Monday, September 6, 2010

Fighting for Truth: The Tillman Story

Pat Tillman had the stare of a prizefighter, the inquisitiveness of an investigative journalist, the fearlessness of a stuntman, the protectiveness of a big brother, the self-awareness of a philosophy major, the devotion of a best friend and the mouth of a New Jersey auto mechanic. Or so I have been told. Having worked two years at Arizona State University and two years more in the NFL, I’ve come in contact with several people who were friends or at least friendly with Tillman, but I never met the man. I know Tillman only through the stories of those former friends and teammates, and through the tremendous features of Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith and the controversial book by Jon Krakauer. Now comes Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary, which through the accounts of those who knew Tillman best in life or were nearest to him at his death corroborates every description of Tillman that I’ve ever heard, revealing an individualistic, intelligent man of character who was also something of a rascal (that was his charm). But The Tillman Story is less about who Pat Tillman was than about who Pat Tillman wasn’t. If you’ve heard that Pat Tillman was a hero and a patriot, well, that’s true, by the most honorable definitions of those words. But Tillman wasn’t the quite hero that the military and the upper reaches of the Bush administration needed him to be. And so Tillman became in death the one thing that by all accounts he never was in life: someone else’s man.

This wasn’t Tillman’s doing. It was a crime done to him. Bar-Lev’s documentary attempts to set the record straight, to make Tillman’s story his own again. It’s a hard thing to do – to liberate a man from myth without spinning a brand new one – and it’s a task made harder still when those who knew the subject best are the ones most reluctant to describe him. In this film, Tillman’s wife, mother, father and youngest brother speak of Pat with a frankness and ease that suggests they trust their interviewer, but they are noticeably careful to avoid describing Pat with broad generalities, in part out of respect for a man who seemed to defy and detest oversimplified labels, and also because they’ve seen firsthand how such abstractions are building blocks for illusions. When Tillman walked away from a multi-million dollar NFL salary to enlist in the military and offered no explicit explanation as to why, the media filled in the gaps, writing the narrative they wanted to tell instead of the narrative they could validate. For them, Tillman was too good a story to pass up. Meantime, politicians latched on to Tillman’s enlistment as a sign of good old-fashioned American values and as a testament to the virtuousness of the military’s upcoming engagements. For them, Tillman was too famous to serve anonymously, even though his actions – Tillman refused all interviews and didn’t release a statement – made it clear that was his desire. Tillman was the best recruiting tool since Uncle Sam. His image was no longer his own to control. And the worst was yet to come.

Bar-Lev’s film spends most of its time detailing how Tillman’s genuine heroism was rampantly fictionalized upon his death. Gunned down by friendly fire in April 2004, Tillman’s death was described to the public as if it were something else, something worthy of a John Wayne film. At the televised memorial service a week later, a military representative said Tillman “(took) the fight to the enemy” and that his actions “directly saved” the lives of his “brothers.” There was no mention of the possibility of fratricide – neither publicly nor in private to Tillman’s family – even though soldiers on the ground knew immediately and without question that Tillman had been shot by U.S. troops. In fact, there would be no mention of fratricide until a month later when details of a military investigation became public. In the meantime, Bar-Lev’s film reveals, the truth of Tillman’s death was passed up the chain of command, reaching as high as then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, if not higher, but no one said a word and eyewitnesses were ordered to keep quiet. The reality that Tillman’s head was blown off by U.S. soldiers who were no more than 40 yards away was apparently too grim for the military to accept, and so even when fratricide was eventually acknowledged the military made the episode sound as chaotic as possible, implying that Tillman’s death was a tragic and essentially unavoidable “fog of war” accident, even though the only thing hazy about Tillman’s death has been the result of half truths and outright lies issued to the Tillman family and the American public.

The Tillmans make it clear they believe that the military and the Bush administration deliberately distorted the truth about Pat’s death in a repugnant attempt to make chicken soup out of chicken shit. Their suspicions are backed by piles of circumstantial evidence, perhaps the most incriminating of which (in my opinion) is the military’s lack of remorse over getting the details wrong in the first place. But that’s not the only possible explanation. Perhaps the military isn’t devious and self-serving so much as grossly incompetent, unable to comprehend official memos. Or perhaps the truth about Tillman’s death was elusive because of the misdeeds of some rogue officers, you know, like at Abu Ghraib. Because if we’ve learned one thing since 9/11 it’s that our military is the most technologically advanced in the world, with the best and brightest soldiers, when we’re trying to build a case for war, but our military is impossibly challenged by programs as intricate as e-mail and is plagued by the poor decision-making of corrupt bumblefucks working outside the chain of command whenever anything goes wrong.

The Tillman Story is a tribute not just to Pat but to his family, particularly his mother Mary, who spent years playing the role of Woodward and Bernstein in the relentless pursuit of the truth. You might not agree with all her conclusions – for example, Mary Tillman’s take that the soldiers who shot her son weren’t at all scared and just wanted to shoot something might be oversimplifying the adrenaline of a firefight – but you can’t fault her for building her own theories. If the military hadn’t attempted to hide the truth behind black boxes on thousands of pages of heavily redacted documents, Mary wouldn’t have needed to go searching for reality in the first place. But while Bar-Lev’s film triggers rage that those so quick to praise Tillman’s heroism and to benefit from it would treat him so dishonorably in death, it also subtly cautions against turning Tillman into some other kind of martyr. That even people who didn’t know Pat Tillman would want to honor his service and sacrifice is understandable, but at some point it’s worth asking: would he have wanted a statue outside Cardinals Stadium, or for ASU’s dance squad to perform a (somber?) choreographed routine in his honor? At what point do we become culpable of manipulating Tillman’s image all over again, according to our own selfish ideals? Just because Tillman can rightly be called a hero doesn’t mean he would have been fond of the label. From all I’ve seen, read and been told, Pat Tillman was content just being Pat Tillman. Therein lies the truth.


Sheila O'Malley said...

Jason - I have not seen this yet, but I find this entire entry so moving. I have been following the Tillman story on my own, and it has been frustrating and enraging, especially since the guy himself seemed like such a class act. I have friends over there in Iraq, and one of my cousins, too, and it has been equally as upsetting for them, watching this unfold.

It sounds like a good piece of investigative journalism, an important documentary. I look forward to seeing it, although it's going to push all of my Rage-Boy buttons. I'm a girl, but I certainly have Rage-Boy potential.

Thanks for this, and this entire series.

Richard Bellamy said...

Well done. You have a special talent for analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of a documentary. You have a keen perception for the many shades of the truth that a non-fiction film sets out to document.

Jason Bellamy said...

Sorry for the delayed replies here ...

Sheila: It's definitely worth seeing, and I'd be particularly interested to hear your reaction once you do, assuming you haven't read the in-depth pieces by Smith and Krakauer. It's a moving and rage-inspiring film, but I suspect the effect might be even greater on someone who isn't so familiar with many of the details.

Hokahey: Thanks. I appreciate that. With the "30 for 30" series and my general fondness for docs, I seem to be writing about them all the time now. It's been an interesting exercise.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Jason - I have not read the Krakauer book (it's the only one of his I haven't read yet) - as I mentioned, I've been following this story since it originally went down, and have talked to my friends in Iraq about it - and it's a hot topic, very explosive. It upsets everyone.

There's an aspect to the whole thing that is about Narrative, its uses and misuses - something that has obsessed me for a while. How are stories used? How is Narrative important - and even more important during a war? I am thinking of the Jessica Lynch story, which, from the getgo, struck me as a Rambo fantasy of "who we are" and "how we fight", as opposed to anything that might really have happened. Isn't what happened to her bad enough? But the quickly-spreading Narrative of her blasting her way through her captors with gunfire caught on - This is clearly nothing new. Leaders have always used Narrative in this way, a way to either cover up the real story, or to get people on board with what we are doing.

It was amazing how normally intelligent people leapt onto the Jessica Lynch bandwagon - and in my opinion it was a disrespect to what had actually happened. She was injured and terrified - but the Narrative set her up as a hero - and so then she has to deal with the fallout of being a "disappointment". That's what makes me into a Rage-Boy. Nobody who is fighting a war should have to deal with that.

Not to mention people like Tillman's family - who have had to struggle to get the story of what actually happened.

I am definitely going to see this. Thanks again for your review.

Jason Bellamy said...

Sheila: If you get Rage-Boy over the initial coverage of Lynch, you'll go to another level over the coverage of her "rescue," which is another thing touched on in this film (and Krakauer's book).

I could ramble forever about this, but I'll be unusually brief: the media's coverage of our military's post-9/11 engagements has disheartened me more than the events themselves (because I take the latter as somewhat unavoidable).