The fierce war over Pat Tillman
Pat Tillman, unlikely football hero and unlikelier warrior, went to Afghanistan and got accidentally wasted by the men in his own Ranger platoon. It happens. Among the many shadows Jon Krakauer illuminates in his compelling and dispiriting book, “Where Men Win Glory,” is the commonness of fratricide in high-tech warfare. Thus the military’s bleak poetry of misadventure: FUBAR, SNAFU, Charlie-Fox.
But the story here isn’t Tillman’s unexceptional death, or exceptional life for that matter, but what Krakauer sees as a political crime committed by the Bush administration’s propaganda machine as it tried to make Tillman a martyr in the global war on terror.
Tillman saw it coming. In a moment of foreboding, he said to a friend: “I don’t want them to parade me through the streets.” And yet that’s exactly what happened.
From the day Tillman enlisted in June 2002, the Pentagon’s perception managers coveted his story: the granite-chinned NFL star who walked away from millions to fight for his country after 9/11. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- who had opened the clandestine Office of Strategic Influence in October 2001 and was the Pentagon’s most enthusiastic propagandist -- sent Tillman a laudatory note and advised Secretary of the Army Thomas White to “keep an eye on him.”
Frustratingly, Tillman wouldn’t cooperate. He refused requests for media interviews and quietly disappeared into the enlisted ranks of the Army’s elite Rangers.
Krakauer -- whose forensic studies of the Emersonian Man in books such as “Into Thin Air” and ‘Into the Wild” yield so much insight -- has turned in a beautiful bit of reporting, documenting Tillman’s life with journals and interviews with those close to him. And yet a full understanding of Tillman’s motivations eludes Krakauer, and us.
Why did Tillman walk away from his fortune-kissed life? Yes, honor and duty; yes, family tradition -- Tillman’s great-grandfather served at Pearl Harbor. His younger brother, Kevin Tillman, enlisted with Pat and served in the same Ranger platoon; indeed, Pat thought his brother was under fire in the engagement in Khost province where he died.
But these things, honor and duty, are the virtues in which male aggression often cloaks itself. Honor and duty could have just as easily obliged Tillman to resist the war in Iraq, which he called “illegal as hell” and an act of “imperial whim.”
It’s clear that Tillman had a certain moral vanity. In a journal, Tillman writes: “My honor will not allow me to create a life of beauty and peace but sends me off to order and conformity. My life becomes everything I’m not. . . . I follow some philosophy I barely understand. . . .”
Perhaps the closest to the bone Krakauer gets is a borrowed quote from Nietzsche: “I love him who makes his virtue his addiction and his catastrophe. . . .”
Within hours of Tillman’s death on April 22, 2004, the propaganda apparatus of the Pentagon and Bush White House swung into high gear. According to Krakauer, “approximately 200" e-mails raced among staffers, some discussing the political leverage to be gained in the Tillman affair. The next day, the White House released a sober tribute to the fallen hero.
By April 25, the Army Chief of Staff’s Office of Public Affairs was gloating about the “extremely positive” stories in the national media, noting that interest in the Army was higher than it had been “since the end of active combat last year.”
Meanwhile, the 2nd Ranger Battalion was expediting the paperwork to award Tillman a Silver Star -- the nation’s third highest award for valor -- using two falsified eyewitness accounts of the incident.
The fact that Tillman had been killed by his own comrades shooting in a wild panic, and that everyone up and down the chain of command knew it, scarcely mattered. Washington was set upon a “G.I. Joe” narrative: Tillman died while charging uphill toward the enemy, attempting to lay down covering fire for men caught in a Taliban ambush.
The historical context that Krakauer provides is important here. At the time of Tillman’s death, the American public’s mood was souring on the war in Iraq. It was increasingly evident that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and that U.S. forces had unleashed the genie of civil war. On April 28, CBS’ “60 Minutes” ran the story about the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Meanwhile, U.S. Marines were engaged in a fierce rear-guard action as they attempted to withdraw from Fallouja.
Rumsfeld and his image generals needed a win. Tillman’s death gave it to them.
Indeed, they were following a script. On March 23, 2003, a U.S. Army maintenance convoy bumbled into the military city of Nasiriyah, Iraq. In the ensuing chaos, the Humvee that Private Jessica Lynch was riding in crashed, and she was badly hurt. Iraqi forces took her to a nearby civilian hospital and on the night of April 1 a Special Ops team mounted a rescue (which was conveniently videotaped).
The subsequent story of Private Lynch -- “a petite blond supply clerk [who] fearlessly mows down Fedayeen terrorists with her M16 until she runs out of ammo, whereupon she is shot, stabbed, captured, tortured and raped” -- was concocted by Jim Wilkinson, a Bush loyalist who was pulling double-duty as the director of the Office of Strategic Communications for Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in the Iraq-Afghanistan theater. Wilkinson fed the story to the Washington Post among others and, as Krakauer says, “sat back, and watched his fabulation go viral.”
It would take many months before the true story of Lynch’s ordeal became public, but by then it didn’t matter. War fever had been stoked. Operation Iraqi Freedom had rolled on.
The lessons learned in the Lynch affair -- the initial bogus story carries vastly more weight in public opinion than the eventual corrective -- was applied to the Tillman case with a vengeance. Also at work was the deep reluctance on the part of the military -- any military -- to admit to friendly fire.
“When Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan,” Krakauer writes, “his Ranger regiment responded with a chorus of prevarication and disavowal. A cynical cover-up sanctioned at the highest levels of the government, followed by a series of inept official investigations, cast a cloud of bewilderment and shame over the tragedy, compounding the tragedy of Tillman’s death.”
It would take three years for a semblance of the truth to come out and even then the Army allowed only that Tillman was “probably” killed by friendly fire. “No one has found evidence of a conspiracy by the Army to fabricate a hero, deceive the public or mislead the Tillman family about the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death,” Secretary of the Army Pete Geren told the media in 2007.
Krakauer’s book, which must be counted as the definitive version of events surrounding Tillman’s death, reveals Geren’s statement to be a lie, plain and simple. And yet as Aeschylus said, “In war, Truth is the first casualty.”