At the risk of ignoring the urgency of the present moment and whatever political news may have been posted somewhere within the last six seconds, I plan here to highlight a new documentary that vividly exposes wartime government propagandists in the act of marketing lies for domestic political purposes.
Back in distant mists of time – April 22, 2004 – pro footballer Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan, and the nation dutifully mourned its most famous enlistee. He was, as you may recall, lauded by the military and the Bush regime as a hero who fell during a firefight with the terrorists. But, as The Tillman Story makes abundantly clear, the soldier was posthumously reduced to a John Wayne caricature, and the circumstances of his death were suppressed. In the words of Tillman’s mother, “What they said happened, didn’t happen. They made up a story…To find out (the government) lied to us – it’s outrageous, to use him as a political propaganda tool, basically.”
I caught a viewing of this documentary the other day; it was time well spent, if only as a reminder of the old adage – coined by the late gadfly journalist I. F. Stone – that “all governments are run by liars.” Especially governments in wartime, and especially when they feel compelled to feed pap to the public.
The truth about Tillman has been known for awhile, of course. The initial coverup unraveled quickly, several reports and congressional probes were subsequently conducted, and author Jon Krakauer covered a lot of ground in his ’09 book, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. But a good documentary works on a more visceral level, particularly when a special ops veteran is telling the camera (and us) that governments like to sell their wars as “comfortable fables…good guys and bad guys…You gotta give the people something they can co-sign. A morality play.”
Tillman, as reconstituted by the Pentagon and White House, was perfect for such a role. He was sold as the gung-ho jock who signed up as an Army Ranger for love of country, and did battle with terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan until the terrorists put him down, after which he walked with God. President Bush declared that Tillman had suffered “the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror.” In truth, Tillman was an agnostic California free spirit who read Ralph Waldo Emerson and lefty Noam Chomsky, and he hated Bush’s war in Iraq (he told one Army buddy that it was “illegal,” and told his family that it was “100 percent BS”).
One of his brothers, fuming at all the God invocations at the memorial service (from John McCain, among others), finally stormed to the podium and yelled, “He’s not with God! He’s just f—–g dead! He wasn’t religious!” And the government insisted on giving him a well-publicized military funeral, even though Tillman had signed an Army form indicating that, should the worst happen, he didn’t want the military “having any involvement in my funeral.” He had even told another solider, Jade Lane, that “I don’t want them to parade me through the streets.”
The most pained interviewee, however, is Brian O’Neal, the soldier who accompanied Tillman in his final moments. They were on a ridge, overlooking a narrow canyon. Their comrades below, inexperienced in combat, mistook them for the enemy and unleashed a barrage. According to O’Neal (stuttering repeatedly on camera), he saw Tillman yell out his final words: “I’m Pat f—–g Tillman, why are you shooting at me?”
His death came at a sensitive political moment; the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib in Iraq was about to go public, and the Bush administration needed to market some ennobling news. The cover up soon began (the phony combat story, the burning of his uniform), culminating with an infamous memo circulated by Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of special operations, one week after Tillman’s death. He warned the rest of the military brass about the possibility of “public embarrassment if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death become public.” He also approved the posthumous awarding of a Silver Star, even though the true “circumstances” – death by friendlies – did not meet the criteria for a Silver Star.
“This story doesn’t fit into something that tidy and mythic,” combat vet Stan Goff says on camera. Quite the contrary, the documentary itself “is an opportunity for reality to break through.” The true moral of this story is that the government undercuts its own cause when it lies, when it treats adults like children and feeds them fairy stories.
George Moore, a war correspondent at the London Times, recognized this nearly 100 years ago, while filing dispatches during World War I. The paper was always dueling with the censors, trying to print the truth about British losses, with only sporadic success. Moore’s words endure: “It is important that the nation should know and realize certain things – bitter truths. But we can face them.”