The Tillman Story Sets the Record Straight

Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals safety who enlisted in the Army Rangers eight months after September 11, read Emerson, Chomsky, and, though an atheist, the Bible. Resembling a beefier Seann William Scott, he shunned cell phones, cars, and professional-athlete megalomania. A fiercely private (and principled) person, his death in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, during his second tour of duty, was spun by the Bush II administration into a recruiting tool. In the appalling exploitation of his corpse, Tillman was said to have died while protecting his comrades from a Taliban ambush; the bullets that felled him, however, came from his own platoon.

Amir Bar-Lev's assiduous, furious documentary (a significant improvement over his last nonfiction film, 2007's middling My Kid Could Paint That) on the Army's craven cover-up and the Tillman family's determination to find out the truth is a withering assessment of U.S. military culture. Unlike Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's Afghan-war doc Restrepo, Bar-Lev's film feigns no pretense of "neutrality." War is hell, the former documentary relentlessly (if unhelpfully) reminds us. But The Tillman Story goes deeper, exposing a system of arrogance and duplicity that no WikiLeak could ever fully capture.

While all members of Tillman's immediate family and his widow, Marie, are powerful, riveting talking heads, his mother, Mary, emerges as the tireless moral compass. (Pat's middle brother, Kevin, who enlisted at the same time as his older sibling, apparently refused to be interviewed; perhaps he had nothing to add to his forceful, damning remarks at the 2007 Congressional hearing addressing the willful misinformation about Pat's death, included here.) A few weeks after Tillman's memorial service, which occasioned grandstanding from John McCain (R) and Maria Shriver (D), the military admitted that Pat was killed by friendly fire, attributing the incident to confusion during combat, or "the fog of war." Poring through 3,000 pages of heavily redacted documents about her son's death, Mary, with the help of retired special-ops soldier Stan Goff ("I got a blog"), draws this conclusion: "It was not a fog of war. It was a lust to fight."

Bar-Lev's examination of that lust stands out as the film's most scathing indictment, puncturing the military's convenient, frequently deluded myths about altruism and the noble call to serve one's country. "I wanted to serve myself," scoffs Russell Baer, a close friend to both Pat and Kevin Tillman in the Rangers who was ordered not to reveal anything about the real cause of Pat's death (though he had nothing to do with his pal's demise). "I wanted to shoot guns and blow things up." He wasn't the only one: Some soldiers responsible for Tillman's killing remarked in a report that they were "excited" and "wanted to stay in the firefight" when asked why they continued shooting at Tillman, who was only 40 meters away. As Goff notes, the Armed Forces imposes "a level of wisdom and maturity on soldiers that doesn't apply to 19-year-olds anywhere, ever."

The bitter irony of Tillman's death, of course, was that he was a modest, self-sacrificing soldier. Despite his celebrity, he refused all requests for press conferences or public explanations for his decision to enlist (which the government violated post-mortem, just as it tried to overrule his wishes for a civilian, not military, funeral). Though he continually questioned the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in conversations — becoming particularly disgusted with the occupation of the former — Tillman insisted on honoring his three-year commitment to the Army, declining offers from his agent to secure an early discharge and return to the NFL. For his sacrifice, leadership, and character, his body was used as propaganda and his family lied to and gravely let down by Congress, which ultimately let Don Rumsfeld and several four-star generals off the hook.

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Jesus Melissa, you belligerent, agendized fuck. You couldn't even get out of the first paragraph before you personally blame "W" for the Tillman coverup! You and your ilk are so disgusting. Aren't you anti-war, anti-military, anti-conflict in every way? When it's convenient, your people squat at airports, spit on soldiers returning from Indo-China and call them baby killers (did I forget to mention the war I speak of was initiated and propagated by Democrats, as were WW1 and WW2?). Then if it suits you, you get behind our troops and blame any insufficiencies on the Republican administration of the era? Good lord Little Miss Demagogue, the military is a unique culture, regardless of the Commander in Chief. Get off your high horse and quit circle-sniffing the farts of all your progressive commrades, it's making you drunk with self-righteousness.


Now I want to see this. Didn't before this review. NIce work.


Dubblebub, why don't you get your history right. Eisenhower was president in 1955 when the Vietnam war "officially" began with the insertion of US "advisors" into the conflict.

In addition, you exaggerate the incidences of any disrespect shown our troops. The disrespect shown our fallen comrades by the anti-gay protestors at military funerals by right-wing nutjobs like yourslef are far more insidious.


There is nothing in the historical record — news or police reports, for example — suggesting they really happened. In fact, the Veterans Administration commissioned a Harris Poll in 1971 that found 94% of Vietnam veterans reporting friendly homecomings from their age-group peers who had not served in the military. Moreover, the historical record is rich with the details of solidarity and mutuality between the anti-war movement and Vietnam veterans. The real truth, in other words, is that anti-war activists reached out to Vietnam veterans and veterans joined the movement in large numbers.

Stories of spat-upon Vietnam veterans are bogus. Born out of accusations made by the Nixon administration, they were enlivened in popular culture (recall Rambo saying he was spat on by those maggots at the airport) and enhanced in the imaginations of Vietnam-generation men — some veterans, some not. The stories besmirch the reputation of the anti-war movement and help construct an alibi for why we lost the war: had it not been for the betrayal by liberals in Washington and radicals in the street, we could have defeated the Vietnamese. The stories also erase from public memory the image, discomforting to some Americans, of Vietnam veterans who helped end the carnage they had been part of.

The facsimiles of spat-upon veteran stories that are surfacing now confuse the public dialogue surrounding the war. Debate about the war itself and the politics that got us into it is being displaced by the phony issue of who supports the troops. Everyone supports the troops and wishes them a safe and speedy homecoming. It's the mission they have been sent on that is dividing the nation and it is the mission that we have a right and obligation to question.


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