President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his 1961 Farewell Address offered an ominous warning regarding the dangers of the ‘military industrial complex.’ The ‘military industrial complex’ as deemed by President Eisenhower was the uneasy intertwining of parties that manage war (Congress, Military, Presidential Administration) and companies that produce weapons and equipment for war (Industry). Eisenhower, who bore considerable military pedigree for his involvement as the Supreme Allied Commander in WWII, was resolute in his convictions. The ‘military industrial complex’ in its modern context has been magnified due to the rapid privatization of the U.S. Armed Forces. A subsequent factor involves the complicit nature of the media in drumming up support for armed conflicts. I considered the context of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address as I viewed the “Tillman Story” at the Wang Center on March 28th. The film screening, which included a Q & A session with Director Amir Bar-Lev, was a joint effort between the Port Jefferson Documentary Series and the Wang Center.
The “Tillman Story” juxtaposes the tragic death of Cpl. Pat Tillman to provide commentary on the Afghanistan War and the admirable lengths to which a family was willing to go to discover the truth about the final moments of a loved one. Director Lev constructs a nuanced film that readily admits it doesn’t have definitive answers for difficult questions. This is particularly fitting in encapsulating the unique character of Pat Tillman. Tillman in one of the film’s poignant moments describes his intentions for joining the Army with, “Times like these (9/11), What freedoms we have. That wasn’t built overnight. The flag is a symbol of that. I have a great deal of respect for those who have served.” The loosely construed caricature of Tillman as simply a jingoistic individual is inherently false. Director Lev offers an engrossing portrait of a man who was fierce competitor on the football field and who was equally privy to intellectual debate.
The familiar narrative of Pat Tillman is one that is synonymous with a NFL player who joins the Army after the horrific 9/11 attacks propelled by patriotic sentiments. Tillman is honorably killed in a hillside skirmish with Taliban militiamen. The greater tragedy is revealed to be the fraudulent claims propagated by the government to cover up Tillman’s unfortunate death. The film tracks Tillman’s mother, “Dannie”, who presses the Pentagon for the true account of her son’s death. Dannie reconstructs the events through her own lengthy investigation and analysis of large volumes of Army dossiers. Viewers are given a fascinating look as to how information is created and disseminated in the Army.
The Tillman family does not mince words in expressing disappointment in the military chain of command’s decision to falsify the circumstances of Pat’s death for ulterior motives. The expedient process of transporting Tillman’s body back to the United States proves to be one of the more heartbreaking moments of the film. Two bereavement officials are sent to Dannie Tillman’s home to persuade her to sign a document which would make Pat’s funeral one adorned with military honors. This was explicitly against Tillman’s wishes. The strength of the Tillman Story lies in visceral interviews with members of the Tillman clan and his army unit. Interviewees are given the opportunity to dispel the ‘mythos’ surrounding Pat Tillman’s character and his untimely death.
The fruition of Dannie Tillman’s efforts is a 2007 Congressional hearing in which former Sec. Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other high ranking members of the military hierarchy are subpoenaed. The bitter reality lies in the fact that the military hierarchy does not acknowledge how and when they knew of Tillman’s death. Tillman is posthumously awarded a Silver Star Medal by Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal for bravery and courage. This is disconcerting as Tillman is an unfortunate victim of friendly fire in a brutish environment. Director Lev leaves viewers with the sentiment that the real perpetrators of fraud and deception were not incriminated.
Director Amir Bar-Lev spoke with audience members in a poignant twenty minute Q&A session after the film screening. Lev stated his intentions for making the film with, “I wanted to recognize this admirable guy. Pat Tillman was lionized as a hero. Hopefully younger viewers will learn a lesson.” Lev commenting on the uncertainty surrounding Tillman’s death stated, “This fiasco can be characterized by blunders, mistakes and missteps. It can be further described as a smoke screen, ills of the fog of war, bungled up media coverage and screw-ups by the military brass.” Lev in defending his film editing stated, “The film was meant to be open ended. There is no conclusive evidence that Tillman’s unit deliberately acted in a malicious manner. This was a major screw up. Top Down. Bottom Up.” Lev in assessing the military’s intentions stated, “They wanted to protect the public at large. They provided variations of who Pat was. The counterargument is that wars need to be fought. We need to understand the extent of the duplicity, negligence.”
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