Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Mysterious Life and Death of an American Hero

Pat Tillman, one of the more heroic symbols of the last decade, is the subject of a new book by Jon Krakauer, Where Men Win Glory.

Tillman was a football star at Arizona State, and went on to become an All-Pro player in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals. In 2002, he and his brother enlisted in the Army Rangers as a response to September 11th. Giving up millions of dollars to serve his country, Tillman became a heroic figure, until his tragic death in 2004 during a Taliban ambush.

In the years to come, however, his death became no less tragic, but far more mysterious. Following a lengthy investigation, the military admitted that Tillman had been killed in friendly fire during an intense battle between U.S forces and the Taliban. The Bush administration, which sought to block the report, was accused of manipulating the circumstances of Tillman's death in the lead-up to the 2004 presidential elections. Additionally, the conclusion that his death was from friendly fire was withheld from his family for more than a month, in violation of military protocol, which infuriated Tillman’s mother. To this day Mary Tillman argues Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of American forces in Afghanistan, played a role in the cover-up.

The story took another twist when a subsequent investigation found that the incident leading to Tillman's death did not even involve hostile engagement with the enemy. Rather, an explosion had confused two allied units, who began firing at each other. In fact, Tillman’s brother Kevin was in the unit firing on him. Finally, in an even more dramatic turn, official documents leaked to the Associated Press in 2007 showed that the military doctors performing the autopsy suspected murder.

Now Jon Krakauer, the author of Into Thin Air, has published Tillman’s side of the story. Relying on numerous letters and journal entries, Krakauer finds that Tillman was privately a strong critic of both President Bush and the military leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tillman referred to Bush as a “cowboy” who had started an “illegal and unjust war” in Iraq, “an imperial folly that was doing long-term damage to US interests.”

Tillman was pretty astute, as revealed by his analysis of the rescue of Jessica Lynch, an operation he was involved with. While watching approximately 1000 soldiers prepare for the rescue, he reflected in his journal, "This mission will be a POW rescue, a woman named Jessica Lynch. As awful as I feel for the fear she must face, and admire the courage I'm sure she's showing, I do believe this is a big public relations stunt. Do not mistake me, I wish everyone in trouble to be rescued, but sending this many folks in for a (single low-ranking soldier) screams of a media blitz." Later investigations revealed that Tillman was correct- Lynch was never in mortal danger or bad health, and Iraqi authorities had already tried to turn her over to the United States.

Tillman expressed disgust with the behavior of his commanding officers, writing on a separate occasion, "We've had leaders telling guys to shoot innocent people only to be ignored by privates with cooler heads ... It seems their battlefield sense is less than ideal. Given the stress of a situation, I absolutely will listen to my instincts before diving headfirst into any half-baked scheme of theirs. Perhaps this is not the 'military right', however these past couple of months have suggested it's necessary."

Pat Tillman, a true American hero, remains a symbol of the war in Afghanistan- a victim of manipulation by the American government and military to goad the public into support for a venture that should have been abandoned a long time ago. You can read an excerpt from the book, courtesy of ABC News, here: Krakauer excerpt (

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