Thomas Hamill escapes from Iraq and gets drafted into the cult of American Heroes.
By Jeff Sharlet
First there was Jessica Lynch, then there was Pat Tillman, and now, for awhile at least, there’s Thomas Hamill. Hamill, the Mississippi dairy farmer who kicked his way to freedom on a farm in rural Iraq, is the latest American Hero to emerge from the media war in Iraq.
That sounds cynical, doesn’t it? Let me qualify: There’s no disputing Hamill’s bravery. His determination to save his own life and return to his family is indeed heroic, in a small-h kind of way. But that has little to do with the media’s attempt to anoint him a minor deity in the pantheon of “characters” with which it sells the war. Who says it “sells” the war? The bottom line. The media must make money from its reportage on Iraq, so it has to sell a story. It can be anti-war or pro-war, but it’s always a product.
Hamill and his family should be applauded not just for their stoicism in the face of fear, but for the ways in which they’ve inadvertently resisted the media canonization. How? By giving all credit to an interventionist God that the press just can’t make sense of. Not that thanking God isn’t part of the usual pressthink for close calls, near misses, and miraculous escapes; it’s just that there’s a formula for that liturgy. It’s not a sellable story unless God gets his props, but the “peace” and non-stop prayer with which Hamill’s family and neighbors in Macon, Mississippi responded to his captivity have derailed the narrative by exploding the “God character” out of his proper confines.
Consider Erica Hill’s May 2 interview with Hamill’s grandmother, Vera Hamill, on CNN:
HILL: … Have you had a chance to speak with Kellie Hamill, your grandson’s wife?
V. HAMILL: Yes, look. Kellie, she has so many calls and she’s just had heart surgery and I just was going to wait a while before I say anything to her. And she’s going to church.
V. HAMILL: And I don’t go to church much because I got arthritis so bad and I’d have to go in a wheelchair.
V. HAMILL: And I just look at the preachers on TV.
HILL: Well, I’m sure your phone will be ringing off the hook as well, as well, Mrs. Hamill….
Hill tries to change the subject, since this line of questioning is leading nowhere. Or rather, it’s leading the story into the murk of a messy American faith that’s all-consuming, fatalistic, and eerily similar to that of Iraqi fundamentalists who claim no responsibility for their actions, instead giving all credit is to Allah. That doesn’t fit the script, since Macon, Mississippi, has to be “normal” if it’s to stand in for Smalltown, America. Which is to say, it shouldn’t be extreme about anything, including faith.
Those who charge that the U.S. media is hostile to the Christian God are missing the real story: the fact that God is not only welcome, but required, subject to a quota. This much religion we must have; any more pushes the story over the edge into the kooky Americana of “preachers on TV.” And that makes it hard to crown Thomas Hamill an all-American everyman hero.
So Hill’s co-anchor, Renay San Miguel, tries to normalize the situation by cutting Hamill’s religion down to size:
SAN MIGUEL: Ms. Hamill, this Renay San Miguel anchoring with Erica Hill this morning. You talk about your faith an awful lot. I mean has that helped you get through and the family get through these very difficult few weeks? .
V. HAMILL: It sure has [helped] me. It’s certainly been good. I had a peace in my heart that God was going to bring him home.
Hamill could be auditioning for the job of presidential press secretary – she never veers off message, responding to every question with praise for God. That’s ok with the press, but she makes it awkward by adding that she never worried, since her grandson was in God’s hands. Within the spectrum of American belief, the serenity with which the Hamills responded to the situation does indeed seem extreme, so San Miguel decides to investigate:
SAN MIGUEL: So, I mean, we’re obviously, you know, we keep talking about faith and things like this. Do you get together regularly for Sunday services with your family? I’m not sure what your faith is, but I mean, is this something that you do every week?
Perhaps hoping for something sweet about Sunday services in Mississippi, San Miguel gets the “wrong” answer again: Vera Hamill says her arthritis is too bad for her to go to church, so she spends most of her time – every day, in fact – watching the “preachers on TV.”
The New York Times’ Andrew Jacobs is to be credited for taking these responses seriously. Two days later, his story “In Escaped Captive’s Hometown, Deliverance” ran on page A22 of the paper, next to a photograph of four men seemingly bowing before a banner painting of Pat Tillman in uniform (football, that is) and a little boy dressed in cammies inspecting his American flag. (The Tillman report notes that the football player will be posthumously awarded a Silver Star; it continues to neglect the question of who he was fighting when he died. Such details are irrelevant to canonization.)
“In the end,” writes Jacobs, “the people of this deeply religious farming community say, the round-the-clock prayer brigades and the weeks of nightly candlelight vigils paid off.”
That’s a good first step into an unusal variety of religious experience, but from there on, Jacobs seems flummoxed by the strange faith of Macon. “To residents here,” he writes, Hamill’s escape – in which he kicked open a loosely-barred door and ran after a U.S. Army convoy he heard pass by – “was proof that a higher power had listened to the town’s entreaties.
“ ‘It’s like God opened the door and showed him the way out,’” one local tells Jacob. Those who accuse the press – especially papers like the Times – of hostility toward religion take note: Jacobs lets that stand as the final explanation. Indeed, he subtly endorses this idea of an interventionist God, reporting that “More than two dozen religious congregations can be found here, and everyone, it seems, attended services on Sunday to give thanks.”
Since Jacobs isn’t prepared to report on this story – that’d involve questions about the particulars of fundamentalist faith – he turns to a more familiar matter, the question of race in Macon, writing that “this community where black and white residents rarely mix united to pray for Mr. Hamill’s safe return. After a quick nod to those who note that segregation remains entrenched there, Jacob gives God the last word: “‘I don’t care if they’re black or white, young or old, we’d all pray together,’” says an old woman, “Bible in hand.” “‘lt proves that all of us are served by a great God and that good things can come out of terrible situations.’”
It took months for the real story of Jessica Lynch to emerge – the one about the Pentagon’s deliberate obfuscation of fact in order to make her an action hero, and the media’s more-than-willing collaboration, as government flacks and media hacks raced each other to report the miracles that would ensure her canonization. With Pat Tillman in the grave, it’s a safe bet we never will get the real story – that is, an investigation into who killed him and under what conditions – and so we’ll have to settle on a faith-n’-football filled TV movie. Tillman, it seems, was not a very religious man, so his story will be framed first and foremost by civic religion, his devotion to God and Country – and let’s not ask too many questions about what either of those terms mean.
Hamill will likely receive the benediction of fictionalization as well, and all’s the better – maybe a movie-and-book deal will allow him to really come home instead of returning to Iraq, where, reports say, he’ll continue to attempt to make enough money to spring his family from its prison, the bankruptcy and economically bleak landscape of Macon.
Perhaps good things can come out of terrible situations.
But not, in this case, good journalism – the kind that asks complicated questions. Nor, for that matter, good religion. Skeptics will wince at the way the press signs off on a fatalistic faith it doesn’t understand. And believers will find that same ignorance condescending. One imagines, though, that Muqtada al-Sadr, watching CNN, understands perfectly. This mix of nationalism, faith, compliant media, and cult of personality is his kind of religion.