The real story of Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire
Now we know at least one reason Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll is quitting at the end of the year to focus on writing. His brilliant investigation of former football star Pat Tillman‘s death by friendly fire in Afghanistan last spring leads the Post this morning.
In the first of two parts of “In the Kill Zone: The Unnecessary Death of Pat Tillman,” Coll writes that
Tillman died unnecessarily 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.
Brings to mind the late Stanley Kubrick, who knew how to make films about the military, like his Full Metal Jacket (1987). But 30 years before that one, Kubrick really nailed the political shenanigans of wartime myth-making with Paths of Glory (1957), a riveting tale of evil military commanders protecting their image and careers by twisting the facts and sacrificing their own soldiers.
To add even more of a sense of futility and waste to the sad story of the NFL player’s death, please note that Pakistan has now basically given up on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, according to strongman Pervez Musharraf, who come to the U.S. this past week for some glad-handing with the Bush regime. You can also read that story in this morning’s Washington Post. The paper’s Robin Wright and Peter Baker write that George W. Bush is “very pleased” with Pakistan’s hunt for bin Laden. This is despite Musharaff’s admission, concerning bin Laden, to the paper’s editors and reporters:
He is alive, but more than that, where he is, no, it’ll be just a guess, and it won’t have much basis.
Gee, do you suppose that the tragically bungled search for bin Laden may have something to do with the fact that we diverted our own efforts from Afghanistan to Iraq when we decided that one country had oil reserves and the other didn’t? Maybe if we hadn’t pulled forces out of still-chaotic Afghanistan, Pat Tillman wouldn’t have been surrounded by green troops and he would still be alive.
Next thing you know, the administration will tell us that U.S. soldiers leveled Fallujah only because someone had spotted bin Laden peddling WMD-laced goat meat in the local bazaar.
The facts aren’t getting in the way of myth-making and public relations. What we know is that Pat Tillman gave up his lucrative NFL career a couple of years ago, and he and younger brother Kevin Tillman enlisted in the Rangers in spring of 2002. Less than a year later, Pat Tillman was sent to Iraq. And then to Afghanistan. And then he was stupidly killed there, through no fault of his own, apparently. All that time, Tillman firmly rejected any attempt to capitalize on what he was doing, from all accounts. His path to glory, if that’s what he had in mind, was strictly personal. He never called attention to himself.
That didn’t stop the government and the NFL from continually trying to score brownie points with the public by invoking his name—as in this story last month from the Pentagon press service, “NFL Continues Strong Support of U.S. Military.” After quoting NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue invoking Tillman’s name a number of times, the story adds:
The NFL also supports America’s military through public-service tributes during NFL game commercial breaks, Tagliabue noted. A new spot, he observed, salutes the important roles played by the Guard and Reserve forces and their families. More military support, he said, is slated for the post-season NFL playoffs and during the Super Bowl.
Anything to stoke imperialistic fervor. Just like Donald Rumsfeld‘s speech last September 10 at the National Press Club in D.C., in which the SecDef said:
The Pakistan government is a staunch and courageous ally against extremism and terrorism. And a few short years after Osama bin Laden ridiculed the American soldier as a paper tiger, saying that after a few blows, they run in defeat, the names of Todd Beamer and Pat Tillman, and so many other brave Americans, live as symbols of our country’s courage and determination.
Don’t pay attention to that kind of meaningless, self-serving bullshit from bosses like Rumsfeld and Tagliabue. Steve Coll is well aware of what can happen when even well-intentioned humans rise to the top of bureaucracies. As he said last August in announcing he was stepping down as a boss at the Post:
I was not unhappy in my job . . . [but] there are certain aspects of management no sane person would enjoy.
The saneness of Coll’s decision is confirmed by his story this morning, which includes this passage in which a fellow Ranger described the closing scene of Tillman’s life last April 22:
“I could hear the pain in his voice,” recalled the young Ranger days later to Army investigators. Tillman kept calling out that he was a friendly, and he shouted, “I am Pat [expletive] Tillman, damn it!” His comrade recalled: “He said this over and over again until he stopped.”
Pat Tillman, unlike his NFL and Pentagon bosses, called attention to himself only when his life depended on it. Too bad no one listened.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 5, 2004