To those who have followed America’s wars of conquest in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade closely, the story of Pat Tillman’s death is a familiar one. Shortly after the 9-11 attacks, a professional football player at the top of his game steps out of the limelight to join the military, completes one tour of duty in Iraq, and is killed during a second, in Afghanistan. At first, we’re told he died heroically leading his squad in a hillside battle against Taliban militiamen. Later, we learn that the Army’s story is a fraud, that he was killed by friendly fire from his fellow Rangers, a pointless victim of war.
Director Amir Bar-Lev’s powerful documentary, “The Tillman Story,” fleshes out the tragic arc of Pat Tillman’s life in what becomes less an anti-war movie and more the story of one indomitable family’s struggle for truth and justice in the face of arrogant indifference by our nation’s top military and civilian leaders, abetted by a cheerleading press. Think “Network,” not “Coming Home.”
Driving the film’s narrative is Pat’s mother Mary, known to family and friends as “Dannie,” who presses the Pentagon relentlessly for a true accounting of her son’s death. Working with Pat’s widow, Marie, her now former husband, Patrick, and Pat’s two brothers, Kevin and Rich, Dannie ultimately forces a congressional hearing to learn who in the military hierarchy knew the truth about her son’s death and when they knew it, followed by a military investigation that eventually scapegoats one retired general for failing to come forth with the truth soon enough.
Throughout Bar-Lev’s engrossing portrait, Pat Tillman comes across as most every young boy’s fantasy role model, a star athlete and scholar whose lion’s heart overcomes his modest stature to make him a standout defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals, the best big brother his two younger brothers could have, a witty daredevil who marries the prettiest girl in town, a man’s man whose good looks, impossibly square jaw, and massive physique make him a solider-hero straight out of Central Casting.
Although Tillman kept his reasons for joining the Army private, we can surmise from the film that he was driven by some mixture of honor for his family’s long tradition of wartime military service, outrage at the attacks visited upon the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and as an extension of the same adventuresome spirit that drove his athletic career. As with some young men who become soldiers, he may have thought himself invincible. Witness his dying words: “I’m Pat Fucking Tillman. Why are you shooting at me?”
And they were shooting at him because stupid shit like that has happened in every war since man first picked up sharp stones. Thinking they were coming under attack and no doubt overamped with fear and testosterone, part of Tillman’s squad unleashed a horrendous firestorm on the other part of the squad, in minutes killing Tillman and an Afghan guide beside him. Believe it, stupid shit like that happens every time we send soldiers off to war, no doubt more so now that our troops carry such incredibly lethal weaponry: the 50-caliber heavy machine guns used to kill Tillman and the Afghan solider fire 900 rounds a minute, we’re told.
Why the military could not simply report that horrible mistake is easier to understand than forgive. In April 2002, when Tillman was killed, the military suffered “the worst month of the war, the most casualties, the Abu Graib scandal was just breaking,” one of Tillman’s fellow soldiers told Michael Ordoña of the Los Angeles Times. To now admit that the matinee idol hero they were using as propaganda to build support for their wars had died so pointlessly would have been a crushing blow to the Pentagon’s war-making plans.
So the military commanders up and down the chain concocted a plausible lie--or at least let one stand--even awarding Tillman a posthumous Silver Star for actions in a battle they knew did not happen. And the media lapped it up, jumping out in front of their cameras to capitalize on a storyline straight out of Hollywood, assuming a supplicant posture that so many in the press adopted in fanning the early flames of war. If only the Tillmans had drawn cold comfort from their son’s heroic death, all would have been fine. But from the start the family was suspicious.
The film is not without its faults, at times playing its own partisan card. For instance, “The Tillman Story” makes much of the embarrassment wrecked on a parade of military leaders up to then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who were forced to admit before Congress that they could not recollect when they first saw a damning memo that put the lie to their story about Tillman’s death.
But, in fact, the men—yes, all men—did not seem especially discomforted by their admissions, first because they could hardly be expected—despite the snickers in the darkened movie theatre—to remember such minute details about a single soldier's death several years after the fact. More importantly, their intense loyalty and sense of honor is directed not at average Americans like the Tillmans but rather internally to their own military system.
For all the family’s tireless efforts to set the record straight, I warrant not one of the generals questioned at Rep. Henry Waxman’s congressional hearing lost one moment’s sleep--and Secretary Rumsfeld, in particular, seemed to enjoy the repartee with complicit congressmen. He and the generals were doing precisely what they had learned to do from the Vietnam War—manage public perception in pursuing one war after another.
Maybe Pat Tillman’s life and sad death, his family’s ferocious determination, and Amir Bar-Lev’s well-made film will take us one step in a better direction. But at this point, the lies that got us into two wrong-headed and unnecessary wars seem to be working as planned.
The Pat Tillman Foundation, led by his widow Marie, is dedicated to supporting the educational needs of veterans, active service members, and their dependents. See the movie; send the foundation a check.