Once again it has taken grieving relatives to point out that the Bush administration will exploit even a heroic death for its own partisan purposes.
As with the widows of Sept. 11 who demanded that our obfuscating leaders investigate what went wrong on that terrible day, or the wounded Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who resisted efforts to make her into some kind of Rambo figure, so relatives of late NFL star Pat Tillman are demanding to know why their celebrated war hero son’s death in 2004 was exploited for public relations purposes by the U.S. military and the administration.
“They blew up their poster boy,” Tillman’s father, Patrick, a San Jose lawyer, told the Washington Post last week. He joined his former wife to demand accountability for the latest military cover-up to happen on Commander in Chief Bush’s watch. High-ranking Army officials, he said, told “outright lies.”
“After it happened, all the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this,” Tillman said. “They purposely interfered with the investigation .... I think they thought they could control it, and they realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out.”
A devastating series of investigations and Post stories has shown that the Army’s command structure was eager to cover up the embarrassing truth: that Pat Tillman, who turned down a $3.6-million contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army Rangers after 9/11, was accidentally killed by his fellow Rangers while on patrol in Afghanistan a year ago.
Last spring, after months of increasingly damaging reports exposing the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and cover-up, the administration found some public relations relief in the sad, patriotic tale of a man who spurned fame and fortune to make “the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror,” in the words of a White House spokesman at the time. A nationally televised memorial service and a Silver Star commendation cemented Tillman’s place as the nation’s first war hero since the story of Lynch’s capture and phony details of her rescue were foisted on the public in 2003.
Now, thanks to the reporting of the Post and the fury of Tillman’s parents, we know that the military’s top commanders were covering up the truth to protect their image, and that of the Bush administration’s costly and deadly “nation-building” exercises in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Although “soldiers on the scene said they were immediately sure Tillman was killed by a barrage of American bullets,” according to the Post, and “a new Army report on the death shows that top Army officials, including the theater commander, Gen. John P. Abizaid, were told that Tillman’s death was fratricide days before the service,” Army officials decided not to inform Tillman’s family or the public until weeks after the memorial. And even then, they provided no details and answered no questions, saying only that friendly fire “probably” killed Tillman.
“The fact that he was the ultimate team player and he watched his own men kill him is absolutely heartbreaking and tragic,” Tillman’s mother, Mary, told the Post. “The fact that they lied about it afterward is disgusting.”
The soldiers on the ground said they burned Tillman’s bullet-riddled uniform and body armor, the Post reported, because they considered them a biohazard, and because, as one said, “we knew at the time, based on taking the pictures and walking around it, it was a fratricide.... so we weren’t thinking about proof or anything.”
So, given all this, why has nobody high in the Army chain of command, such as Abizaid, been held accountable for this cover-up?
Did President Bush know about it? If not, why not? After all, this was the most prominent soldier to die since Bush took office four years earlier, a prize recruit for his controversial spate of foreign invasions.
In any case, the White House has refrained from making any public apologies for the cover-up. Indeed, Mary Tillman said she was particularly offended that even after the facts were known, Bush exploited her son’s death with a message played before an Arizona Cardinal game last fall before the election.
“Maybe lying’s not a big deal anymore,” Patrick Tillman said. “Pat’s dead, and this isn’t going to bring him back. But these guys should have been held up to scrutiny, right up the chain of command, and no one has.”
For the Tillmans, as with Pfc. Lynch and the 9/11 widows, the path to true patriotism means confronting your government when it lies.