The opening scene of the documentary The Tillman Story shows Pat Tillman taping a promotional video while still a college football player at Arizona State University. After saying his name, Tillman keeps looking at the camera while awaiting further instruction from unseen crew members. He seems good-natured about the process, but also eager to be done with it and maybe even a little disdainful, as if he can’t quite believe all the effort that is going into crafting empty pageantry designed to iconize himself and his fellow athletes.
A few years later, of course, a similar dynamic would play out on a larger scale. Tillman was far from a household name when he put aside his NFL career to enlist in the U.S. Army eight months after the 9/11 attacks. But at a time when there was a lot of high-minded talk about the price of freedom, Tillman quickly captured the nation’s attention as the most vivid example of all those who were actually willing to walk the walk. Just married to his high-school sweetheart, forsaking a $3.6 million contract extension offer from the Arizona Cardinals, Tillman was giving up an extremely enviable life to serve his country. That he understood his decision to do so made him no nobler than anyone else who’d done the same—and therefore refused to speak publicly about his enlistment—only added to his appeal.
In his long-haired days, Tillman looked like a cross between GI Joe and Kurt Cobain. With his military buzzcut, he looked like a cross between GI Joe and Sgt. Rock. His jaw was as fortified as a concrete bunker. His fierce glower packed so much firepower you could almost imagine him staring Osama bin Laden to death. In reality, Tillman was a complicated individual—an atheist who probably read more religious texts than all but the most devout, a patriot who felt morally obligated to defend his country but also admired Noam Chomsky. On a superficial level, though, he seemed tailor-made for propaganda and he knew it. He signed a form instructing that he did not want a military funeral should he die in combat. He once told a fellow soldier that he worried he’d be paraded through the streets if killed in action.
Ultimately, the story referenced in the title of The Tillman Story is not so much Tillman’s own biography as it is the tale his commanding officers concocted in the wake of his death. On April 22, 2004, less than two weeks after Tillman and his younger brother Kevin had deployed to Afghanistan—he’d done his initial tour of duty in Iraq—Tillman was shot three times in the head by one of his fellow Rangers.
The firefight had taken place at dusk, in disorienting terrain, but according to Bryan O’Neal, the Ranger who was kneeling alongside Tillman, it was immediately clear that Tillman had been killed by their fellow soldiers—that those soldiers had in fact been firing at them repeatedly even as they shouted and waved their arms to indicate their status as “friendlies.” Instead of conveying this inconvenient truth, however, the Army announced that Tillman had been killed by enemy fire during a chaotic exchange that had involved as many as a dozen enemy combatants.
The first person the Army told this lie to was Tillman’s brother Kevin, who’d been been traveling with the platoon but was too far back to witness his brother’s death. Then, the Army repeated this lie to the rest of Tillman’s family and eventually to the public at large.
Five weeks later, the Army changed its tune, announcing in a press conference that Tillman had “probably” died from friendly fire. At that point, Tillman’s family, especially his mother Mary “Dannie” Tillman, began pressing for more information. Who actually killed him? Who decided to say he’d been killed by the enemy rather than his fellow Rangers? Why had the Army burned his uniform, his body armor, and even his journal days after he’d been killed?
The Tillman Story does a good job of raising these questions, and it also captures the fierce love Tillman’s family have for him and his memory, and their anger and bitterness at the way they were lied to in the wake of his death. To a certain degree, though, director Amir Bar-Lev seems more interested in implications than answers, and The Tillman Story leaves all the major ones thoroughly veiled in the fog of agitprop documentaries. The movie shows Donald Rumsfeld and a succession of high-ranking Army officials in a congressional hearing all vigorously not recalling when they learned that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire, but it never offers a concise, convincing explanation for who specifically decided to modify the details of Tillman’s death. By not narrowing down the possibilities, The Tillman Story is free to keep the indictments it makes against the Army, the Bush Administration, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as broad as possible.
In his 2009 account of Tillman’s story, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, Jon Krakauer takes a less sweeping but ultimately more damning approach. He doesn’t answer every long-lingering question about the incident and its aftermath either, but he does name the specific soldier who most likely shot Tillman and meticulously reconstructs how it happened. He identifies Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the head of the Army’s Joint Special Operations Command, as the person who decided to officially contain the true facts of Tillman’s death from Tillman’s family, the public, and even the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. Krakauer also reports that Gen. McChrystal was the person who initiated and expedited the Silver Star application so that it could be awarded before Tillman’s memorial service, even though he knew Tillman was not technically eligible for the medal. (Silver Stars are awarded only for gallantry against an enemy of the United States, and there were no enemies present when Tillman was killed.) He reports on the various ways the Army breached protocols when communicating information about Tillman’s death to his family, and ultimately, by taking this matter-of-fact approach, Krakauer sidesteps a trap The Tillman Story partially falls into: He keeps Tillman from devolving into a tragi-poetic metaphor for all that is wrong with our recent wars, and instead presents him as a real, specific person, against whom real, specific injustices were committed.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his Reason archive here.