Columnists Earl Ofari Hutchinson Opinion

THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: The troubling death of Sgt. La David Johnson

The troubling questions about the death of Sgt. La David Johnson in Niger didn’t begin and certainly won’t and shouldn’t end with the bungled call that President Donald Trump made to Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson.

Apart from the furor it ignited and the war of words between White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and black Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson, the call did make Johnson and his death front page news. That’s just the start.

The official reason Johnson and three other U.S. servicemen were killed is that they were ambushed by purportedly Shahab, ISIS or Al-Qaeda fighters while on a training mission with Niger army forces. This narrative may change over time only because the military has kept a tight, need-not-to-know, lid on the mission and the action.

Officially, the nearly 1,000 U.S. troops who have been in the country since 2013 are there to train the Niger forces in counter-terrorism tactics and operations.

Though Johnson was not a Green Beret, he was part of special forces units in the country. The other three soldiers killed were Green Berets who operate in the country. Their missions are the most hush-hush of all.

The question of why Johnson and any other American troops are there is a question that wasn’t asked before Johnson’s death, but now is. The answer is just as murky.

Again, officially, it’s to train army forces there in counter-terrorist actions. Why U.S. special forces operatives are on the front line engaging in combat, or snooping for alleged terrorist operatives, or even if there are any terrorist forces nesting there is unknown. Johnson’s death won’t be enough to get the Pentagon to answer those questions.

The infamous call that Trump made to Johnson’s widow came fully two weeks after Johnson and the three Green Berets were killed. Why did it take so long? How much did Trump really know about the operation that Johnson was involved with?

If Trump did insult Johnson’s widow by saying he “knew what he signed up for,” that shows far more than crude, crass insensitivity. It hints that Trump really didn’t know much about U.S. involvement in the country. He certainly didn’t seem to know Sgt. Johnson’s name.

According to Johnson’s mother, who listened to the call, he kept referring to Johnson in speaking to Mrs. Johnson as “your guy.”

Johnson’s death also opens yet another deeply troubling issue which was bound to surface: Trump’s call or not. Johnson is an African-American special forces soldier. He was the only African American among those killed in the attack. There were accounts that he was left behind in the attack. The Pentagon has been tight-lipped on that as well. It has neither confirmed nor denied whether that was the case.

If there is truth to this, then there are more questions.

Was Johnson’s separation from the other soldiers killed just an inadvertent happenstance in the fog of war? If so, why did it take two more days to find his body? And was, as some reports have it, was his body mutilated? That latter gruesome possibility was fanned by the report that his widow had him interred in a closed casket.

The big issue though for many is race. There is no evidence the Pentagon treated Johnson’s death any different than any other fallen soldier. More than likely, the delay in recovering his body was due to the fluid and chaotic state of a combat scene.

It was the gross insensitivity of Trump toward his widow that made race the issue in the death. That was fueled by the prideful statement by Defense Secretary James Mattis that “the U.S. military does not leave troops behind.”

That boast seemed to fly squarely in the face of the fact that Johnson apparently was left behind, whether accidental or otherwise.

Mattis’ bold assertion would be jumped all over by some in the press and the public considering what happened to Johnson. But he quickly scotched those questions and doubts by simply demanding that no one question the actions of U.S. troops. Presumably by that he meant no questions will be answered about the actions of U.S. forces wherever they are.

So, did Trump and the military hide, cover-up or were simply ignorant of what Johnson and the other Green Berets were doing at the time of their ambush? That is a troubling question that hasn’t been answered.

As for the bumbling Trump call, Trump loudly protested that it was deliberately misrepresented, and that he cares deeply for the troops. As proof of that there was no issue made of his call to the families of the other three slain servicemen. Whether that’s true, it’s a question that only the families can answer.

The one indisputable fact is that Johnson and the others were killed. Neither their families, nor the American public, really know the full story why. Maybe that even includes, the man who should know, President Trump.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is, “The Trump Challenge to Black America” (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.