The Ethics of Being Tested: “The Tillman Story”

We can’t discover who we are until we are tested by life and death, a statement poignantly illustrated by the documentary “The Tillman Storyjust released so far in limited distribution.

The death of former NFL star Pat Tillman in Afghanistan in 2004 by friendly fire has been widely chronicled in media reports, congressional hearings, and books by his mother and others. Amir Bar-Levi’s documentary is like a morality play about a man of conviction and purpose that others made into a hero, about love of family, patriotism, commitment to service, sacrifice, disaster, lies, betrayal, and a cover up that is alleged to involve the highest levels of the U.S. Army and the Bush administration.

College and NFL football star, Tillman, then 26, left a great career with the Arizona Cardinals and quietly enlisted in the Army several months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. We only know his story because he was a celebrity before enlisting so the mysterious circumstances of his death became headline news.

The Army provided several different versions of how he died. First they told the Tillman family he died a hero protecting other soldiers and awarded him a Silver Star. A few weeks later, the Army admitted he’d died from friendly fire in the “fog of war.” The family persisted in trying to understand how he died. The Army eventually responded with an avalanche of 3,000 pages of redacted documents. Undaunted, the Tillmans read everything and pieced together that Pat had died as a result of gross negligence from gunfire from five trigger happy shooters in his troop. He had died after repeatedly calling out his name saying he was on their side.

The Army has never identified those responsible for killing him, and didn’t explain why they had burned his uniform, body armor and diary. Knowing the cause of death, the Army didn’t explain why the family had been told a fabricated story about trumped-up heroism. The Army had pressed for a military funeral which the family felt was designed to capitalize on Pat’s celebrity to promote the cause of war.

The documentary looks at power and heroism: the power to force intended outcomes, threaten dissenters, and encourage contagious memory malfunctions of what happened when; and a heroism that has nothing to do status or celebrity, and everything to do with being authentically who you are, standing up for what you believe.

The film chronicles Pat interacting with his family in home movies, in interviews when he was a football player, and as a soldier who looked out for others. The picture that emerges is a level-headed, fun-loving, young man who swore frequently, worked at being an outstanding football player, believed he owed his country a debt, and honored his commitments.

He led, not from power, but from influence. He knew what mattered to him, turning down an offer of $9 million to play for a different NFL team out of the loyalty he felt to the Cardinals. He wasn’t seduced by the allure of ardent celebrity chasers, remaining loyal to his wife. His choices, comments and actions, and the respect he earned from others, suggest he was grounded and authentic. In spite of his growing concern over the war, he intended to honor his three-year commitment before returning to the NFL.

Those who tried to make him a false hero to further self-serving agendas were the antithesis of the ideals he was fighting for.

Gael O’Brien, August 24, 2010

The Week in Ethics

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