The Pat Tillman saga

tillmanFrom Sunday’s NY Times Book Review:

Most everyone, at least in the United States, is familiar with the basic facts: [Pat] Tillman, a free-thinking, hard-hitting safety for the Arizona Cardinals, walked away from a multimillion-dollar contract after 9/11 to enlist in the Army. He joined an elite unit, the Rangers, and was killed on April 22, 2004, in a canyon in eastern Afghanistan. The story did not end there: Tillman’s commanders and possibly officials in the Bush administration suppressed that he had been killed accidentally by his own comrades. They publicly lionized Tillman as a hero who died fighting the enemy and fed the phony account even to Tillman’s grieving family. The sordid truth, or most of it, came out later.

. . . Tillman was very much his own man: he wore his hair to his shoulders, rode his bicycle to training camp each morning and “never went anywhere without a book.”But after the 9/11 attacks, Tillman found his professional life suddenly hollow. “Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful,” he wrote in May 2002. “However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I’ve come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is. . . . It’s no longer important.”

So Tillman said goodbye to the N.F.L., to stardom and to the three-year, $3.6 million contract the Cardinals had offered him to stay. In deciding to enlist, he moved hard against the grain of contemporary wartime America, which demands extraordinary sacrifice from a few while asking almost nothing of everyone else.

. . . Once Tillman lands in Afghanistan, though, Krakauer’s narrative lifts off. The death of Tillman is handled deftly — and sad it is, the end of a series of errors and misjudgments, some of which border on the criminal. During a mission to search villages, one of the Humvees in Tillman’s platoon broke down. An officer back at headquarters ordered the platoon to split up: half to tow the Humvee to the base, the other to search the villages. The platoon leader objected — splitting his platoon in a hostile area rendered his men vulnerable — but he was ordered to proceed.From there, the disaster unfolded. The units went off in different directions, but then, the one towing the Humvee thought it had found an easier route and doubled back, only to come under attack from Taliban insurgents. Tillman and others from the first unit raced to the rescue — and were fired on by their fellow soldiers in the second unit, who mistook them for the enemy. Tillman was shot three times in the head by a machine-gunner; an Afghan government soldier was also killed, and two other Americans were wounded. Tillman’s brother Kevin — the brothers enlisted together — was in the unit that killed Pat, but his weapon, a grenade launcher, had jammed. He never got off a shot.

While most of the facts have been re­ported before, Krakauer performs a valuable service by bringing them all together — particularly those about the cover-up. The details, even five years later, are nauseating to read: After Tillman’s death, Army commanders, aided and abetted by members of the Bush administration, violated many of their own rules, not to mention elementary standards of decency, to turn the killing into a propaganda coup for the American side. Tillman’s clothing and notebooks were burned — a flouting of Army regulations — and he was fast-tracked for a posthumous Silver Star, which, as Krakauer shows, was a fraud. Members of his unit were ordered to stay silent about the manner of his death. Even part of Tillman’s body disappeared. Most important, Army commanders went to great lengths to keep the facts of Tillman’s death a secret and allowed the story that he died at the hands of the Taliban to flourish. The low point came at his memorial service, where he was lionized before television cameras, while officials who knew the truth stayed quiet.

Krakauer doesn’t nail down precisely who gave the initial order to conceal the manner of Tillman’s death, but he demonstrates conclusively that the White House was happy to peddle the story that he’d been killed by enemy fire. It makes sense: at the time of Tillman’s death, the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq was dominating the news. In any case, the slipshod way the Army investigated Tillman’s death is part of Krakauer’s story.

Oddly enough, Tillman himself suspected that, if he were killed, the Army might try to turn him into a poster boy. And he wanted nothing to do with it. As Tillman told an Army friend: “I don’t want them to parade me through the streets.”

If only he’d gotten his wish.

  • Jeremy

    RIP Pat Tillman. You are the hero we dream of becoming when we are kids but most of us lack the courage you obviously had. You will always be remembered as a hero who choose the path that is right vs. the path that is easy.

  • Bodhi

    To Pat and his family:
    Although I doubt that Pat would have considered himself a hero for his decisions, know that many of us on the outside looking in feel that way, and will be forever greatful for the example set by this extraordinary individual.

  • Disraeli

    Looking at things another way, the value to the country of the tax he would have paid on his multi-million dollar contract would probably outweigh his value as a soldier.

  • beermotor

    While one can admire his desire to sacrifice (and in his case, it became the ultimate one) for what he believed to be right, I can’t help but feel that constantly tossing around the “hero” label at/to kids slaughtered in combat obscures the fact that, at least in this Age of Democracies, war has never served to protect anyone from anything. Quite the opposite; it kills a lot of people for no reason at all. I’m with C.S. Lewis in that (I think) sacrifice for a cause you believe to be good and true, even if it’s a crappy cause that’s really false and wrong, is (probably) a net good to humanity. As for those who attempted to co-opt his sacrifice for their own ends, well – they were the architects of the whole deal to begin with, should we be surprised? I don’t think so. I suppose we just have to hope and pray that justice ends up being served in the end.

  • Venice Beach John

    Krakauer’s Into The Wild is one of my favorites so I’ve been looking forward to giving this read a try.

    This is of course a huge week for the publishing industry with Krakauer’s Tillman story coming out the same week as Dan Brown’s new book and Ted Kennedy’s memoir “True Compass.”

  • Kristian

    I have no faith in journo’s and I certainly have no faith that this journalist will do a good job of telling Tillman’s story. In any event, I am disgusted by what I suspect to be the truth’s around this story and I doubted the official version of events that came out at the time.

    But I don’t believe Tillman was naive enough to think that he would not be exploited, live or die. That is just part and parcel of joining the military. If anything, I am sick of hearing about this story because people are STILL exploiting him. In this case, to condemn the war and the past administration and to bury what ever other hatchets they might have. Tillman was a man. He died in service of his country. He is no better or worse then hundred’s of thousands of other men who have died for this country. Let’s move on.

  • Jeff

    Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” is a powerfully told and compelling book about a famous climbing disaster on Mount Everest in 1996. This book promises to be just as good. Tillman deserved that his story be told as accurately and honestly as possible.

  • Mr.Murder

    Tillman’s younger bro eulogized him and was in essence given media blackballing treatment for his own questioning of the narrative that was pushed by the White house at the time.

  • MadDog

    What Disraeli said!

    Soldiering is a business of the poor. Hah!
    When would the next Roman Empire fall?

  • Gabe

    The government lies. It doesn’t matter if it is a Republican in office or a Democrat….both parties lie to expand their power.