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Assault by battery?

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It's a curious case of life imitating art -- maybe. If it turns out to be true, it will be one grim story. Or perhaps, there is no story at all. We don't know, because -- like in a good play, where all the pieces don't fall together until the last act -- the verity of this tale has yet to be revealed.

The "art" in question is the 1947 play "All My Sons" by the esteemed American playwright Arthur Miller. It's a dark, post-WWII drama about false patriotism, lost innocence and filial devotion. Its plot hinges upon the discovery that, during the frenzy of wartime production, one Joe Keller, a small-time industrialist, had knowingly sold the government a shipment of cracked cylinder heads -- faulty engine parts which eventually wound up in a squadron of P-40 fighter jets. This ignoble act not only doomed 21 young American pilots but, because of his willful and cowardly malfeasance, Joe's own family as well.

The "life" in this case concerns a recent CBS News expos? about a defense contractor -- Joplin, Mo.-based Eagle-Picher Technologies -- which may have knowingly sold the government perhaps millions of defective batteries. These are the batteries that power the precision guidance systems of almost every U.S. "smart weapon," including the new JDAM, or Joint Direct Attack Munition tail kits. The kits convert existing free-fall bombs into accurate, satellite-guided missiles.

In the two-part report broadcast Dec. 6 and 7, a former Eagle-Picher employee, Richard Peoples, alleged the company knew of problems with its batteries' safety but covered them up through a series of fraudulent practices. Indeed, of the 3,500 hundred "smart bombs" used against the Taliban and al-Queda terrorists so far, dozens have missed their targets, including the mishap in which three U.S. soldiers were killed when a bomb carrying 2,000 pounds of explosives landed about 100 yards from their position. Was the accident caused by human error, or did the batteries malfunction?

A government investigation produced no charges against the company, though Peoples continues to accuse his former employer of not fully cooperating with the probe, as well as paying off employees to keep silent about illegal procedures and falsified documents. The company has issued a strong denial, questioning Peoples' character and motives.

Largely because of the CBS report, top Pentagon officials and congressional investigators say they will look again to see if the company's batteries met safety specifications. Official scrutiny also is continuing in cases of several other bombing mistakes, some of which have caused the deaths of Afghani civilians.

In Miller's fictional account, Joe tries to justify his actions by asserting that his company would have gone broke had he not sent out the damaged goods when the government demanded them. He rationalizes that everyone was making money off of the war and that he only did it to protect his son's future, blind -- until the play's climax -- to the notion that the 21 dead pilots were also "his sons." In the modern version of the story, Peoples alleges that Eagle-Picher also sent out defective batteries for monetary considerations: to save several hundred thousand dollars.

In the play, Keller kills himself when he can no longer bear the truth of his selfish deed -- paying with his life for the lives of the servicemen he destroyed. If the allegations in Peoples' lawsuit are proven true, Eagle-Picher will only be liable for civil penalties of between $5,000 and $10,000 per occurrence, plus three times the amount of damages the federal government may have sustained because of the company's actions.

President Bush said last week that the three Americans killed by the "friendly fire" accident "died for a noble and just cause" -- the fight against terrorists in Afghanistan. Maybe so. But did they also die to protect a company's bottom line?

In these strange times, when government talking heads are pondering whether to levy treason charges against John Walker, the shy, religious kid who seemingly got caught up in an international tempest way beyond his understanding, the American people need to know whether the charges against Eagle-Picher are likewise true -- especially if they are the result of selfish criminality and not just youthful indiscretion. The charges must be credibly investigated beyond any doubt, and, if there is guilt to be found, there must be retribution.

As Miller taught us more than 50 years ago, when young Americans are called to war, they become all our sons. To the ones who gave the supreme sacrifice, we owe the whole truth -- before the final curtain.


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