November 13, 2010

The Tillman Story

November 12, 2010

Who was Pat Tillman? That’s a good question to ask around Veteran’s Day. Too bad this documentary doesn’t provide a better answer.

Not long after 9-11, Pat Tillman, a standout NFL defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals, gave up his lucrative career and, along with his younger brother Kevin, enlisted in the Army Rangers. During his second tour of duty, while he was on patrol in a rocky valley in Afghanistan, he was shot to death.

Initially, the Army informed his family that Tillman had died a hero, defending his fellow soldiers against a Taliban ambush. Gradually his mother pieced together the truth from, among other things, inconsistencies in the military’s telling of events, stories from his fellow soldiers, and a large box of redacted documents that she painstakingly restored.

Her eldest son was killed by fratricide or “friendly fire,” and no one in authority wanted to admit what had happened. The reality was too embarrassing.

So the brass awarded him the silver heart, portraying him as an all-American boy who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. In other words, they used him to sell the idea of war.

This cover-up went as high as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield, who in one cringe-inducing scene testifies before a 2007 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that he can’t remember much of anything about the man or his death. And the committee lets him (along with a trio of generals whose memories are similarly impaired) get away with it!

Although the documentary is sketchy on the details, Tillman and his squad were out on patrol when a vehicle broke down. His company received orders not to abandon it. Tillman was part of the forward position after his group split in two. He rushed back when it seemed the others were under attacked. Shots were fired, and someone in the rear patrol blanketed the area with bullets, several of which struck Tillman.

The movie is murky on the specifics of who pulled the trigger, but the soldier who was next to Tillman when he died says the ex-football player couldn’t believe his own comrades were firing on him.

His last words were “I’m Pat f---ing Tillman.” Then a barrage tore his head off.

Although this account of Tillman’s death is haunting, I found myself wishing that the filmmaker had done what writers call a character biography.

For instance: What in Tillman’s childhood made him so single-minded? What were his likes and dislikes? When did his parents get divorced and why? How did that affect him? What was his college major? What were his political beliefs? Why did he marry his high school sweetheart? Why did she agree to let him go? What books did he like to read? What kinds of movies did he like to see? What did he do in his spare time? How did he fashion himself into such an imposing presence in professional football, while being relatively small to play at that level?

The list goes on.

Books especially—and movies—let us see inside another person’s head in ways that aren’t possible in “real” life. If “The Tillman Story” had granted me fuller access to its subject, I would feel his loss more keenly than I do already. Then I wouldn’t be left to wonder who Pat f---ing Tillman was or why he made the choices that landed him in that remote valley where he lost his life.

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