erik lundegaard


The Tillman Story (2010)



As someone who just lived through the 2000s I can honestly say that W.H. Auden didn’t know from low dishonest decades.

Auden used the phrase in his poem, “September 1, 1939,” about the 1930s:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade...

His low dishonest decade ended with war, ours began with it. The dishonesty of his decade was the enemy’s, masterminded by Nazi Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebels, which played on our hopes for peace. The dishonesty of our decade was our own, the Bush administration’s, masterminded by Karl Rove, which played on our fears, as well as our corresponding need for heroes. The administration that couldn’t stop attacking Hollywood kept using the tropes of Hollywood to gather power and silence opposition.

Pat Tillman was a minor figure in all of this, a pawn in the Bush administration’s game, and “The Tillman Story,” a documentary written by Mark Monroe and directed by Amir Bar-Lev, is his family’s attempt to set the record straight.

Most of us are familiar with some part of the story. On Sept. 10, 2001, Pat Tillman was a an All-Pro safety with the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League, happily married and making millions of dollars. Eight months later he joined the U.S. Army Rangers. He served a tour in Iraq in 2003. In his second tour, in Afghanistan, on April 22, 2004, he was killed. He was posthumously promoted to corporal and awarded the Silver Star, the Army’s third-highest award for combat valor, because of “gallantry on the battlefield for leading his Army Rangers unit to the rescue of comrades caught in an ambush,” according to the New York Times. A memorial service was held in San Jose, Cal., and Tillman was eulogized by the Pentagon, by politicians, and throughout the media as a patriotic hero-soldier who died selflessly for his country and for his fellow soldiers.

Except it was a lie. During an ambush by enemy forces near the village of Sperah, close to the Pakistan border, yes, Tillman led several men to higher ground; but they were subsequently mistaken for the enemy and fired upon by their own troops. Tillman and a member of the Afghanistan Military Police were killed by friendly fire.

Everyone on the ground knew this. There was no mistaking it. But the lie got out quickly.

Reading the first, heroic press accounts, with details provided by the Pentagon, is to be steeped in Bush-era bullshit. From USA Today:

When the rear section of their convoy became pinned down in rough terrain, Tillman ordered his team out of its vehicles "to take the fight to the enemy forces" on the higher ground.

As Tillman and other soldiers neared the hill's crest, he directed his team into firing positions, the Army said. As he sprayed the enemy positions with fire from his automatic rifle, he was shot and killed. The Army said his actions helped the trapped soldiers maneuver to safety "without taking a single casualty”...

A month later, the truth seeped out, but it wasn’t well-covered. As the saying goes: the mistake is always on page 1, the retraction on page 14. From the May 30th New York Times:

Ex-Player’s Death Reviewed
Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals football player, was probably killed by allied fire as he led his team of Army Rangers up a hill during a firefight in Afghanistan last month, the Army said.

Sometimes there’s no retraction at all. The following is every USA Today headline about Tillman from 2004. Notice how they fed on him until they didn’t:

  • Tillman killed in Afghanistan (April 23, 2004)
  • Moment of silence at NFL draft (April 24, 2004)
  • Tillman's legacy of virtue (April 25, 2004)
  • Body returns to U.S. (April 26, 2004)
  • Army promotes Tillman to corporal (April 29, 2004)
  • Tillman posthumously awarded Silver Star (April 30, 2004)
  • Items related to Tillman sold on E-bay (May 2, 2004)
  • Tillman mourned by hometown (May 2, 2004)
  • Tillman memorial service held in San Jose (May 3, 2004)
  • Arizona salutes Tillman (May 8, 2004)
  • Report details Tillman's last minutes (Dec. 5, 2004)

Not only did Tillman not die the way they said, he didn’t live the way they said, either. “He didn’t really fit into that box they would’ve liked,” Tillman’s mother, Mary, mentions.

He joined the Rangers to fight al Qaeda but wound up in Iraq and wasn’t happy. “This war is so fucking illegal,” one of his brothers quotes him saying. He had an open curious mind at odds with the incurious absolutism of the time. There’s hilarious footage of Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity refusing to believe that Tillman read linguist and conservative bete noire Noam Chomsky. (Because it didn’t fit into their notions of a football player? A soldier? A conservative hero? All of the above?) Fellow Ranger Bryan O’Neal, a Mormon, talks about coming across Tillman, a religious skeptic, possibly an atheist, reading “The Book of Mormon.” He wanted to see what was what.

He swore like a truck driver and loved risking his life. He jumped from high places and climbed to higher places. He was that rare tough guy who didn’t need to show how tough he was. He never hazed recruits. He didn’t yell and get into the face of men who screwed up—as is the Army way. O’Neal recounts how, when he screwed up, Tillman took him aside and told him how disappointed he was. That was it. According to O’Neal, that was enough.

This is straight out of his father’s vocabulary, by the way. In the doc, Patrick Tillman says he’s “disappointed” in Pfc. Russell Baer, Tillman’s fellow Ranger, who was the first to lie to the family about the incident. He tells the Army in 2005 that he’s “disappointed” in them, too. The mother is lauded in the doc but the father dominates it. Thinner than his son, with the same lantern jaw, he seethes with rage. Still. He wants the answer to a simple question: Who lied about his son’s death? Eventually he tells the Army, in writing, “fuck you,” and this—and a Washington Post editorial—got their attention. In August 2005, the Pentagon launched an internal investigation into the incorrect reports of Tillman’s death. In March 2007, the report pinned the blame on a lieutenant general who had already retired. They took away one of his stars. There were some congressional hearings, and joint chiefs and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied knowledge of blah blah blah, and had no recollection of yadda yadda. It all petered out.

“The Tillman Story” is a sad story but it’s not a great doc. It focuses too much on the Tillman family rather than on Tillman himself. Like the family, it can’t accept the military’s stonewall non-answer, and, panning up the command flowchart to Pres. George W. Bush, spends too much time insinuating who might’ve ordered the falsification of Tillman’s death. At the same time, it’s so vague in describing Tillman’s actual death that a friend, who saw the doc the same time I did, assumed Tillman had been “fragged” rather than killed by friendly fire.

For all the attempts to release Tillman from his box, too, its portrait isn’t as complete as in Jon Krakauer’s book “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.” In particular it ignores an incident during his senior year of high school, when Tillman, thinking he was defending a friend from an ass-whooping, put an innocent kid into the hospital. His life was nearly derailed by this—he served jail time and came close to losing his scholarship to Arizona State—but he came out of it, according to Krakauer, more contemplative and slower to temper. He came out closer to the man he would become. The doc would’ve benefited from this story.

But it’s a good reminder. Just six years ago we were all living through this: Jessica Lynch, WMDs, smoking gun/mushroom cloud, Video News Releases (VNRs), fake White House correspondents, the firing of U.S. attorneys, the outing of Valerie Plame, “greeted with flowers,” “Mission Accomplished,” “a few bad apples,” “last throes.” And Pat Tillman. What company to keep. If I were his family, I’d be enraged, too.

—June 6, 2010

© 2010 Erik Lundegaard