Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence."
The article was widely cited, but not everyone knew it was a direct reply to another Times op-ed published three weeks earlier, by Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution, titled "A War We Just Might Win." That article started by describing the debate on the war in Washington as "surreal," so Gray and his co-authors began their article by pointedly noting in the first sentence that the war debate was "indeed surreal."
It's worth revisiting this sequence of events. As we are now seeing in the "debate" over Sarah Palin's qualifications to be Vice President, when fact gets thrown out the window and even responsible newspaper reporters insist on labeling "half-truth" what they know to be plain old lies, dressed up, O'Hanlon and Pollack did their best to present a rosy picture of developments in Iraq, all based on an eight-day visit, and presented themselves as war critics when they were anything but.
On right-wing television and in the right-wing blogs, the piece was instantly trumpeted as a brave dose of truth in a cynical world. Most of the rest of us shuddered at the ludicrousness of two intellectuals dropping in on Iraq for eight days and imagining they knew more than the soldiers on the ground.
Staff Sergeant Gray read the article at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, and couldn't believe it. As one of his fellow soldiers explained it to me shortly thereafter in an email from Iraq, "While there have been successes, and we do want to be optimistic, unalloyed optimism is dangerous. A realistic assessment was what is necessary. That is what pissed Gray off, when he read the article by O'Hanlon and Pollack. ... (He) first laughed at it, then of course everyone read it, found humor in it, and then everyone simply got livid. Because optimism is good, and we wanted to believe every word of it, but the reality we see is quite different."
It hit Gray and the others that they should write something in response to the O'Hanlon/Pollack article and try to get it published. What started with Gray and two other soldiers soon included many more - also Buddhika Jayamaha, Wesley D. Smith, Jeremy Roebuck, Omar Mora, Edward Sandmeier and Jeremy A. Murphy.
For Gray and the others, publishing the article was all about duty. "We need not talk about our morale," they wrote in closing. "As committed soldiers, we will see this mission through." Gray saw his mission through sooner than he expected. On September 10, 2007, Gray was killed in a road accident on the way back to base after a Time Sensitive Target Acquisition mission. Omar Moya, another co-author of the Times article, and Ari Brown-Weeks, Steven Elrod, Michael Hardegree, Nicholas Patterson and Gregory Rivera-Santiago were also killed in the accident.
The Times op-ed by Gray and the others had a profound impact on the national debate about the war because it took a dose of reality - as seen from the ground by intelligent, alert observers - and used that to battle the hall-of-mirrors aspect of the public debate. Even as the security situation in Iraq has improved, the debate about the war remains surreal, with repeated talk of "winning" with no consideration whatsoever of the steps that will need to be taken if a lasting political reconciliation is ever to take hold.
Beyond Iraq, though, as the nation tries to come to terms with the legacy of George W. Bush's disastrous presidency, we are well on our way to choosing his successor through another surreal public argument in which lies are not only tolerated by the press, but passed along with a straight face.
Have we learned nothing? Have so few key players in the national media taken to heart the lessons of what happens when the public debate can so easily be hijacked by obvious falsehood? Namely, that more than two-thirds of the American people - according to multiple polls - could come to believe that Saddam Hussein was personally and directly responsible for the September 11 attacks, as was the case during the fevered run-up to the Iraq War.
I have no idea what Yance Gray would make of the willingness of John McCain and Sarah Palin to make statements out on the campaign trail that show a contempt for the truth. But that's not the issue. The issue is what each of us as individuals makes of the sad state of affairs in which a candidate so obviously under-qualified can be sold based on smoke and mirrors and, yes, lies.
It's been four decades since Joe McGinniss published his classic study, "The Selling of the President 1968." In that book, McGinniss talked to Raymond Price, a former newspaperman who served as the last Editorial Page Editor of the New York Herald Tribune and went on to write speeches for Richard Nixon.
"It's not what's there that counts," Price told McGinniss. "The response is to the image."
John McCain has cynically bet his political honor on the calculation that image is all that matters any more. The question is: Are we going to let him get away with basing his candidacy on falsehood? Reporters who claim to see no distinction between McCain or Palin mouthing clear falsehoods on the stump and speculation online by people with no connection to the Obama campaign are part of the problem. Before they passively support more lies, they ought at least to think back on the example of Yance Gray and his fellow soldiers and ask why the truth does not matter as much to a full-time journalist as it did to these men in uniform.