By Cynthia Tucker

"You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will.
War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it ..."

-- Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman

These days, Americans seem to want any war prosecuted by U.S. troops to be pristine -- swift, mistake-free, clean. So the U.S. news media decline to show us images of our own dead and wounded. And the Pentagon helpfully distorts or manipulates or conceals facts to cover up unfortunate truths and create romanticized legends.

First, there was Jessica Lynch -- re-created as the brave blond heroine who emptied her rifle firing at the enemy. It turned out she never fired a shot.

Later, there was Pat Tillman, who walked away from a lucrative professional football career to join the U.S. Army Rangers. Tillman's death last year was reinvented as a breathtaking tale of a soldier gunned down by enemy fire while leading a charge to protect his men. In fact, he was killed in an episode of friendly fire, mistakenly shot by members of his own platoon.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, his mother, Mary, revealed her frustration with the web of deceit that initially surrounded her son's death. "The military let him down," she said. "The administration let him down. It was a sign of disrespect."

She's right. Tillman served honorably and died bravely. He didn't need the Army's lies.

But the Pentagon and many civilian hawks seemed to have learned the wrong lessons from Vietnam. They've conveniently placed the blame for that humiliating loss on the press, which undermined the war effort, they claim, by showing photos of U.S. casualties, scrutinizing U.S. military atrocities and examining too closely the duplicitous claims made by the U.S. government.

So, this time around, the hawks have worked assiduously to conceal any inconvenient facts from a public they believe has no stomach for war's grim realities. The result has been manufactured tales of heroism, concealment of soldiers' caskets, and a relentless drumbeat against the news media for an alleged refusal to portray "all the good things going on in Iraq."

Let me pause to point out that this is no anti-war rant, and I'm no pacifist. While I firmly believe that President Bush unleashed a cascade of distortions and deceptions to win support for toppling Saddam Hussein (and there is a mountain of evidence to support that view), I also believe the president was absolutely justified in invading Afghanistan to root out the Taliban. There was simply no other choice.

But I've studied enough history and heard enough stories from veterans to know there are no "good" wars -- only justified wars and unjustified ones. All wars are hideous -- full of fratricide (both unintentional and intentional), grievous wounds, thousands of corpses, the screams of the dying, and every element of human nature, from heroism and sacrifice to meanness and cowardice.

My father was a veteran of both World War II, where he did non-combat, clean-up duty in the Pacific, and Korea, where he saw combat as a U.S. Army second lieutenant. He was a staunch supporter of a strong defense, but he never tried to paint war as anything other than what it is: hell.

While my generation may not have the mettle that our parents and grandparents did, we have learned a bitter lesson as to when war is necessary and when it is not. We have seen both kinds. So our leaders must always level with us.

Don't try to deny war's horrors. Don't tell us winning will be easy. Tell us the truth: Victory will require great sacrifices, but there is no choice but to fight. (First, make sure that's true.) Here's the lesson from Vietnam: Don't lie.

So let's not use our brave men and women in uniform as props in made-up bedtime stories. And, for heaven's sake, let's not hide our dead and wounded. That dishonors their sacrifice.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She can be reached by e-mail:

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