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Film Review

The Tillman Story

We want competence and integrity from our government. We often excuse incompetence and sometimes expect lack of integrity, but coverups and outright lying are destructive to our democracy. Sadly, our government has all to often lied to the public about important events, often on the grounds of national security. Frequently, national security reasons are advanced to conceal misdoings and incompetence that would be embarrassing, or even outright crimes. The Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964, whose distortion and lies led us directly into the Vietnam War, is a prime example. The exaggeration, and later, lies about Saddam Hussein's involvement in the 9/11attack and his supposed nuclear ambitions, led us directly into a war in which we are still mired after nearly 8 years. Often, the lying to conceal constitutes a second crime. We need only think of the Catholic Church's response to generations of pedophilia. The concealment itself always damages the institution worse than simply admitting, punishing, and apologizing for the original crime. A new documentary film, The Tillman Story, chronicles the disturbing history of years of lies and coverups in the death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan in 2004.

Pat Tillman, born and reared in the Bay Area, was a talented NFL football player, with a multi-million dollars contract, who decided to enlist shortly after the Twin Towers were destroyed. He had two brothers, one of whom, Kevin, enlisted with him. Both went into the Army Rangers, a elite division of the Army known for their rugged training and risky missions. After an initial deployment to Iraq, their unit was redeployed to Afghanistan. Shortly after arriving in Afghanistan, Tillman's platoon, which included his brother, was sent on a recon mission to a remote mountainous area. During the operation, the platoon was ordered to split in half, with the first half getting through a narrow canyon without opposition. But the second half of the platoon, which consisted of 4 heavily gunned humvees, believed that they were being fired on. They began firing back, and emerging from the canyon, spotted Tillman and others, who were now dismounted, walking back to investigate the firing. Tillman and another man were shot at very close range by their own men. Friendly fire (an oxymoron) killed Pat Tillman, like many others, in every war. But then the coverup and lying began.

The men with Tillman were immediately ordered to tell no one what happened. Even Kevin Tillman, who was in the rear of the convoy, and arrived just a few minutes after Pat was killed, was not told it was friendly fire. Tillman's uniform, diary, and body armor were burned, a medical report and autopsy were fabricated, all to help conceal the circumstances of his death. His death was reported as a result of an ambush by 10-20 Taliban, he was labeled a hero who died protecting his men, and awarded the Silver Star. Tillman's death shook the nation and made headline news for days. Even President Bush made a lengthy televised statement. But a month later, word began to leak out that he had been killed in a friendly fire incident. The Army began an investigation, and finally, after months, conceded that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire, a consequence of the "fog of war". But they denied that the initial report of his death in an ambush was a deliberate attempt to conceal the truth. The Army ultimately released 3000 pages of heavily redacted reports and testimony to the Tillman family.

Pat Tillman's mother, Mary, began to read through this material, became increasingly suspicious of the gaps and contradictions, and became obsessed with discovering the truth about her son's death. Stan Goff, who had been in Special Forces and other semi-secret Army units, and wrote an Army related blog, read about Tillman's death. Goff became interested and helped Mary Tillman interpret the reports and fill in the many blanks (literally). The more they looked the more they found major inconsistencies. For instance, the rationale given for the burning of Pat's uniform and diary was that they were "biohazards". The medical report said that Tillman has been given CPR at the aid station, but Tillman's team members said that his head had been destroyed and he had died instantly. The report of the "ambush" said that Tillman was shot from 200 yards away, but the man who was only a few yards away from him said that the shooters were less than 40 yards away. The press reported on the admission that it was friendly fire, but initially never raised the issue of whether the rush to make Tillman a hero was in fact a diversion from the ugly truth of death by his own comrades and an attempt to exploit that death for political ends. Ultimately a second investigation was done, this time with the Army blaming a recently retired general, Kensinger, who had headed up the Ranger command, with negligence and failure to thoroughly investigate. Again, no conclusion that any of this was deliberate, but the Army did apologize to the Tillmans for misreporting the cause of death.

The Tillman family, by now, was enraged and didn't trust the Army. They were convinced that their son's death was being exploited for politics. One general even opined that the Tillmans couldn't get over their son's death because they didn't have faith in God. Then, a source sent them a secret e-mail from General Kensinger, who five days after Tillman's death, had warned senior command that his death was most likely from friendly fire. The recipients of this memo included senior generals in the Pentagon, plus Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense. The father sent a scathing letter to the Army command, with copies to various congressman. In 2007 a congressional hearing was held, with Rumsfeld and the four most senior generals in the chain of command testifying. Although the generals denied any coverup, in five hours of questioning they answered "I do not recall" 82 times. From the clips of the hearing, it was clear that Congress did not have the stomach to press the Army. The press covered these hearings, but few questioned whether the coverup was deliberate, to say nothing of lying. None of the press pursued their own investigations.

With this tragic story, the death of a football star who forfeited millions to put himself in harm's way, and what looks like the Army's coverup and lying, Amir Bar-Lev, a Berkeley, California, director, has fashioned a very powerful and persuasive documentary film. In only 94 minutes, Bar-Lev tells the story of Pat Tillman's life, death, and in a sense, his life after death. The family cooperated with Bar-Lev, and the often moving on camera interviews with Tillman's parents, his brothers, and his wife, show us just how complex a person Tillman was. He was a risk taker from an early age, which his father encouraged. He was an atheist, but respected all religions, was patriotic, but a quiet patriotism, not a flag waver. After his first deployment to Iraq, he became convinced that the war was a mistake, and possibly a crime. A natural leader, his men admired and loved him. Tillman was well read, from Emerson to Chomsky. He was quiet, rarely offered opinions publicly, and never expressed his reasons for joining the Army. He was offered an opportunity to rejoin his football team after his Iraq deployment, but refused because he had committed to a full three years. Tillman seems right out of the Woody Guthrie lyrics "the worst of men will fight, and the best of men must die". Pat Tillman had enormous integrity and courage, and surely more than those officers who either outright lied or dissembled. Bar-Lev's haunting film is very accomplished, riveting in a unsentimental, yet powerful way, making a statement about Pat Tillman, and about America. Yet this is not a preachy or anti-Bush work. The Tillman Story is an important film, and every American should see it. No one will leave without a sense of outrage and shame. Playing at the Century (Mission Street) for this week (and possibly longer), and at the Kabuki beginning Friday, 9/10.

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