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Amir Bar-Lev's 'The Tillman Story'

Ann Marlowe

The friendly fire incident seems more and more a portent of the Afghan war’s course

I had only the vaguest notion of who Pat Tillman was when he was killed on April 22, 2004, in Spera District, Afghanistan. I’ve never been a football fan, so I’d never seen the footage of the improbably handsome, charismatic young man that interlaces Amir Bar-Lev’s new documentary. The sad story of Tillman’s death by friendly fire, and the subsequent cover-up, was one of those I filed away under “fog of war” and “a few bad apples.”

But this spring, convinced that General Stanley McChrystal was doing a terrible disservice to the war effort in Afghanistan by his support for the corrupt Ahmed Wali Karzai in Kandahar, I looked up the Tillman cover-up saga once again. By that time, it had taken on the status of a leading indicator of crucial weaknesses in the American war effort.

Bar-Lev’s film unabashedly takes the side of the Tillmans, and is edited so that many of the Army brass don’t come off very well. That said, the portrait of the Tillman family is relatively unvarnished. The filmmaker passes lightly over Tillman’s parents’ separation, but otherwise shows them warts and all. Independent, outspoken, sometimes just plain ornery, Patrick and Mary Tillman brought up their sons along classic American lines, revering ancestors who went to war, spending whole days of their childhood playing in the country, then excelling on the playing field in school. Patrick, a lawyer, and Mary, a teacher, are more educated than average Americans, but they’re a long way from pointy headed intellectuals. Besides the family’s good looks, the only remarkable thing about them is their passion for truth and for doing the right thing. Pat and his brother Kevin — who gave up a professional baseball career to join the Rangers alongside Pat — doubtless expected that the Army would be filled with like-minded souls.

Unfortunately, the Tillman brothers hit a bad bunch in their Ranger unit. The men in Tillman’s platoon seem to have been as lacking in moral compass as their superiors, all the way up to General John Abizaid (ret.) and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

It’s worth focusing for a moment on the backdrop to the incident, because it reveals just how complex the Afghan war can be at the ground level. A lot of disasters in Afghanistan begin the way this one did: with a broken-down Humvee. After two days in the village of Magarah unsuccessfully attempting to install a fuel pump that had to be helicoptered in, the platoon was ordered to split into two halves, called “serials,” of about 27 men each. One would push on to a village called Manah, while one would stay with the damaged vehicle. Pat was in the first half, Kevin in the second. Kevin’s serial ended up following Pat’s, though originally they were supposed to take different routes.

Due to the terrain — a river valley surrounded by rugged cliffs — the two halves of the platoon lost radio contact with each other. Kevin’s serial knew it was following Pat’s, but Pat’s did not know Kevin’s was behind it. Kevin’s serial either believed it was coming under mortar attack or actually was. (It’s possible a soldier accidentally discharged his weapon). By this time, it was sunset. Serial 2 began firing up the walls at what was probably an imagined enemy.

Meanwhile, Pat Tillman and his team heard gunfire, surmised that the rest of the convoy was under attack, dismounted, and headed up those same canyon walls on foot to provide overwatch for their comrades. “I’m Pat Fucking Tillman!” were the last words out of the unlucky man’s mouth as he tried to alert his fellow platoon members to stop firing. Tillman was killed by a SAW mounted in a Humvee. (There are more baroque scenarios suggested in Wikipedia, including a motiveless murder.) It seems that Kevin Tillman’s vehicle didn’t arrive until ten minutes after his brother was killed; he didn’t learn of Pat’s death for 40 minutes, and he was told it was due to a Taliban ambush.

Mary “Dannie” Tillman downplays the possible fears of the second serial, and thinks the young men just wanted to shoot their weapons. But I disagree, at least about the second part; I think they were young, inexperienced, and probably poorly led, though their lieutenant, David Uthlaut, had been first in his West Point class.

Some of the problem comes down to basic soldiering knowledge. If the enlisted men don’t have this, their NCO or officer is supposed to. As Major Derrick Hernandez — a friend from a unit I’ve embedded with four times in Afghanistan — comments,

[Our battalion commander] LTC Oclander demanded that ALL his lieutenants have a working knowledge of Surface Danger Zones [the possible trajectories that bullets can fly] for a SAW. The easy answer is 40 degrees to either side to create a range fan [anything that enters that is considered at risk of ricochet] but we have formulas and tables that we would beat into the hapless [lieutenants’] heads so that they understood the effects of all their weapon systems.

Usually, a well-trained captain or lieutenant will be able to prevent a bunch of 18-year-olds from making a terrible mistake. Clearly, someone had failed to instruct the men who shot Tillman. Another factor: Tillman’s platoon had been in Afghanistan less than a month. This is not made clear in the movie or on its Web site, but does emerges on the ESPN documentary Web site. Coming from Iraq, they would have been unfamiliar with the narrow river valleys common in Afghanistan.

I’ve been very close to the area in Spera, Khost Province, where the incident happened, on an embed in 2007 with the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne. Luckily I was with well-led, levelheaded paratroopers, but we passed through many potential ambush spots. It would be natural to be worried if you heard weapon fire, and natural, though not excusable, for a young soldier to panic. According to the film’s Web site — though this isn’t in the movie itself — the driver of the lead Humvee tried to stop the others in his vehicle from firing but “couldn’t be heard above the din of gunfire.” This sounds a little strange since soldiers wear headphones while in Humvees to prevent exactly this problem, and Tillman was killed by a SAW mounted in a Humvee so the men must have been in the Humvee.

The film doesn’t mention that the first Army investigation of Tillman’s death — a matter of routine in all deaths — did the right thing. On May 4, 2004, a Captain Richard M. Scott found “gross negligence” and recommended disciplinary action. Unfortunately, his report later went missing — and remains classified. We only knew it occurred because Kevin Tillman ran into Scott at sniper school at Fort Bragg.

From here on, the record is grim. A Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich took over the investigation. He later earned deserved infamy for suggesting that the Tillman family were unable to let go because they lacked religious faith. The now-disgraced General McChrystal recommended Tillman for a Silver Star on April 27, the same day his autopsy came to the conclusion of friendly fire as cause of death. And so on up the chain of command.

Inexcusably, the soldiers whose bullets killed Pat Tillman — and an Afghan militiaman fighting alongside him — have never come forward, not even to his family. (The Army has removed their names from the documents in the investigation and they have never been identified publicly.) Also inexcusable: the Army burned Tillman’s clothes, body armor, and diary in the days after his death. That is way out of normal procedure.

So what’s the “takeaway” — as the military likes to say — from the movie?

For me, it’s the way the American military has tried hard to do the right thing at the ground level in Afghanistan but often negates its own efforts at the very top of the chain of command. The Tillman cover-up, like General McChrystal’s eagerness to empower malign actors like Ahmed Wali Karzai, undermine the hard work and courage of our troops on the ground. We have a magnificent Army whose moral record compares favorably with that of any corporations near its size — and which cannot be defeated in battle. But too often, it defeats itself.

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