The Tillman Story

“I thought he would be a jock… a real meathead.” Russell Baer, who served alongside Patrick ‘Pat’ Tillman in the 75th Ranger Regiment, echoes the opinion which I immediately formed upon seeing the photograph above. Tillman has the aggressive jaw and thick neck which I expected from reading that he was an American football player, together with the shaved head and khaki fatigues which single him out as an infantryman. As an effete philosophy graduate, I didn’t imagine we’d have much in common.

This was, of course, before I learned that Pat Tillman graduated summa cum laude as well as bagging a glittering career as a professional sportsman; before I learned of his fondness for Chomsky and Emerson; before I discovered that he refused to own a car or a mobile phone, and that despite being an atheist devoured books of scripture in an effort to learn more about the religious mindset. It was also before I knew that Pat Tillman’s death lies at the heart of the US Army’s most controversial scandal in years.

When all-star defensive back Pat Tillman turned down a $3.6m football contract to enlist in the US army he was lauded as a living embodiment of patriotism and selflessness, receiving a personal letter from Secretary for Defense Donald Rumsfeld congratulating him for his decision. He and his brother Kevin completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq before returning home in 2003 to undergo the rigorous selection process for the elite US Army Rangers. After successfully joining the Rangers, both brothers were redeployed in late 2003. On the 22nd April 2004, less than two years after enlisting, Pat was shot three times in the head in Afghanistan.

Five weeks after his family had been informed of the circumstances of his death – that he died “in the line of devastating enemy fire” – it became apparent that Tillman was more likely to have perished as a result of ‘fratricide’ or friendly fire during a skirmish between US forces and insurgents. However, Tillman’s brother in arms Spc. Bryan O’Neal, who was with him when he was killed, knew the truth – the only Afghan present had been a Coalition militiaman. After splitting his small force due to a damaged vehicle, Tillman’s squad came under heavy, sustained fire from other US servicemen who failed to positively identify their targets before attacking. One soldier later admitted that he hadn’t even seen a target but discharged his machine gun anyway since he “wanted to stay in the firefight”.

The Tillman Story unpacks the extraordinary three-year battle which Pat Tillman’s family fought to expose the true circumstances of his death. Featuring extensive interviews with his parents ‘Dannie’ and Pat Sr., his brothers, two of his comrades from Afghanistan and various other figures from inside and outside the military, it exposes breathtaking acts of deceit by the US Army and pours scorn on the way in which Pat was mythologised after his death, particularly by the religious right with which he particularly disagreed. Veteran documentary film-maker Amir Bar-Lev does a fine job of presenting Pat and his family in a compassionate but honest light, and skilfully probes through layers of bureaucracy to present the facts in an eminently accessible fashion.

Pat Tillman certainly did not buy into George W Bush’s belief that the wars of the last decade were divinely mandated. After his widow refused a full military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, Pat’s younger brother Richard effortlessly cut through the bullshit at his memorial service. “Pat isn’t with God. He’s fucking dead. He wasn’t religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he’s fucking dead.” Pat Tillman is just one of almost 7,000 Coalition troops to have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and I defy anyone to hear his story and retain any faith at all in those dirty, illegal little wars. The Tillman Story is absolutely essential viewing.

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