Sunday, September 5, 2010

Another Kind of Hero

Former Arizona Cardinals football star Pat Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star by the U.S. Army -- for being killed by fellow Rangers on a mission in Afghanistan. The wrenching impact on his family of his death and promotion to poster boy for the War on Terrorism is the focus of a haunting new documentary, The Tillman Story.

From field commanders to President Bush, Tillman's gruesome death in April 2004 triggered a rush to whitewash the facts to fit a Hollywood-style heroic war story line. "The real Pat Tillman, as described by his family and fellow soldiers, was not the gung-ho jock and homespun patriot the Army tried to paint him as," noted Time Magazine's review of this film. While he gave up a professional football career to enlist after 9/11, Tillman was highly critical of the invasion of Iraq, where he and his brother Kevin were deployed before getting sent on the fatal mission chasing the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"I'm Pat f------ Tillman!" he shouted at a fire team from his own platoon who gunned him down on an Afghan mountainside as he tried to wave them off, according to a fellow soldier interviewed in the film. Outraged family members were equally blunt once they discovered the official story was a Pentagon p.r. campaign conducted to dramatic drumbeats from the Bush White House. Public outcry by his mother Mary and father Patrick Sr., a lawyer, triggered a series of official investigations culminating in a 2007 congressional hearing.

Documentary director Amir Bar-Lev presents a cavalcade of television news footage of the super-patriotic paeans to a fallen hero, tellingly contrasted with sobering interviews with survivors, who initially were drowned out by waves of "fact-free doggerel from clueless media," as Time Magazine movie critic Richard Corliss wrote.

"What I’ve come to learn while making this movie is what the military has that’s a stronger part of their arsenal than special ops is a team of publicists," Bar-Lev said in an interview in Filmmaker Magazine. "All that matters is CBS, NBC and the rest getting the right sound bite into their mix, and they do that very readily."

After a recent showing of the film at a New York theater, Bar-Lev told the audience that the Tillman family was wary of doing another round of interviews because they felt the news media had mindlessly echoed the Pentagon's propaganda.

Nearly lost in the flag-waving media circus was the stunned, bitter voice of Kevin Tillman, who quit a professional baseball career to join the Army with his brother and escorted his body home from a botched patrol.

Adding to the family's outcry, "in dramatic testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Kevin Tillman accused the Bush administration of twisting the facts of his brother's death to distract public attention from prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq," the Denver Post reported in April 2007. "His voice shaking, Tillman said the official account of his brother's death in 2004 was 'utter fiction ... intended to deceive the family and, more importantly, the American people.' "

In a blistering letter published on the Truthdig website in 2006, Kevin Tillman wrote of the war in Iraq that he and Pat served in: "Somehow the more soldiers that die, the more legitimate the illegal invasion becomes. Somehow American leadership, whose only credit is lying to its people and illegally invading a nation, has been allowed to steal the courage, virtue and honor of its soldiers on the ground."

Another former Ranger who testified at the hearings, Bryan O'Neal, said he was ordered by a commander not to tell Kevin that Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire. In the documentary, O'Neal somberly describes how his life was saved by Tillman's attempts to stop their fellow soldiers from shooting at them.

"I felt that I was going to die," O'Neal said in a 2007 interview with ESPN, which dug deep into the array of official deceptions. "In fact, I knew it. I was positive while it was happening. I felt what he did, the actions he took and then sacrificing himself the way he did, are really the main factors why I walked off of the area alive."

The ESPN report continued: "In the days just after the firefight, O'Neal gave an account of Tillman's actions to Army officials preparing a document that recommended Tillman for the Silver Star, the Army's third-highest distinction for combat valor. Since that document remains classified, O'Neal is unable to comment on it. However, he confirmed to the findings of a later investigator that his account in that case was altered so that it indicated Tillman had been killed by enemy fire, a version of the story the Army let stand for a month after the gun battle."

A central thread of the film is what happened in the wake of a memo, leaked to the Associated Press, by then-Major General Stanley McChrystal to top military commanders shortly after Tillman's death. The memo, written before the Silver Star citation approved by McChrystal citing enemy fire was announced, warned that it was "highly possible" Tillman was killed by friendly fire and that this should be conveyed to President Bush before he made public statements on the incident. At the congressional hearings three years later, none of the Pentagon brass on the distribution list could remember seeing this memo.

"Somehow lying is tolerated," Kevin wrote in his letter of protest over the conduct of the War on Terrorism as well as his brother's death. "Somehow being politically informed, diligent, and skeptical has been replaced by apathy through active ignorance. Somehow the same incompetent, narcissistic, virtueless, vacuous, malicious criminals are still in charge of this country. Somehow this is tolerated.

"Somehow nobody is accountable for this."

For more information:

Deceit surrounding death of Tillman spawns disgust - The Denver Post

Pat Tillman Investigation:

Kevin Tillman letter:

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