It’s long been said that the first casualty of war is the truth. When it comes to the tragic Pat Tillman story, truer words were never spoken.
All-star NFL football player. Free spirit. Square-jawed jock. Patriot. All-around good guy. Pat Tillman was all of the above. When he and his brother Kevin enlisted in the Army in 2002, shocking their friends and family, even the White House stood up and saluted. Upon learning that Pat Tillman was to be sent to the frontlines in Afghanistan, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent out a paternalistic memo to the Secretary of the Army, stating “we might want to keep an eye on him.”
By now we know the recoiling hollowness of Rumsfeld’s words. On patrol in April 2004, Cpl. Pat Tillman was shot to death by his own men, in an outrageous—and still baffling—case of friendly fire. The official military term is “fratricide”, though there was nothing brotherly about what Tillman’s Army band of brothers did to him—either then or in the six years since his death.
Much as many Americans would like to bury the long-running wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, director Amir Bar-Lev’s explosive film The Tillman Story brings the war home, front-and-center. For Tillman’s mother, Mary “Dannie” Tillman, she and her vociferous family willfully enlisted to make the documentary to “set the record straight.” It’s a story that, for the Tillmans and countless others, has become a heart-broken record after more than eight years of war.
When Tillman joined the Army, walking away from a million-dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals, the media shot off a salvo of praise for this seemingly gung-ho American. In death, he was eulogized by President Bush as a “fierce defender of liberty.” Of course, those tributes were delivered when his death was initially reported as a result of enemy fire. He was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for valor, and the nation, led by the flag-waving Fox News, rushed to memorialize him as a fallen hero.
Yet a funny thing happened on the way to Arlington. To start with was Tillman’s expressed wish not to be given a military funeral. Cracks in the propaganda myth started appearing before the plaster had dried. By late 2004, the Tillman family began to suspect that the Army was lying to them about Pat’s death. Partially through their own investigation, corroborated by witnesses, the family determined that not only was their son killed by friendly fire, but that military authorities had covered up the facts in the case from day one.
Through interviews with former members of Tillman’s Army Ranger unit, as well as recent footage from the Afghan mountainside where he was killed, Bar-Lev methodically reconstructs the chaotic firefight that took place on April 22, 2004. Since there was no Taliban in the area, when the smoke clears, it becomes horrifically apparent that Tillman’s death came at the hands of jumpy, trigger-happy members of his own unit. To date, no individual has been held responsible for his murder, while only one higher-up—Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger—was punished for the cover-up.
In what amounts to salt in the wounds, the makers of The Tillman Story recently lost their battle to get its rating switched from “R” to the more box-office-friendly “PG-13” —chiefly because of its barrage of F-bombs. Audiences who do see this powerful and poignant film will quickly realize that the real obscenity is what happened to Tillman, from his outrageous death to the cowardly and disgraceful burial of the facts.
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