In the 13 years since Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, he has become a symbol of the supposedly tight bonds between American football and American militarism and American patriotism. There’s no clearer evidence of Tillman’s symbolic potency than Donald Trump retweeting the following tweet this morning.
Last weekend, Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert chose to write Tillman’s name on his cleats and wrote a Medium post about Tillman’s bravery and his decision to “[fight] for Americans.” Eifert is right about Tillman’s character. But to cast Tillman as a zealous patriot who sacrificed a football career and later his life because he believed in the mission and ethos of the American war machine is to grossly misunderstand his beliefs and his legacy.
When Tillman eschewed an NFL contract to enlist with the Rangers in the wake of 9/11, he did so for a complicated suite of reasons. The Tillman family is deep with veterans, and while Tillman was moved by the thousands who died on 9/11, they alone didn’t push him into the war. Here’s what Gary Smith wrote in his 2006 opus on Tillman, “Remember His Name.”
Everybody who thought he’d enlisted purely out of patriotism, they missed reality by a half mile. Sure, he loved America and felt compelled to fight for it after more than 2,600 people at the World Trade Center were turned to dust. But his decision sprang from soil so much richer than that. The foisting of all the dirty work onto people less fortunate than an NFL safety clawed at his ethics. He had uncles and grandfathers on both sides who’d fought in World War II and the Korean War, one who’d taken a bullet in his chest, another who’d lost a finger and one who’d been the last to leap out of a plane shot from the sky. On a level deeper than almost any other American, he’d reaped the reward of those sacrifices: the chance his country afforded him to be himself, all of himself.
He yearned to have a voice one day that would carry, possibly in politics, and he was far from the sort of man who could send others into a fire that he had skirted. His relentless curiosity, his determination to live his life as if it were a book that would hold its reader to the last word, pushed him into the flames as well. The history of man is war, he told his distraught brother Richard, so how, without sampling it, could he ever know man or himself completely? “Are you fucking crazy?” was all Richard could splutter.
Braveheart. That’s who he wanted to be, said a friend who saw the glow in Pat’s eyes as he watched the movie about the Scottish warrior. Trouble was, Pat’s wisdom quest was too honest, had carried him clean past that plane where good and evil are fixed and far-flung from one another, to a higher ledge up in the swirling fog where a man could see how right and wrong might rotate and trade places. It just became harder and harder to be Braveheart.
Until 9/11, when for a moment there was moral clarity, a clarion call to arms, a chance to be that man. Sitting atop that bunker, 11 days into the invasion of a country that had hatched none of the 9/11 terrorists, it was dawning on Pat with each blast-wave lighting up the desert: That moment already was gone. Dawning on him that he’d flung himself into thin air on faith, in search of his highest self, toward a hollow tree that might not hold his weight.
That’s the sort of person Tillman was: a fearless and curious man, who viewed war from the sidelines as the ultimate proving ground. He was quickly disabused of that notion, and by the time he was killed by in action, he had developed some deep and complex anti-war views. The military and the Bush administration did not want Tillman to make those views public, and they attempted to control the narrative soon as he joined the army. When he signed up, Tillman says he was asked to take part in marketing campaigns, to serve as the public face of the war rather than leap into the action. He refused, and he and his brother Kevin (who also joined) refused to be interviewed after they enlisted “for fear that their decision will be interpreted as a publicity stunt.” Had he returned from war, he was going to meet with prominent anti-war intellectual Noam Chomsky.
Despite his desire to go to Afghanistan, Tillman took part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which, in his words, he regarded as “all bullshit.” He was there for the “rescue” of Private Jessica Lynch, which was spun into a heroic rescue mission by war propagandists even though Lynch’s captors essentially handed her over to the Americans. Tillman saw firsthand as a supposedly heroic push to prevent Saddam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction turned into a quagmire that had nothing to do with the attacks on New York and Washington. This is how Tillman’s brother characterized the war in a forceful essay after his death:
Somehow the more soldiers that die, the more legitimate the illegal invasion becomes.
Somehow American leadership, whose only credit is lying to its people and illegally invading a nation, has been allowed to steal the courage, virtue and honor of its soldiers on the ground.
Somehow those afraid to fight an illegal invasion decades ago are allowed to send soldiers to die for an illegal invasion they started.
Tillman did eventually go to Afghanistan, where he was shot three times in the head by his fellow soldiers, in a horrifying accident that can quite literally be chalked up to the fog of war. During a chaotic skirmish, Tillman and a few soldiers were caught in between the lines trying to signal their position to the rest of their company when they were mistaken for enemy combatants and fired upon by their own platoon.
However, that’s not what the Army told Tillman’s family and the American public. The Army quickly awarded Tillman with a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, and first told the public that Tillman had died in a heroic rescue attempt, charging up a hill and sacrificing himself to allow the rest of his unit to escape. Army officials reportedly knew what had really happened to Tillman when they held a funeral for him in San Jose a week after his death, and his family didn’t find out for another month. Tillman’s journals and body armor were burnt within three days of his death, and subsequent investigations showed that Tillman’s platoon mates were told not to speak about the incident, which allowed Tillman to be hailed as a valiant warrior who died for the American cause rather than a victim of near-random violence in a pointless war of empire.
Tillman died in the midst of George W. Bush’s reelection campaign, as well as a week before the Abu Ghraib torture abuse scandal broke. Both of his parents spoke out against the propagandizing of Tillman, and decried how his selflessness and bravery were cynically used by the Bush administration:
“The administration clearly was using this case for its own political reasons,” said the father, Patrick Tillman. “This cover-up started within minutes of Pat’s death, and it started at high levels. This is not something that (lower-ranking) people in the field do,” he said.
“You try to picture, How did my child die? and it keeps changing,” she said. “It’s like Pat has died seven times in my head. You think you’re losing your mind for months. They attached themselves to his virtue and then threw him under the bus. They had no regard for him as a person. He’d hate to be used for a lie. I don’t care if they put a bullet through my head in the middle of the night. I’m not stopping.”
So, remember Tillman as a brave man. Remember him as an athlete who gave up on a lucrative profession to make a sacrifice others would not. But to remember him this way without taking into account everything that happened after he went to the Middle East would be disingenuous. Don’t forget how he developed anti-war views, or how his legacy was manipulated by the powerful in order to stay in power and to keep feeding young men’s lives to the war machine. To bring Tillman into the national anthem kneeling debate as someone who would have reprimanded his teammates for protesting racial injustice (and not, as cynical commentators would have you think, the military) is to completely misunderstand who he was or what he believed in. Pat Tillman was exploited as propaganda from the moment he enlisted, and even more so after his death. Don’t let him be used today.