By **Eline Gordts**
About a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, American football player Pat Tillman swapped a 3.6 million dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals for the comparably small paycheck of an elite soldier in the army. As Tillman was sent to Iraq and took part in the operation to liberate Jessica Lynch, the sport star’s enlistment proved a recruiter’s dream, an invaluable opportunity for army propaganda.
Yet on April 22, 2004, the Bush government’s showpiece-soldier died on a mission in southern Afghanistan, according to initial military communication in a selfless attempt to save the rest of his platoon from a Taliban ambush. He posthumously received the Silver Star and was honored as a true hero in an over-mediatized funeral ceremony, attended by John McCain and Maria Shriver. Yet five weeks after his death, further investigation revealed that Tillman left this life under very different circumstances. He was hit by friendly fire, shot at a forty-yard range by members of his own platoon.
In The Tillman Story —which I saw in September, and haven’t been able to stop thinking about since—documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev delves into the events of that April day, and describes what he deems the true story of Tillman’s death. Bar-Lev interviews Mary Tillman, Pat’s mother, as she retells how she puzzled her son’s last hours together, going through thousands of pages of military documents. She found that a high-ranked officer ordered Tillman’s platoon to split and that Tillman came to the rescue of the second group when it was ambushed. Gunmen in the second part failed to identify Tillman when he approached, didn’t hear his screams “I’m Patt fucking Tillman” and shot him in the head. The military documents also showed that the gunmen were no longer in danger at that point, but that “they wanted to stay in the fight.” Back on base, officers burned Tillman’s gear, clothes and diary, and ordered the entire group to keep silent if they were planning on continuing their army career.
The Tillman Story is one of the most astonishing, moving and deeply personal documentaries on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan up until now. Bar-Lev not only revealed how the army did everything in its power to conceal the ugly side of the wars it is fighting—insisting even on keeping the circumstances of Tillman’s death secret to his brother Kevin, who served in the same platoon. The documentary also shows how, even after his death, Pat Tillman was used as a propaganda tool, a symbol of something Tillman never wanted to be. “Pat Tillman loved the game of football, yet he loved America even more,” former President Bush said in a speech after his death. Yet the complexity of Tillman’s character was completely silenced in the army’s narrative. Yes, Tillman was a tall, handsome, muscled guy who loved his country, liked to take risks and occasionally got into fights. But he also loved to read Emerson and Chomsky, described the war in Iraq as “fucking illegal,” and considered himself an atheist. “They would take parts of what he was and magnify it for their purposes,” Tillman’s wife said.
And it is perhaps this, more than the cover-up of the causes of his death, the denials of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, or the lies to Tillman’s family, that turns the attitude of the army and the ministry of defense into such an absolute disgrace. Pat Tillman refused to be a one-dimensional icon, and yet even after his death, that’s exactly what the American army tried to use him for.
Copyright 2010 Eline Gordts
Eline Gordts is an editorial intern for Guernica.