Amir Bar-Lev, The Tillman Story (2010).

On any given fall Sunday in professional football stadiums across America, soldiers take the field shortly after the players do. A uniformed color guard, usually made up of one representative from each branch of the US military, marches with the flag to the 50-yard line, where the soldiers stand at attention as an entertainer leads the crowd in the national anthem. At many stadiums, fighter jets roar overhead at the anthem’s conclusion. With arena rock blaring over the loudspeakers — at the Washington Redskins’ games, the soundtrack is AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” — and billowing smoke obscuring the psyched-up players’ pumping fists, the theater is stirringly martial.

This weekly performance is only one display of the intimate relationship between the cultures of American militarism and American sports, particularly the most violent of them, professional football. First, there is the language: Broadcasters used to refer to players as “weekend warriors” and they still describe the line of scrimmage as “the trenches.” Every off-season, moreover, the National Football League sends players and coaches on USO tours of overseas garrisons, from which they return bearing tributes to the country’s “real heroes” for an eager sports media. Army recruitment pitches are Sunday-afternoon advertising staples. The military tie-ins have thickened, and the flag-waving fervor at football fields risen to a din, in the years since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals defender turned Army Ranger who is the subject of Amir Bar-Lev’s masterly documentary, was an unusual professional football player. At 5 feet, 11 inches, 202 pounds, he was slightly smaller than most men who play his position of strong safety. More to the point, in the spring of 2002, newly married and four years into a solid playing career, he resigned from the Cardinal squad to join the Army alongside his younger brother Kevin. The Cardinals had offered him a three-year, $3.6 million contract to continue.

As the only NFL player to volunteer for this leap since World War II, Tillman was a military marketer’s dream. Media coverage was glowing: The New York Times heralded the “bold career move” and praised him further for his refusal to speak to reporters about why he had joined up. On the basis of interviews with friends, the Times speculated that “he was deeply affected by the terrorist attacks” of September 11 and may have known someone who was killed. An NFL tape came to light in which Tillman said “he hadn’t done a damn thing” in service to his country, unlike his forebears who had served in previous wars. The statement was anodyne — countless players say such things in their USO debriefings — but it was seized upon as evidence of the quiet, selfless, unquestioning patriotism of many a misty-eyed ballad. This clean-cut persona attracted the gaze of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who sent Tillman a personal note of congratulations. “We might want to keep an eye on him,” he wrote in a contemporaneous memo to a subordinate.

And such was the image of Pat Tillman that the White House, the media and the NFL promulgated when, on April 22, 2004, he was killed by multiple gunshots to the head in Afghanistan. It was misleading, at best.

Tillman did indeed deny himself privileges of status. He turned down an Army offer to enter officer training so as to start at the bottom ranks, ending up as a corporal. He chose to complete tours of duty in Afghanistan, despite hints that he could return to football after serving his first one in Iraq. But, as Bar-Lev’s Tillman Story makes clear, he was not the person that the marketers thought he was. Only Tillman, his brother Kevin and possibly his widow Marie know why he enlisted. His survivors remain silent about his motives to this day. His hair, until he went to boot camp, was long and flowing. Pat Tillman, most importantly, was not an incurious follower of orders, but an inquisitive, independent-minded man who read the Book of Mormon to understand a Mormon greenhorn in his platoon and asked his family to schedule an appointment for him with Noam Chomsky. During his inaugural tour, watching US warplanes pound an Iraqi city by night, he turned to platoon mate Russell Baer and said, “This war is so fucking illegal. We’re bombing the shit out of that city.”

As is now extensively documented, the Army conjured its own image of the athlete in death as it had in life, dispatching Baer to tell Tillman’s parents that Taliban guerrillas had shot their son as he led a charge up a hillside. The Army maintained this fiction through the nationally televised memorial service, attended by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Maria Shriver, first lady of Tillman’s home state of California. In fact, as the Army knew from the outset, it was fellow Rangers who killed Tillman and there were probably no Taliban in the vicinity. The Army no longer disputes the “friendly fire,” but has stonewalled a thorough investigation of the circumstances, which are murky at best. In any case, Baer was instructed not to tell Kevin (who was in his brother’s platoon, but was not at the scene) of the “friendly fire” while riding home with him and the lone coffin on a cargo plane. Tillman’s Mormon comrade, Bryan O’Neal, who had also been shot at on the hillside, was likewise told to lie. It was only the Tillman family’s dogged search for the truth, led by Pat’s mother Mary, that forced the Army to retract its tall tales.

The Tillman Story presents a concise reconstruction of the April 22, 2004 events, and a damning unwrapping of the multi-layered cover-up, but no counter-theory of the shooting. The details of both Tillman’s death and the shameful aftermath are more comprehensively treated in Jon Krakauer’s 2009 book Where Men Win Glory. Krakauer has written acidly of the role of erstwhile Afghanistan theater commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the whitewash. McChrystal was then head of the Joint Special Operations Command that supervised Tillman’s Ranger unit. Days after the shooting, he authored an urgent memo to his superiors, including Rumsfeld, warning them that President George W. Bush should not specify the manner of Tillman’s death in a planned speech because “friendly fire” was suspected. That did not stop the general, however, from penning Tillman’s recommendation for the Silver Star, a decoration that (as Tillman’s father notes in the film) is not given to soldiers who die by their cohorts’ hands. Rumsfeld, of course, denied any recollection of McChrystal’s memo when queried at the Congressional hearing that was finally convened in 2007. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) comes off particularly poorly in Bar-Lev’s rendering of the ensuing exchange, allowing Rumsfeld and assorted generals to interrupt him several times and failing to push the inquiry to any conclusion whatsoever.

Bar-Lev’s film is less a whodunit than a paean to the Tillman family’s earthy integrity and a meditation on the image-making power of the state and the corporate media. One feels the family’s outrage build as each tissue of government lies disintegrates. Particularly dramatic is their outspoken defiance of how various institutions have exploited Pat’s death for their own purposes, using the filmy, heroic image of him that bears so little resemblance to the real man. Testifying before Congress, Kevin declares that when his brother died, “To our family and friends, it was a devastating loss; to the nation, it was a moment of disorientation; to the military, it was nightmare; but to others in the government, it appears to have been an opportunity.” Indeed, as Krakauer has reported, the Bush White House saw in Tillman the quintessential American hero whose passing, if properly managed, might distract the country from the stomach-turning photographs then leaking from Abu Ghraib. White House communications director Dan Bartlett said that he fast-tracked a press release on Tillman because the news “made the American people feel good about our country…and our military.”

It is not just gumption that distinguishes the Tillmans, however. They are appealingly forthright about the ways in which the scion of the family did not fit the wholesome, middlebrow mold that Americans always seem to cast for their compatriots. Pat Tillman was, for example, an atheist. At the memorial service, the visiting dignitaries made the obligatory ecumenical references to heaven. Shortly thereafter, Pat’s younger brother Richard, visibly tipsy and swigging a Guinness, took the podium. “There’s a lot of people here. Thank you for coming,” he said. “Just make no mistake — he’d want me to say this — he’s not with God. He’s fucking dead. He’s not religious. So thanks for your thoughts, but he’s fucking dead.” Some starchy crank at the right-wing American Spectator predictably calls this scene in the film “graceless,” but compared to the saccharine filler from McCain and Shriver, Richard’s remarks are sheer eloquence. His reaction to the staged memorial is unscripted and unapologetic, and the effect is to show a grieving brother as fully human, rather than bound by convention. The television cameras, needless to say, cut away from the service while he was speaking.

Bar-Lev might easily have mined the Tillmans’ travails for more socio-political commentary. He records an Army investigator, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, telling a radio host that the Tillmans cannot “let go” of their doubts about Pat’s death because they do not believe in an afterlife. “When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don’t believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt.” The film registers these musings as a grave and gratuitous insult to the Tillmans, which they undoubtedly are, but do they not deride people of faith as well? Are believers a flock of sheep who accept whatever fibs are fed them in matters of life and death? Perhaps Kauzlarich thinks so, and here one catches a glimpse of the America that nationalist authoritarians would like to see. This America often does not seem so distant — and it certainly did not in the early post-September 11 years, when the White House press secretary told Americans to watch what they say and veteran newsman Dan Rather, who earned his stripes covering the Vietnam war, told a talk show host he would salute at Bush’s every bidding. It is curious that such a free spirit as Tillman was drawn to two of the most regimented work environments the country has to offer.

Neither does Bar-Lev reflect on other important ways in which Pat Tillman, white, middle-class and well-educated, was very different from most of his fellow NFL players and many of his brothers in arms. The great majority of professional football players, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, are black, working-class and much less favorably positioned to forego a seven-figure salary during their fleeting years of peak physical condition. It is interesting to ponder whether the Bush White House would have so celebrated a black, working-class player gone to the Army and whether the media would have inflated his story to comparably mythic proportions. The NFL’s fan base is multi-racial, but the paying customers at stadiums are heavily white, and one senses it was fortuitous for marketing purposes that Tillman was, too. The racial layout of National Basketball Association arenas, where almost exclusively black teams play before lily-white, affluent crowds, is much more imbalanced. In 2008, Tim James, a black NBA player from “inner-city” Miami, enlisted in the military. The media output has been limited to a few sportswriters’ columns, even though James (unlike Tillman) has been vocal about signing up for the politically correct patriotic reasons. (And the Obama White House has said nothing.) Meanwhile, the relative progress of the Tillmans’ freelance inquest surely owed something to their social standing, as well as Pat’s prominence. As a teacher and a lawyer, respectively, Tillman’s mother and father were better able to pursue the case than the poorer white, Latino and black parents whose sons and daughters have also died mysterious deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, but whose names the public does not know.

Finally, The Tillman Story mostly refrains from comment on the war that Pat Tillman opposed. From Baer’s interview, that opposition is clear, and anti-war sentiment is an unstated backdrop to the film, but the fallen soldier’s reasoning is not elaborated. In the fall of 2006, shortly before the midterm elections that gave Waxman his committee chairmanship, Kevin Tillman wrote an essay called “After Pat’s Birthday” that (one assumes) sums up a few conversations he had with his brother. Kevin begins by reeling off the litany of debunked rationales — weapons of mass destruction, links to al-Qaeda, democracy building — that Americans were given for invading Iraq. As the invasion proceeded, he continues, “Somehow our elected leaders were subverting international law and humanity by setting up secret prisons around the world, secretly kidnapping people, secretly holding them indefinitely, secretly not charging them with anything, secretly torturing them.” The piece goes on to deliver a full-throated critique of the Bush administration’s war on terror. Kevin does not mention Afghanistan by name, and it is unclear from the film if either brother opposed that war, too, but they manifestly viewed the underlying venture with disdain.

Bar-Lev has insisted in interviews that his film is non-political and, considered strictly as a movie, The Tillman Story is much better for lacking an obvious didactic thrust. The very determination of Mary Tillman that her son not be encapsulated in a sound bite, that he be seen in all his complexity, has a radical quality, particularly when juxtaposed with the crass, ersatz remembrances at the memorial service and Arizona State University, where Pat played his college football. Her statement at the Congressional hearing that war should not be sanitized, but depicted as “ugly and painful,” also packs a wallop. Richard expresses his hope that telling The Tillman Story will be an “opportunity for reality to break through” the spin and half-truth that accompanies US military undertakings. The Tillmans’ righteous anger is a tonic in the therapeutic society of the twenty-first century, where one is relentlessly advised to “move on” and forget all manner of wrongs. Perhaps Amir Bar-Lev can succeed with understatement where Michael Moore has become a caricature with sloganeering.

It is encouraging, in this vein, that mainstream media reception of The Tillman Story has been uniformly positive and that the present Arizona State football coaches held a team screening of the film. By newspaper accounts, the young players were deeply impressed. “There’s more to the situation than people see,” linebacker Brandon Magee told the Arizona Republic. “I was surprised at how somebody can go away and fight for the United States, and [the government] can just lie to the family about what happened.”

The youngest of these players, however, were in elementary school in 2003 when Pat Tillman learned to hate the invasion of Iraq. To them, and to the ranks of similarly aged NFL fans, the Iraq war belongs to the past, as do the graying Rumsfeld and the generals whose faces have long since faded behind the aura of Gen. David Petraeus. President Barack Obama has declared an end to the “combat mission” in Iraq and, as therapist-in-chief, counseled Americans that “it’s time to turn the page” on the entire ill-starred endeavor. Not a soul has been held accountable by the Obama administration for the misdeeds that Kevin Tillman denounces; in fact, the administration is pursuing the war on terror on the ground and defending its legal edifice in court. The war in Afghanistan, meanwhile, still carries some of its sheen, because most of the American political spectrum perceived the original cause to be just. All of this background is eclipsed by the film’s focus on a magnetic personality and the Army’s deception of his likable family. It is worth recalling that narratives of good soldiers betrayed by governments, in the United States and elsewhere, have historically propped up the project of the populist right.

Absent elucidation of Tillman’s anti-war politics, The Tillman Story is at risk of becoming just that — one individual’s story, albeit one that is bracingly well told. There is something about Bar-Lev’s account, the brazenness of the cover-up, maybe, or the sickness of Lt. Col. Kauzlarich’s slander of the Tillmans, that makes the story seem exceptional. And, of course, Pat Tillman’s tale cannot be anything but an exception, given his NFL stardom. As the 2010 NFL season dawns, meanwhile, military pageantry at the colosseums of modern-day Rome will once again be the rule.

How to cite this article:

Chris Toensing "Autumn Soldier," Middle East Report 256 ( ).

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