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The Pat Tillman Story, a Documentary Movie

If you haven’t watched the documentary you won’t know more about Tillman than what certain public officials want you to know: He earned a Silver Star Medal as a combat hero, who saved the lives of his fellow soldiers during a Taliban ambush. Several star-studded Generals, Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, and President Bush lied about Tillman’s death.

I am touched particularly by this story because Pat Tillman’s character, his pride for his family, and his sense of community resemble the main character, Kris Klug, also let down by public officials, in my novel Mojave Winds, written a year before the Tillman incident—a reminder of how a thin gray line often barely separates fiction and reality. The Tillman documentary deserves an Oscar.

Once he enlisted with his brother Kevin in 2002, Pat Tillman was worth more to the Army dead than alive. By 2004, the military was having serious problems to recruit more men to fight the war, much less to gain public support for the preemptive invasion of Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 terrorist attack. By 2004, Pat Tillman was promoted as a team leader and was the only one killed by someone in his own unit. In the military there is a word for killing a fellow soldier intentionally: fragging. What a coincidence, a random accident carried out by someone in a unit of men especially well-trained as professionals. As in any other organization, various types of people work in the Army—some happy, well-adjusted, while others are twisted, prone to jealousy for anyone who stands out. Pat Tillman excelled in athletics and was smart enough to read broadly—Chomsky, Emerson—essayists who questioned institutions. Once he saw the devastation of Iraq, he recognized its invasion as criminal.  

There’s no evidence that Pat Tillman was the victim of a high-level conspiracy to make a martyr of the famous football player. It just so happened that after his death, though, his martyrdom became great material for war propaganda and recruitment marketing. The extreme right-wing neocons in power at the time didn’t have the organizational skills to pull off a perfect assassination as Tillman’s death. It would be folly to imply that Tillman’s death was planned by anyone in his unit or by anyone up the chain of command to the several star-studded Generals as well as the Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush, who were aware of the circumstances of Tillman’s covered-up fratricide and who eagerly used his death as a poster boy for recruitment. The documentary never implied any such conspiracy.

It seems that Pat Tillman, despite his noble characteristics, was a bit naïve to give up his NFL career to fight a war conjured up for and by the interests of multinational oil corporations and by their neocon puppets. Think of the trillions of dollars and thousands of lives squandered on a war to control the world’s second largest oil reserve, instead of investing the same resources in developing new industries for sustainable energy.

But then, like many Americans, Tillman believed in certain American myths such as that our public officials always operate for the people’s best interests and without preference for the global corporations, that our public officials carry out their duties by rule of law and not as well-compensated goons, and that our elected officials are honest, responsible leaders, concerned for the greatest good of society without bias to social class or any personal gain such as campaign contributions.

When Pat Tillman’s family pushed the issue all the way to a congressional hearing, the public officials of responsibility—rewarded with privilege, prestige, and big salaries—the star-studded Generals and the Secretary of State simply responded, “I don’t remember. I didn’t know.” Yet, it’s their job to remember and to know. They failed the duties of their position and the people of a democracy. They do not deserve to hold their offices.

The Tillman story tells about an American family who would not settle for the celebrity-style appearances of a Silver Star Medal and praises of heroism. The family wanted only the truth. The public officials involved in covering up the facts of Tillman’s death were brought to a hearing, but they had nothing to say and walked away chuckling over an inside joke. Most any American with a heartbeat and a sense of community would have to acknowledge the crass, shameless, and soulless treatment of a great American.