Of the many lies George W. Bush told us about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some were larger but none worse than that told about the death of Pat Tillman.
In 2004 – just after Bush’s invasion of Iraq, ostensibly in search of those non-existent weapons of mass destruction — Tillman became a military-and media-manufactured symbol of duty, sacrifice, patriotism and heroism. But the truth about Tillman’s life is much more complex, and his death ultimately far more heroic, than the convenient, self-serving lie served up by the military and then sent out by our ever-gullible media.
Tillman, a truly remarkable young man who walked away from a multi-million dollar contract as a professional football player to enlist as in the Army Rangers after the 9/11 attacks, is the subject of The Tillman Story, a moving documentary directed by Amir Bar-Lev that opens in theatres in New York and Los Angeles this week. Although the film rightly tells the story of Pat Tillman’s remarkable life, it also focuses on a parallel “Tillman story,” that of the struggle his family went through to learn the truth about Tillman’s death from “friendly fire” and the ongoing cover-up of how and why our military and political leaders lied in order to exploit his heroism for propaganda purposes.
Tillman was on his second tour of duty when he was killed in Afghanistan — a victim of “fratricide,” inadvertently killed by his own troops during an ill-fated expedition. Our leaders should have told the truth — namely, that Corporal Tillman’s death was a senseless accident coupled with incompetence. Instead they lied — to all of us, but most despicably to his family – rewrote the details of his death, awarding Tillman a posthumous Silver Star, America’s third-highest military decoration, and turned the tragedy into an opportunity to promote their endless and unpopular wars.
Why did they lie? No doubt it began because at the time of Tillman’s death, in April 2004, the Bush war machine was roiled by a number of negative images that threatened to adversely affect public perception of the war in Iraq. Remember those haunting photographs and videos of the bodies of American contractors strung up in Fallujah? Can you ever forget the searing images depicting abuse by U.S. soldiers working as guards in the Abu Ghraib prison? Adding the news that American soldiers had gunned down a celebrated NFL star certainly wouldn’t help the war effort… So Pat Tillman was recast, in death, as a war hero and lesson to us all.
The Tillman Story excels in teaching us other lessons, however — not only about Corporal Pat Tillman, but also about his remarkable family, led by his indefatigable mother Dannie. It shows the arduous journey his family undertook to find the truth about what happened and to have someone held accountable not only for their son’s death but also for the added insult of its use as a propaganda tool. Handed a massive, confusing box of intelligence records — thousands of pages of documents about her son’s death – Dannie Tillman patiently dug through the voluminous material to uncover the roots of a carefully coordinated cover-up. Her efforts, along with that of Tillman’s father and other family members and friends, eventually forced a Congressional hearing into the matter. As the film dramatically demonstrates in its stunning climax, however, the ultimate fix was in… and although the many obvious lies and cover-ups can be tracked up to and even well beyond such military brass as the recently fired general Stanley McChrystal, in the end no one among the higher-ups was ever found blameworthy or even responsible for lying to the Tillman family and the nation.
In lieu of presenting a hagiography, Director Bar-Lev does an excellent job of humanizing Tillman and offering a multi-dimensional look at his actual character. Scenes with Tillman’s family as they lovingly describe his character and his close, funny and frequently profane relationship with two brothers (the film is unfortunately and unfairly burdened with an “R” rating as a result) along with testimony from family friends and fellow soldiers paint a clear portrait of who Tillman really was — warts and all. As Bar-Lev points out, Pat Tillman was no “paragon of moral certitude; he was curious and tried to see things from every possible point of view.” That impulse is what the director attempts to give back to his subject, after he had been dehumanized and exploited for political gain by America’s leaders, aided and abetted as usual by the complicit cheerleaders of the national news media.
“I hope the story of Tillman tells us that heroism and humanity are not contradictory and heroism is complex,” Bar-Lev told Documentary magazine. “‘Hero’ is a problematic word that says a lot more about the people using it than the person they’re speaking about….
“I knew there were myths around his death,” Bar-Lev added, “but what began to intrigue me was when we found out there were equally as many myths about his life.”
“Ultimately, what I would want to have happen is just the truth,” Pat’s youngest brother Richard told ESPN.com. “At the end of the day, Pat deserves the truth. This isn’t about our family. This isn’t about the Tillmans. This is about Pat Tillman. And he deserves the truth, period. He sacrificed so much for his country, and then the government turns around and uses him for propaganda. That is totally unacceptable.”
I urge you to go see The Tillman Story, an insightful, powerful and truthful film that not only calls to task the entire chain of command but also questions our very notion of heroism itself — another topic in need of of some determined truth-telling!