The Tillman story

Last Updated: August 9, 2011By Tags: ,

In a Boston Phoenix interview with director Amir Bar-Lev Peter Keough asks “I was reading that you had your own Pat Tillman for a while there. That he was sort of this subversive lefty.” The director replies, “Oh yeah, I said that on one occasion. . . . It’s the way that everybody who admires Pat Tillman also kind of wants to own him for themselves.” It may seem ungrateful to complain about “The Tillman Story” when it gives us so much to think about with regard to Pat Tillman the man, the workings of the U.S. military and our own culture’s yearning for heroes. But Bar-Lev’s breezy side-stepping of his earlier statement about Tillman’s possible subversiveness plays fast and loose with the material he presents in his film. What we see there suggests that the filmmaker did not follow the journalistic dictum ‘go where your evidence takes you.’

For the movie’s interviews and information point inescapably to the conclusion that Tillman was murdered, not by ‘friendly fire’ or in ‘the fog of war’ but knowingly and intentionally. A calamitous story unfolds about a platoon split in two, with one part, led by Tillman, advancing, and the other circling behind, until it catches up with the first and platoon members machine-gun Tillman to death. The interviews show that he was murdered by people who ate with him and slept with him, who must have recognized him while they shot at him, since they shot from a plain-sight distance of forty yards away and while he shouted to identify himself to them, “I’m Pat Tillman. I’m Pat fucking Tillman.”

Some reports on the Internet quote doctors who examined Tillman’s body after his death as saying that Tillman was shot from as close as ten yards away and that the bullets did not hit his body randomly, as might be expected in the fog of war, but were aimed specifically at his head. Some sites suggest that a U.S. government sniper was planted in Tillman’s unit specifically to kill him. It’s not clear why the doctors who were prevented from filing a report about their findings were not interviewed in Bar-Lev’s film, but perhaps they were unwilling or unable to make themselves available to him. Almost certainly there was no one available to interview about the sniper theory.

But what it seems cannot be gainsaid, based on the interviews that Bar-Lev did obtain, is that Tillman was murdered intentionally. How else to explain the fact that he was shot with such deliberateness, according to testimony from platoon-mate Private Bryan O’Neal who crouched next to him, that his head was severed from his body and he was decapitated?

In light of this testimony, it’s puzzling that the film includes no footage of Bar-Lev interviewing the platoon mates about the atmosphere in the unit and the attitude of other unit members towards Tillman. In any event, the question that seems inevitable is: Why did Tillman’s platoon mates want to kill him? There is a sense of mystery here that brings to mind Iago’s speech about Cassio in Act 5 of Othello, ‘He hath a daily beauty in his life/That makes me ugly.’ Tillman’s natural grace comes through in every frame in which he appears, and grace of that kind can inspire generalized but deadly envy. But there is also, as was bruited about the Internet, the possibility that he was killed because he no longer believed in the war and the U.S. military could not tolerate the thought that Tillman might come home from Afghanistan an acutely embarrassing anti-war spokesman.

Testimony given in the film shows that when Tillman came home from his first tour of duty, he confessed to having become disillusioned with the war in Iraq. Another piece of information about Tillman that emerges in the film is that prominent war critic Noam Chomsky was among the authors he studied. A web search revealed that Tillman had made plans to meet with Chomsky after his Afghanistan tour, which Chomsky confirmed. Chomsky’s is another interview that could have immeasurably enriched this movie.

Another mistake that Bar-Lev makes is to become spokesperson for the Tillman family. Instead, the family should have been included in the same kind of usually probing investigative interviews that the filmmaker conducted with others. Bar-Lev seemingly accepts at face value Tillman’s mother’s anger at the military for having lied about her son, without drawing her out.

But in our time, a certain level of government deceit and cynicism have, sadly, come to be expected. Surely it is the nature of the lie told by the government that so deeply galls and aggrieves Mary ‘Dannie’ Tillman and the rest of the family. The filmmaker might have asked her, ‘what precisely was so upsetting about the generals’ lying?’ If Bar-Lev had put this question, the meaning for us of the military’s exploitation of Tillman in death would have become explicit, rather than oblique, as it is now in the movie. Dannie Tillman’s son was murdered a second time by being turned into an icon of heroism for a cause in which he no longer had faith. That is the lie at the heart of Tillman’s story: a grievous double extinction of his life.