War and Misrememberance: ‘The Tillman Story’

After Watergate, nothing the government does should surprise the citizenry. As scandal roams the halls of Congress like a predatory public official stalking a page, the inherent evil in the political system has become a casual, cynical given. Every once in a while, however, a story comes along that really tweaks our sense of civil propriety and personal dignity. Such is the case of former NFL superstar/fallen soldier Pat Tillman. Branded a celebrity hero by a military hoping to turn the tide of growing anti-War sentiment, his untimely death while in defense of his country was glorified and sensationalized all out of proportion. Of course, when the truth finally started to come out about what really happened to him, the spin doctors became even more shameless in their strategies.

What we do know is that, during a seemingly routine patrol, Tillman and several of the men in his command were ambushed and killed by “friendly fire.” This means they were gunned down by their fellow troops, mistaken for the enemy in a mix-up that, at first, appeared like a horrific, unexpected accident. But as director Amir Bar-Lev argues in his brilliant documentary The Tillman Story, the details of his death were not the only controversial aspect of the incident. Indeed, when the military, in collusion with the Bush White House, determined to turn the tragedy into a piece of flag waving propaganda, the depth of the internal corruption involved was just as nauseating as the facts surrounding the incident.

The Tillman Story is indeed sad. It’s also infuriating and intense. Speaking with many in the family as well as the men who were on that Afghan hill that fateful April day, Bar-Lev tells a very simple story. Tillman, a star athlete and a devoted patriot, felt a need to leave his high paying job as a professional football player and serve his country. There was no desire to be treated special or differently, and outside the rough and unreal world of the NFL, he showed a compassion and understanding of his fellow soldiers that few knew existed. Many closest to him questioned the decision, but it was clear that Tillman felt compelled to think beyond himself. He wanted to do what he thought was right, without recognition or some inappropriate media fanfare.

Of course, his death changed all that, a cruel combination of novice grunt jitters and “wrong place, wrong time” tenets that argue for a level of military incompetence that’s hard to calculate critically. As he walks us through the events that led up to and after Tillman’s death, Bar-Lev uncovers something sickening about our current security corps: while most are well trained and capable, a gung-ho desire for combat eats away at them. It’s a craving that results in all manner of mishaps – including very deadly ones. Of course, no one in Washington wants the people to know this, so all manner of cover-ups ensue. But with Tillman, it was worse. Administration officials saw it as a chance to put a positive bent on a questionable foreign policy decision, and simply lit the fireworks. By doing so, they not only added insult to injury – they disgraced a well-meaning man and his entire family.

Since he is no longer here to speak for himself, Bar-Lev lets his friends and family do the honors – and they more than compensate for the insidious government/Fox News party line. Tillman is portrayed as thoughtful, intelligent, well-read, forward thinking, questioning, critical of the war – almost the exact opposite as the Neo-Con right wing poster boy the military-fed media wanted us to see him as. Lied to again and again by the administration, the family were duped into playing along, though several times during the many public celebrations, Tillman’s mom Mary wanted to crack. Even after the truth came out and officials argued for following the script, there was disagreements and pain. One of the most compelling arguments made by Bar-Lev in The Tillman Story is that the US destroyed the man and his relatives twice – once in the field of combat, the other in the ridiculous revisionist reaction to same.

This is the kind of movie that makes you mad, that angers you in a way that’s fundamental to your place within a democracy. It’s also the kind of experience that leaves you feeling powerless and hopeless, witnessing how easily the system will subvert the truth (and those within it) for its own disgraceful purposes. The military’s response to all the accusations was/is simple – it’s a question of morale, both at home and in the field. It’s the same BS they proffer when discussing photographing returning coffins or disclosing other unglamorous imagery. In essence, with Tillman’s blood on their hands, they wanted to make sure the version of such carnage played precisely into their own idea of heroic jingoism.

Bar-Lev leaves no significant stone unturned. He comes up with compelling sound bites from sources both inside and outside the process, everyone from comrades to critics. He lets us see pages and pages of official testimony on the subject. He explores Tillman’s early days, his fascination with athletics, and the reasons for his decision to give it all up. Again, this clearly was a young man who wanted to be part of something bigger, more important than the flamboyant flash of the National Football League. This is not the story the US government wanted out there. For them, Tillman represents selfless sacrifice, whether or not that was the actual case.

By letting the facts speak for themselves, by allowing both sides to support and/or hang themselves, by never once sugar-coating what happened on those faraway fields of fire, The Tillman Story becomes a devastating denouncement of political power broking. It suggests that there are some secrets about the War on Terror that the public will never know and that, via a concerted effort both internally and externally, will remain forever lost. It also proves that no good deed goes unpunished, be it in the guise of a gifted young man who senselessly lost his life in the battlefield, or a family who reluctantly agreed to play along with a ruse before seeing the situation blow up in their face. For many, the death of Pat Tillman still symbolizes something saintly and good. After seeing the documentary evidence of what really happened, such a perception is foolish at best, frightening at the very least.

RATING 8 / 10