Tillman’s True Tragedy

Although I had some thoughts at the time, I thought it would be churlish to question the decision of Pat Tillman, in his fourth year as a linebacker for the NFL Arizona Cardinals, with a $3.6 million contract, to give up professional sports and enlist in the Army Rangers after the 9/11 attacks. Although he had made a decision I would not have made, even if I were his age, I presumed he had his reasons, and as the owner of his own life he certainly had the right to put it at risk.

As somebody who played football in high school and college – at least through my freshman year, after which the coaches advised me (trying to make it as a 165-pound lineman) of something I already knew, that I was unlikely to be a successful varsity player and it might be prudent to concentrate on academics and beer – and a huge fan of the game still, I don’t have the disdain for athletes that some do. My own experience suggests that there aren’t a lot of deep thinkers out there on the gridiron. However, I also know that mastering a playbook requires a certain degree of raw intelligence, and staying at it (especially when most of the other players are bigger, stronger, and more athletic than you, but also even when you have athletic gifts) takes some combination of foolhardiness and grit that is not entirely unadmirable. No matter how good you are, you can’t play football without experiencing some pain or embarrassment at making mistakes or boneheaded plays. Continuing in the face of even minor adversity takes something.

Whatever his reasons, however thoughtfully he had approached the decision, Pat Tillman made his own decision. After he made the decision, he purposely kept a low profile, resisting the impulse some in the media and many among the superficially patriotic had to turn him into a hero and a role model to be lauded and lionized. This increased my respect for him. As it turns out, he does seem to have been an unusual and, on balance, admirable young man.

Sports Illustrated writer Tim Layden, who interviewed him at length while he was in college and the Pac-10 defensive player of the year, wrote that he was unusually honest and “the type of football player who performed fully without regard for his body. He played at 100 percent of his speed, power and passion 100 percent of the time. That quality is indescribably rare. He was also able to use his brain as effectively as his body. Coaches who told him something had to do so only once.”

Death in Afghanistan

When Pat Tillman was killed in a firefight in Afghanistan last April, while his decision to put himself in Uncle Sam’s service seemed to me sadly tragic, even wasteful, he made his decision and he paid the ultimate price for it. Though I felt no temptation to lionize or idealize him, it seemed best to let him and his memory rest in peace. It also turned out, as people found during his memorial services in San Jose, that he hardly fit the stereotype of a gung-ho patriotic jock. As Gwen Knapp noted in a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, he read widely, thought about what he read, and was eager to engage others in discussions about serious matters. He asked his coach at Arizona State if he would coach gays, and was pleased to hear that he would and did. At the memorial, his youngest brother Rich “asked mourners to hold their spiritual bromides”:

“Pat isn’t with God. He’s f––ing dead. He wasn’t religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he’s f—ing dead.”

It seemed all the more tragic. This sounded like a person you would like to hoist a few brews with.

The curt acknowledgment on May 29, by Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger, Jr., at Fort Bragg, N.C., that Tillman was “probably” killed by “friendly fire” – one of those astoundingly presumptuous military euphemisms that means killed by people on one’s own side – didn’t make me want to lament Tillman in public either. People are killed in all kinds of ways in war. It used to be that disease killed more soldiers than enemies did, and accidental killings by one’s own side have been part of war for millennia. It made the death a little sadder, however.

Probable Pentagon Cover-Up

This week, however, more information has come out about just how Cpl. Tillman died and how the Army responded, and it does seem appropriate to comment. The Washington Post ran a piece Sunday that explained a great deal more than we had known before.

“Dozens of witness statements, e-mails, investigation findings, logbooks, maps, and photographs obtained by The Washington Post show that Tillman died unnecessarily,” wrote the Post‘s Steve Coll, “after botched communications, a mistaken decision to split his platoon over the objections of its leader, and negligent shooting by pumped-up young Rangers – some in their first firefight – who failed to identify their targets as they blasted their way out of a frightening ambush. The records show Tillman fought bravely and honorably until his last breath. They also show that his superiors exaggerated his actions and invented details as they burnished his legend in public, at the same time suppressing details that might tarnish Tillman’s commanders.”

Briefly, after a Humvee broke down, the platoon was ordered to split up, with Tillman’s half going on ahead to put “boots on the ground” in the little town of Manah. The other half of the platoon followed on the same road, which was not the original plan. Because of the terrain, they lost radio contact. When an explosion went off, they figured they were under attack by Taliban insurgents and fired back. It turned out the two halves of the platoon were firing at one another. Tillman was killed. The Army knew this almost immediately, but didn’t tell the family and didn’t release the information publicly (and then curtly, with no questions answered) until more than a month later.

As a Post story Monday related, the Army preferred “a distorted and incomplete narrative.” The public release “made no mention of friendly fire, even though at the time it was issued, investigators in Afghanistan had already taken at least 14 sworn statements from Tillman’s platoon members that made clear the true causes of his death. The statements included a searing account from the Ranger nearest Tillman during the firefight, who quoted him as shouting ‘Cease fire! Friendlies!’ with his last breath.”

In the documents the Post was able to obtain, the names of lower-ranking Rangers who made mistakes were listed, and some seem to have been disciplined. The names of higher-ups were redacted. We don’t know who the higher-up was who gave the order – from a distance and by radio, perhaps not appreciating the situation on the ground – to split the platoon up.

Angry Family

The plot thickened further with a Los Angeles Times story Monday suggesting, based on interviews with Afghan witnesses, that there weren’t even Afghan insurgents around – that there was an explosion (perhaps set off by insurgents), but no enemy gunfire. The two halves of the platoon, by these accounts, started firing at one another, each half thinking the other was the enemy.

Perhaps most unsettling in the Times story was the way the Pentagon treated the Tillman family. “Tillman’s parents say the military has deceived them and stonewalled their attempts to find out how their son died. Although the Tillmans believe the Rangers who shot their son had been fired on by insurgents, they also say the Pentagon has tried to cover up deadly mistakes and negligence that night.”

“‘I’m disgusted by things that have happened with the Pentagon since my son’s death. I don’t trust them one bit,’ Mary Tillman said in a telephone interview last week from her home in San Jose.” Mary Tillman thinks the military burned her son’s uniform to cover up the circumstances of his death. The family didn’t learn that friendly fire was even suspected until weeks later. Patrick’s’ father “has been frustrated by what he described as deception and inconsistent statements by the Pentagon.”

Honor Where Due

None of the information that has come out – and surely we are quite a bit short of knowing the whole story – seems to deprecate Pat Tillman’s personal courage and sense of honor and duty. One wonders, however, whether the story will resonate with others who might be thinking of making similar decisions. The desire to fight back against terrorism, even to serve one’s country in time of dire need is commendable. But those who think of volunteering should be mindful that their sacrifices might well be used by cynical or fearful higher-ups who will consider the good of the Army more important than the bravery of the soldier or the truth that should be owed to the bereaved.

As Ambivablog, who has chronicled this story admirably, put it, “[W]ar is ugly and messy, and we desperately need to believe it is noble and glorious. Without the mortician’s makeup job, would any democratic public support any war?”

Pat Tillman’s story illustrates once again that, to a great extent, war is about old men sending gallant and brave young men to die, often for causes that are less than noble or even well-thought-out.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).