Tongo Tongo, Niger: A 21st Century Roshomon

Sometime in the afternoon of October 4, 2017, America was inadvertently cast into a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s groundbreaking 1950 film Rashomon, in which the account of the murder of a samurai is told by several witnesses, including the dead samurai himself. The plot is from a 1922 classic Japanese short story, In a Grove, by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. This is a must-see movie for any true motion picture student or aficionado, and I recommend it as a study in what happens when the bright beam truth is projected through the prism of confusion, the three sides of which are denial, self-protection, and ulterior motive. The resulting spectrum has no rainbow color spread; it is only shades of gray cast between the purity of truth, and the deep black of the unknowable.

The Nigerian village of Tongo Tongo serves well as the forest in which the samurai was murdered, but by whom we are not ever certain to know. According to the witnesses in the book and movie—a woodcutter who found the body; the samurai’s wife who may or may not have killed her husband; a recently-released criminal who confesses he killed the samurai in self-defense after raping the samurai’s wife; the young woman’s mother who testifies as to her daughter’s purity; a Buddhist priest who saw the criminal before the murder; and the samurai himself (as his ghost), who claims he committed suicide as a result of the dishonor cast upon him after his wife’s rape. The film is much deeper, of course, and to know more, you simply should see it. I guarantee you will not look at witnessed truth with the same eyes.

The brilliance of the film and book as metaphors for the confusion that surrounds any horrific event cannot be overstated. When the horrific events of October 4-6 were first projected on the multi-screen walls of social media, network news, cable news, and print papers, I began to look for the samurai’s avatar, and found it soon enough in the combined bodies of the four Special Forces soldiers who lost their lives under circumstances we are far from understanding…and, frankly, may never understand. Not every story can be wrapped up in a satisfying bow.

Imperfect witnesses abound in the Tongo Tongo Rashomon. As the 21st century story will be studied and re-written, we will have witnesses from the village, witnesses from the Nigerian Army and the French forces, witnesses from among the surviving Americans, witnesses from above (the drone and other national assets), and witnesses who are now the ghosts of the fallen soldiers themselves: Sgt. La David Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright.

Of these four, the ghost of Sgt. La David Johnson will tell us riveting story, I’m sure, but there will no assurance of his ghost’s reliability, and by the end of the tale (should there ever be one) what we glean from all the accounts will not help shift our national perception of the event toward the light of truth. The President himself has tainted the paper upon which the truth of Tongo Tongo will be written to such a degree that a certain portion of the American public will believe nothing of whatever truth can be written.

Unlike Rashomon and In a Grove, in which the audience or reader is left with questions to ponder on their own, coming to terms with the nuances of multi-witness accounts that vary widely, and have their own subtexts unknown to other witnesses (and even the audience or readers), the story of Tongo Tongo is already being grossly interpreted by non-participants in the story, people who have no idea what any witness saw, or what any witness will recount. There is a national outpouring of comment about Tongo Tongo, and the story hasn’t even been been researched, much less published. So typical of our “story-first, truth-later” culture today.

President Trump wasn’t there to see the bodies of the soldiers; he could barely recall the name of La David Johnson. General Kelly wasn’t there; he was unable to recall the truth of a video he derided before the national news media; La David Johnson’s widow wasn’t there; she has been manipulated on all sides by self-serving people or organization, including the White House, the Congress, her own Representative, the news media, and social media on the left and the right, most of whom have no clue as to what military service and Gold Star loss is all about. In addition, Mrs. Johnson is still in shock and trying to come to terms with the advice given by her assistance officer not to view her husband’s body. So she can’t bear full witness while her grief proceeds along its course. The President should have know this and been ready to back off. By continuing his assault on Mrs. Johnson’s raw emotions, Trump has made her ability to serve as a Roshomon character even more difficult.

The news media was not there, and yet opinions abound about the mission: Every talking head, every “expert,” every former soldier, every former commander, has something important to say about the ambush, the firefight, the communications from the fight, the casualties, the response for help, the recovery of the wounded and dead…and the finding and recovery of Sgt. Johnson. I have Facebook friends who, after covering the military in combat zones, feel completely comfortable questioning the events at Tongo Tongo, second guessing everything about the fight, questioning, without evidence, the time line as offered by the Pentagon. I have a friend…a respected war correspondent who was in the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam, and even today, 50 years later neither he nor any of the Ia Drang survivors or anyone in the chain of command can completely describe what happened there…for each man, it was Roshomon times a thousand. So how can any of us, barely three weeks after an event that occurred 5,000 miles away, in a place we’ve never seen, under circumstances we pray we never have to experience, offer opinions or any certainties about what happened? We can’t. And we must stop doing so.

In reality, we weren’t there. Twelve American soldiers were there, and four of them are dead. That’s all we know. Everything else is Roshomon.

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