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The Many Deaths of Pat Tillman

| March 7, 2006

If Peter could betray Christ three times before the rooster crowed, and still be forgiven, maybe the U.S. military, in these days of faith-based deceptions, thought it could do the same to the family of Pat Tillman and get away with it. And if the military could do that in Tillman’s case — a hero from the day he enlisted as he gave up a $3.6 million NFL contract to join his brother in the trenches — imagine the fate of less famous families. Imagine the fate of non-Americans.

Dirty wars make for dirty stories. Tillman’s is one of them, not only for the way the Army initially covered up his death by “friendly fire,” then whitewashed investigation after investigation, but for the way a whole narrative was invented and imprinted on Tillman as the prototypical 21st century American soldier fighting the “global war on terror.” He was to be the embodiment of that virtuous “Army of One” making the world safe from terrorism.

What a crock that has turned out to be. What a waste Tillman’s service turned out to be, down to his killing in 2004 on an Afghan hill as craggy as that country’s stability.

Tillman was a rising star with the Arizona Cardinals when he signed up for Ranger training in 2002. He refused all interviews. The myth-makers chased after him anyway. Peggy Noonan, the one-time Reagan speech-writer and current apologist for brutality with a GOP face, gushed how “we are making a lot of Tillmans in America … Some very talented young men, and women, are joining the armed forces in order to help their country because, apparently, they love it.”

Those not joining, apparently, must have loved it less, or couldn’t possibly love it more in a society that still measures patriotism by the size of one’s service record (which, incidentally, would disqualify fat portions of the Bush administration, beginning with the commander-in-chief).

But that was before Afghanistan became an extension of the Iraqi bog-down, before military recruitment nose-dived and the Pentagon raided National Guard contingents to make up shortfalls, before the military reduced its minimum standards for service, jacked up bonus reenlistment pay and turned thousands of volunteers into back-door draftees by scrapping their release date. Tillman, it turned out, was one of a kind.

Still, the inventors pressed on. Aryanism’s spokeswoman, Ann Coulter, called Tillman “an American original: virtuous, pure and masculine like only an American male can be,” and claimed that Tillman “died bringing freedom and democracy to 28 million Afghans.” His funeral was on national television, his death still being sold as a hero’s death from enemy fire. And Bush was on the Arizona Cardinals’ stadium Jumbotron telling a congregation all about Tillman’s “inspiration on and off the field.”

That was before the San Francisco Chronicle’s investigation brought to light the military’s lies about Tillman’s killing, its shoddy investigations, and Tillman’s own feelings about the war in Iraq, where he served in 2003: “You know,” he told a close army buddy, “this war is so f— illegal.” He was against Bush. He was a fan of Noam Chomsky, the nation’s leading anti-war crusader. Like I said, one of a kind.

In March 2006, the Defense Department inspector general ordered a criminal inquiry into Tillman’s shooting, and called the previous investigations inadequate. Among those who covered up Tillman’s killing by friendly fire: Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who in 2008 became commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

As at Abu Ghraib, as at Guantanamo, it’s still the military investigating its own, inviting further mistrust. At least the inquiry goes on. Whether the case is settled or not will matter to Tillman’s family.

But it’s the three previous inquiries that should raise alarms about military conduct, because the pattern speaks of delinquencies — of cover-ups, of faked narratives, of deceptive motives — that go beyond the Tillman affair. Friendly fire isn’t the only thing that warrants investigating honestly if the military is to have credibility.

Almost 100 inmates have died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan , according to a Human Rights First report released in 2004, yet all of the military’s Abu Ghraib inquiries led to a few punishments and a lot of forgetting, while the structure of American prisons hidden from inspections goes on. An Amnesty International report (“Beyond Abu Ghraib”) documents cases of torture and abuse at the multinational force’s hands in Iraq.

If you think Tillman’s parents mistrust the U.S. military — as they very much do — imagine the millions of Afghans and Iraqis, and the hundreds of millions of Muslims beyond. Their stories aren’t making anyone’s Jumbotrons. They’re no less personal to millions of families.

In the end, the biggest shield against military accountability is the one Americans embrace most: the myth of the military as presumptively virtuous, simply because it is engaged in a virtuous mission. What happens when the mission is revealed to be rotten, as is beyond doubt in Iraq , as was becoming apparent in Afghanistan, even to Tillman the hero?

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