Family wages war with military to reveal truth of The Tillman Story

Reality of army ranger's death buried in lies

The documentary The Tillman Story explains that the U.S. military prefers the term "fratricide" to "friendly fire" to describe cases of American soldiers who fatally harm their fellow troops. Fratricide literally means the killing of one's brother, so the term implies a moral dimension to the death as not just a regrettable accident, but also a tragic betrayal of one's own blood.

The Tillman Story suggests that the sins against Army Ranger Pat Tillman did not end with his fratricide on an Afghan hillside. Pat famously walked away from an NFL contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The military made Pat an unwilling poster boy for military recruitment then buried the details of his death in spin, secrecy and outright fabrications.

American-born director Amir Bar-Lev titles his powerful film simply The Tillman Story, perhaps to signal that it's as much about the Tillman family's quest for truth as it is about Pat's life and death. Pat's divorced parents Dannie and Pat Sr., his brother Rich and wife Marie serve as enormously sympathetic, plainspoken people, earthy but dignified, who wage a David-vs.-Goliath battle against political expediency and entrenched military culture to honor their son's memory.

Interviews with his family and military colleagues reveal Pat as an extraordinary individual who embodied ideals prized by Americans, without fitting neatly into right- or left-wing narratives. Pat and his brother Kevin, a rising major league baseball player, enlisted together to serve their country, although Pat was reportedly disappointed that the army deployed them to the new conflict in Iraq rather than Afghanistan. Tillman's Iraqi tour of duty overlapped with the "rescue" of injured Private Jessica Lynch. The discrepancy of the official story of Lynch shooting at Iraqis until she ran out of ammo, when she never fired her weapon, gives The Tillman Story a kind of opening act about military stage management and media manipulation.

Throughout the film, the Tillmans' conversational f-bombs serve as a running reminder that the family won't fit a Norman Rockwell/campaign video stereotype. A fellow soldier recalls Pat as saying, "This war is just fucking illegal" in Iraq. Pat's last reported words, in the face of confused gunfire from members of his own company, were "I'm Pat fucking Tillman!" At a televised funeral service, his brother Rich punctured pious eulogies by taking the podium, beer in hand, saying, "Pat isn't with God. He's fucking dead."

At the service, an officer repeats a false story of Pat being shot down by enemy combatants, although this account seems to have quickly unraveled. The army acknowledged Pat's death by fratricide, but avoided going into detail and sent the Tillmans thousands of pages of redacted documents. With help of veteran/activist blogger Stan Goff, Dannie pored over blacked-out transcripts and filled in the blanks about the events surrounding Pat's death. After years of stonewalling, lawyer Pat Sr. sent the U.S. government a letter alluding to obstruction of justice and concluding, "In sum: Fuck you ... and yours." Ironically, the government reopened inquiries following the receipt of that letter.

The Tillman Story seldom mentions Pat's brother and fellow ranger Kevin, except to identify him in proximity to Pat. (Of all the film's subjects, Kevin doesn't get a "Where is he now?" title at the end.) Kevin's conspicuous by his absence until he appears to address a U.S. House Reform and Oversight Committee hearing about the fratricide. When Kevin talks to the congressmen, he seems not only to speak for Pat, but embody him.

Bar-Lev uses topographical maps and a video visit to the Afghan canyon where Pat was killed to repeat the circumstances of the shooting, which seems a result of fear, panic, mistaken identity and misdirected blood lust. The film's not entirely clear about whether the Tillmans continue to pursue additional information about Pat's death, or focus on holding Pentagon and defense department officials (particularly Donald Rumsfeld) accountable for the cover-up.

My Running Dialogue podcast co-host Matt Goldberg pointed out the irony that The Tillman Story vigorously objects to the Bush administration's misleading glorification of Pat Tillman, while the film idealizes him in its own more nuanced way. Greek dramatist Aeschylus is attributed as saying that "In war, truth is the first casualty." The Tillman Story indicates that truth is one of the few casualties that can be brought back to life, as long as civilians are willing to challenge authority in its name. C