Thursday, September 16, 2010

The story behind Pat Tillman's death

Like most red-blooded American men, I enjoy professional football – the games at least. But I could do without the kind of hype that tries to beef up the sport's propagandistic playbook with references to God, patriotism and military service.

A page from that particular book received a mighty turn in 2004 when Pat Tillman, a star strong safety for the Arizona Cardinals, was killed in action in Afghanistan. Tillman, who gave up professional football to volunteer for the Army after 9/11, already had served in Iraq, and the initial reaction of the Army was to turn its fallen hero into a poster boy for patriotic myth-making.

But the truth about Tillman’s death tended to undermine its legend-building potential. Not long after Tillman died, it was revealed that he was killed by friendly fire. And the more details Tillman's family turned up, the less it seemed as if Tillman’s demise resulted from some unavoidable fog-of-war chaos.

An uglier and far less comprehensible picture began to emerge: Tillman’s death may have been the tragic consequence of actions taken by overzealous Rangers who ignored Tillman’s repeated attempts to identify himself as a U.S. soldier. Tillman’s mom pushed – and then pushed harder – to obtain the real story behind her son's death..

All of this emerges in the documentary The Tillman Story, and you can draw your own conclusions about whether the case for extreme negligence has been made. Inescapable, though, is the reality of Tillman’s life: He didn’t believe in God and had come to think of the Iraq war as a waste. He also was a man of honor, who insisted on fulfilling his military commitment.

By the end of director Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary, Tillman stands out as a unique individual, an athlete who could level opposing players, but who hardly fit the dumb-jock mold.

Bar-Lev’s documentary isn’t without weaknesses, nor does it paint everyone in the Tillman camp in a flattering light. (Tillman’s youngest brother’s outburst at a memorial service may have been honest, but seemed lacking in both good timing and taste).

Whatever you conclude about Tillman's death, you'll find a documentary that shows how a man who responded to the call of duty became a victim of the very machine he honored with his service. Bar-Lev’s documentary helps ensure that Pat Tillman will be remembered as a complicated man – not as anyone’s symbol of anything, and that alone makes it a real success. Anyone who bothered to take an honest look should have know that Tillman never could have been pigeonholed.

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