“The truth of war is not always easy. The truth is always more heroic than the hype.”
“Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman” made my heart hurt. While reading it, it reminded me of Ishmael Beah’s memoir“A Long Way Gone” because they were both stories that I would have preferred to be fictional. Today, most people know the story of Pat Tillman, through the media reports, the congressional hearings and the recently-released documentary, “The Tillman Story.”
Pat Tillman was an iconoclastic character. He was a football player who wanted to meet Noam Chomsky. That pretty much sums it up. He was raised in a tight-knit family, married his high school sweetheart and was the star safety for the Arizona Cardinals. In 2002, deeply disturbed by the events of 9/11, he gave up a million dollar NFL contract and enlisted in the Army out of a strong moral obligation to serve his country. He found his professional life suddenly hollow. “Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful,” he wrote in his journal shortly before enlisting. “However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I’ve come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is. . . . It’s not important.” He believed in the War in Afghanistan but was furious when the U.S declared war on Iraq, calling it imperialistic and “illegal as hell”. But he also said that he would fight as hard as he could wherever the army sent him. Tillman lived by a set of principles that he developed himself from deep thinking and reading. Although he hated being in the army, when he was offered a get-out-of-jail-free card to play in the NFL he wouldn’t even consider leaving the army before his three year contract was over. Four months later, Tillman died in Afghanistan.
What’s so shocking about Tillman’s death was the banality of it. He was a larger-than-life character who you’d imagine dying in a blaze of glory, charging up a mountain with a machine gun and a machete to save fellow soldiers. But instead his death was an accident. On the night of his death, the unit’s vehicle broke down. Their unit commander ordered the men to split up and walk back to base. After they split up, Afghan forces started shooting at the soldiers from all directions. Tillman was killed by friendly fire when one half of the unit fired upon the other in confusion, believing them to be enemy combatants. Tillman died as he was waving at the other half of the unit, trying to get them to cease shooting while yelling, “I’m Pat Tillman! I’m Pat fucking Tillman!”
Friendly-fire causalities happen and they are a tragedy. But the real tragedy was the desecration of his memory by Army and White House officials who repaid his honor, his sacrifice and his patriotism by turning him into a propaganda tool while his body was still warm. It was April 2004 and the truth about Guantanamo Bay had just come out, support for the war was dwindling and Bush was gearing up for a reelection campaign. They needed a win. Tillman gave them one. They figured that by turning Tillman into the poster boy for the War on Terror would distract the public and immediately concocted a bogus story about Tillman dying valiantly to rescue his entire unit from Taliban forces. The army posthumously awarded Tillman a fraudulent Silver Star medal of honor. After Pat enlisted in the Army, he ceased talking to the media, saying simply that his actions spoke for himself. He ignored the White House’s constant arm-twisting, trying to get him to speak in favor of a war he no longer believed in. He also went to great lengths to prevent being portrayed as a martyr of the War on Terror. He specified that in the event of his death he did not want a military funeral and told a friend that he didn’t want the army parading his body around in the street. That is exactly what happened. The military set up a large-scale, televised Christian funeral for the atheist Tillman, against his family’s wishes and thought that they had succeeded in their cover-up.
But the military did not anticipate the strength of Tillman’s family who undertook a crusade to find out the truth about Pat’s death. They were lied to repeatedly by the military and the soldiers that had fought alongside Pat. They poured through thousands of pages of military testimony and reports and demanded congressional hearings to question those responsible for the cover-up. It would take three years for the military to acknowledge that it was “possible” that Tillman was a victim of friendly fire. This book is a well-written but very tough read. “Where Men Win Glory” is the tale of a patriotic, honest, good man whose honor and integrity were hijacked by a system of people hoping to score cheap political points.