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Does 'The Tillman Story' Tell the Full Story?

To me, it’s one of the most important American stories to come out of the post-9/11 war on terrorism. It’s currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, and will be opening wide September 3rd. It’s a fascinating, tragic, true story that you simply couldn’t write — and it’s well-told by director Amir Bar-Lev (My Could Could Paint That). I’m talking about the first feature-length documentary on Pat Tillman, who famously gave up a multimillion-dollar NFL contract to join the military, only to be killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire (not, as was initially reported, by Taliban soldiers). But after watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder: does The Tillman Story bury the lede?

First of all, in case you’re not familiar with the film — which shares honors with Dear Zachary as the most sobering and angering documentary I’ve seen in recent memory — here is the trailer:

Sometimes I write about stories that fall through the cracks that are important to me despite being utterly off-topic. So while I wish everyone would go see The Tillman Story, and I hope it does better at the box office than Avatar, there’s another side to the Tillman story that I think is worth pondering. For anyone who’s seen the documentary, or for anyone who’s familiar with the story of Tillman (whose death at the hands of his squad mates was covered up at the highest levels of the American military and government), I’d like to address an angle to the story that the Tillmans themselves have often alluded to but is not tackled by the documentary head-on.

If you read between the lines of the film, and if you watch, for example, the Tillman parents’ appearance on Larry King (part of which is embedded below), there is a more sinister suggestion at the margins of the story: that Pat Tillman was murdered. Intentionally, as opposed to “shot by accident.” I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and I’m not one to jump to that conclusion, though you’ll find many on the internet who claim it to be true. But in the words of Tillman’s father, “it was probably an accident.” Can you imagine being a parent who’s not sure that your son’s death was an accident, though? It’s certainly an issue worth looking into, given all of the murky factors surrounding Tillman’s death.

At 40 yards away, from an elevated position, you’d think your fellow soldiers could hear you. This is why Tillman’s last words — yelled in an attempt to halt the incoming friendly fire — were reportedly, “I’m Pat Tillman. I’m Pat Fucking Tillman!” The Tillman Story, originally titled I’m Pat ______ Tillman, only touches briefly on the possibility of foul — as opposed to simply incompetent — play. But it’s a possibility that will haunt me for a long time, especially when director Bar-Lev ruminates in an interview that Tillman is “worth more to America dead than alive.”

Tillman was shot three times in the forehead. Not just the head — the forehead. If you’re close enough to shoot a man three times in the forehead — someone who is not returning fire and is yelling at you in English, repeatedly — shouldn’t you be able to identify him as a friendly? Briefly, some other suspicious factors:

The reason Tillman was in such a position at all was because his squad was split, despite this action going against military Standard Operating Procedures; no evidence of enemy fire was ever found at the scene, which was the justification given for the other Rangers opening fire on Tillman’s position — no people or vehicles were struck even once by enemy fire; the medical examiner, upon inspecting Tillman’s corpse, asked for a criminal investigation (which was denied); Pat’s clothes and body armor were burned despite protocol calling for their preservation as evidence; his diary was either lost or burned, depending on the account; and, of course, there was the resulting cover-up that led the American people (and the family) to believe that Tillman was killed leading a heroic offensive against Taliban forces, when instead he was shot repeatedly by American forces at close range.

Why would it matter that Tillman’s diary was burned? Because, as The Tillman Story does a great job of elucidating, Pat Tillman wasn’t the man he was assumed to be. Despite his all-American appearance and a pro football career to match, Tillman was a rare character, not just a professional athlete who joined the military, but also a book-reading atheist with a subscription to The Economist who wanted to meet with antiwar author Noam Chomsky when he concluded his military service. In short: the Bush administration’s lone celebrity soldier, who sacrificed a lucrative pro sports career to patriotically serve his country in response to 9/11 — was going to come home in dramatic fashion. Disillusioned since enlisting, Tillman had privately called the Iraq war “so fucking illegal,” planned on voting for Kerry, and was about to become a hell of a poster boy for the war opposition — with plenty of time to spare before the 2006 reelection campaign. Of course, in death, he could’ve been a powerful figure as well — assuming his diary, which presumably contained his real thoughts on the war, wasn’t “lost.”

Indeed, in reviewing the film, some have wondered if Tillman’s military service was a premeditated first step into a post-football career in politics. But if Tillman was interested in creating a politically tenable public narrative for himself, why was he so private about his reasons for enlisting, and why did he refuse to be lionized (in life, at least) as a hero for doing so? Regardless of his private nature, however, it’s hard to believe that Tillman would come out of the experience without anything to say. As Pat’s brother, Kevin (who is conspicuously absent from the film, but apparently worked with Bar-Lev behind-the-scenes) remembered in 2006:

[Pat and I] spoke about the risks with signing the [military] papers. How once we committed, we were at the mercy of the American leadership and the American people. How we could be thrown in a direction not of our volition. How fighting as a soldier would leave us without a voice… until we got out.

This is one of many things that makes the film so excruciating to watch. “Until we got out.” What would Pat say today, had he lived through three years of military service — during a time when he could’ve been living the American dream, playing pro football for millions of dollars? He could’ve been a powerful figure in America, but we’ll never know. Instead, his death was initially used by the U.S. military to feed the pro-war propaganda machine in a way that would make Goebbels proud. So for those that robbed us of the truth behind Pat Tillman’s death — and more importantly, for those that robbed us of all the things Tillman would have said and done with what should’ve been his remaining years — I’ll quote Tillman’s father, whose letter to the military draws the following conclusion:

In sum: Fuck you… and yours.

I’m not saying The Tillman Story should’ve gone the agitprop route and posited in certain terms that the American government assassinated Tillman. But it’s clear from comments made by Tillman’s parents that there is some level of suspicion about the level of incompetence, the number of coincidences, and the amount of gross negligence that had to come together just right in order to lead to their son’s death. Not to mention the cover-up. As a result, when The Tillman Story was over, I found myself wishing Bar-Lev would’ve viewed Tillman’s death in a more suspicious light. Perhaps the darker possibilities aren’t fully explored by the film. Or perhaps what happened is just what we should expect when we take a bunch of 19 year-olds, transplant them from America to Afghanistan, replace their Xbox controllers with real guns, and ask them to do a nation’s dirty work.

The Tillman Story is now playing in NY and LA and opens wide September 3rd.


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  • Fantastic writing. Well, that’s what is so fascinating about conspiracy theories — we’ll never know. I’m sure one could make a whole nother film just on the conspiracy… if only there was a zapruder film.

  • Great article, and you raise some very interesting points, but you discredit yourself in the last sentence, when you suggest a military full of incompetent nineteen year-olds. Today’s soldiers are not playing X-boxes, as you put it, but fighting abroad and risking their lives, as part of something larger than themselves — just as Tillman did. I’m not talking about politics. And I haven’t seen the Tillman documentary, so I can’t speak on it specifically, but — yes, there can be incompetence in combat, and yes, Tillman’s death and the military’s handling of it was very disturbing and disappointing and perhaps conspiratorial. But, overall, I think it’s important to remember that as an all-volunteer force, the soldiers who choose to serve are the most highly-trained and professional they’ve ever been — X-boxes or no.

    • In the documentary, one of Tillman’s squad mates points out that Tillman, at 28, was the old man of the squad. The average age, in his words? “19.” I’m not sure if this is even possible — maybe the mode was 19 (not the median). Regardless, I don’t care how much training you get — on an Xbox, in boot camp, or in the field — if you’re 19, you have not had enough life training. I’m not criticizing the sacrifice or commitment of these kids — but that’s what they are, kids. And I say this as someone who’s not yet 30.

      19 year-olds waging war is nothing new; indeed, throughout history many nations have relied on even younger soldiers (and continue to do so today). But a sword in the hands of a teenager will not generally meet with the same level of repercussions as a high-powered, fully-automatic assault rifle.

      This is part of a much larger discussion (obviously), but an all-volunteer army means a few things. One, we send the poor to do our fighting, and most of the time this means kids straight out of high school who haven’t established themselves in the world; and two, opposition on our home shores is lessened because most of us will only feel the impact of the war on our personal lives in an obfuscated way. And the out-of-sight, out-of-mind nature of such a war — why else would the Bush administration ban photographs of returning caskets? — allows our leaders to invade countries for made-up reasons, sending Tillman et. al to Iraq, violating the Geneva Convention along the way (as long as they’re out of sight of the general American populace!)… and still get reelected.

      I’m not criticizing the soldiers; to do so would be stupid. My point with that last sentence was simply to point out just how FUBAR the situation was (and is).

      Oh, and today’s soldiers are definitely playing Xboxes. This is why the U.S Army has a game for the Xbox (and other consoles) to help with recruiting.

      • You say they’re kids, that they haven’t established themselves in the world or earned enough life experiences to operate intelligently in a complex environment. That’s a post-Freudian attitude, and an academic idea. How will another five years — maybe playing X-box? — better prepare them for war? Surprise, there is no way to prepare for war, and whether you’re nineteen or thirty-five, you’re still going to experience it for the first time and react in ways you don’t expect.

        • That’s a good point David. I suppose there is no way to “fully prepare” for combat. Would I be any more prepared now than I would’ve been ten years ago? Probably not. Point taken…

  • Pat wasn’t assassinated. Stan Goff (Retired Army Ranger, Special Forces, Delta who appears in the film and helped the family) wrote about this in his “Fog of Fame” articles a few years ago. Yes, Tillman was killed by three closely spaced 5.56 mm bullets to the forehead. Snipers with an M-16? Sounds plausible, unless you know one of the gunners was firing a SAW which also fires 5.56 mm bullets at a cyclic rate of 600 to 800 rounds a minute. The simple explanation is the SAW gunner fired a burst from 35 meters, three hit Tillman in the head, others impacted on his chest armor, and some missed. No mystery there.

    The real cover-up is the bi-partisan cover-up by President Bush & Obama and Congress to shield Gen. McChrystal from scrutiny and punishment for his actions. I’ve covered this subject (and others) in my Tillman files at htttp:// if you’re interested.

    • Guy, thanks for the comments — I had read a few things at your site before writing this. A high rate of fire certainly explains it, as does the level of accuracy that one would expect rangers to have. It’s all the other factors that make one wonder.