Sundance: The Tillman Story

Apr 05, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

Those who have never served in the US military, especially adherents to the conservative ideology, tend to believe everything our military leaders say. They believe our military can do anything and it never lies. Those who have served, particularly during war-time, regardless of their political persuasion, tend to be leery of what our military can accomplish in foreign countries and know the military leadership lies.

The Tillman Story, directed by Amir Bar-Lev, is a gripping account of a traumatized family that traveled from blind belief to the realization that our military leadership lies.

Pat Tillman was a professional football player who walked away a several million dollar National Football League (NFL) contract to enlist in the US Army and join the Special Operations Rangers. Deployed to Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, Tillman was caught in a fire fight and killed. The US military leadership immediately called him a hero and awarded the former NFL football player a Silver Star, the third-highest medal for bravery.

The story that Tillman died heroically fighting the Taliban was bogus. He was killed by soldiers in his own platoon. It was an accident, an incident of so-called "friendly fire." The US military, however, continued to say otherwise. It continued to spin the story, continued to define and exploit the tragedy, continued to turn a personal tragedy into a recruitment poster for the US Army. After all, Pat Tillman was the Army's most famous soldier.

In the Tillman family, it was most of all the mother who refused to believe the lies and who relentlessly dug for the facts. The real hero in The Tillman Story is Tillman's mother.

When the truth was finally revealed -- Pat had died not from the actions of the Taliban but from the confused actions of his fellow soldiers -- the question became, was it the "fog of war" or simply gross negligence? That is difficult to determine, but what the military leadership did (exploit Pat's death through a pattern of lies) is clear.

This excellent, seamless documentary also looks into just how far up the chain of command this despicable behavior went. A three-star general was held responsible, but he appears to be the "fall guy," since the film makes it clear that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld must have been involved in the cover-up. It is possible that President Bush himself knew.

Truth was reveled in this case because the victim was not a typical soldier, and he had a mother who tenaciously pursued the truth. The mainstream media did not play a major role in revealing the facts. In fact, it was complicit in this tragedy -- quick to accept the military's spin and extremely reluctant to challenge those who wrap themselves in the flag of patriotism and claim to have only the interests of our soldiers at heart. It was another sad, shameful tale of media incompetence.

Recently, however, the media, or at least The New York Times, has shown some backbone by exposing retired senior military officers -- who draw over a hundred grand yearly in military pensions -- working as military affairs consultants for large media corporations as they sat on the boards of defense contractors. An obvious conflict of interest; reporting on the war to the public while drawing huge salaries from the corporations that were making money off the war.

As for Congress, the Oversight Committee, as this honest documentary shows, threw softball questions at the US military and its civilian leadership while investigating the Tillman tragedy. Again, a sad and shameful performance.

Although this riveting documentary does not present any new facts, it shows clearly the pain of the family and immorality of military leaders. The Tillman Story opens a window upon a Pandora's Box of ugly self-interest and public duplicity. Time for the public and the media to wake up, look through clear lenses, and demand honorable leadership for our military. Amir Bar-Lev has done a great service to our country by showing us the horror when those in charge lie.