Michael Kamber, a photojournalist who covered the war in Iraq, reacts to The Pat Tillman Story.
The movie documents the life and death of Patrick Tillman, a square-jawed Californian who, in 2002, walked away from a multimillion-dollar football contract to join the army.
Tillman was a good man and an extraordinary American. He was a jock with movie-star good looks who married his high-school sweetheart and broke the Arizona Cardinals’ record for tackles. But Tillman was also an intellectual; he was a Rhodes Scholar, a reader of Chomsky, an atheist, and an unapologetic straight talker.
Shunning publicity, Pat and his brother, Kevin, became members of the army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment, a unit that carried out some of the most dangerous missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In an extraordinary coincidence, Tillman helped save Jessica Lynch in 2003. A hapless army private, Lynch was taken prisoner after her Humvee got lost in Iraq. The U.S. military, realizing a propaganda opportunity, delayed Lynch’s “rescue” until an army camera team was available to film it. They put out a false story that Lynch had fought until she ran out of ammunition.
I arrived in Baghdad a few months later. On a late-October morning in 2003, a coordinated series of bombings destroyed police stations and NGO offices across the city. Bodies littered the streets.
That afternoon, as I sat on a bloody emergency room table (being stitched up after an angry mob attacked me), I realized that this was going to be a long and ugly war.
The Republican operatives and businessmen who populated the Green Zone realized it, too. They left in droves, and the naïve and incompetent took their place. The Washington Post detailed how a group of 20-somethings—many of whom had never held professional jobs—were put in charge of Iraq’s post-war reconstruction budget, with predictable results.
As Rumsfeld ridiculed journalists in Washington, Dan Senor, the Coalition Provisional Authority spokesperson in Baghdad (now a Fox News commentator), sneered at those of us who questioned the growing death toll.
Tillman saw the Iraq war for the fiasco that it was. Even so, when the NFL struck a secret deal with the army to return Tillman to football, he rejected it. He was going to finish the job he had signed up to do.
In April of 2004, Tillman and his brother were dispatched to Afghanistan. They were on patrol along the Pakistani border when a vehicle in their patrol broke down. The patrol was split into two, and Pat’s section moved ahead through a canyon while Kevin’s stayed behind.
Gunfire broke out. They may have been ambushed, but subsequent army investigations found no evidence of enemy fire. The Rangers in the second half of the patrol, as the movie makes clear, were probably firing at the echo of their own bullets. One American vehicle raced through the canyon and began to fire at Tillman and his comrades on a nearby hilltop.
Tillman threw a smoke grenade, waved his arms, and shouted to his comrades that they were firing at Americans. His Ranger platoon-mates ceased fire, drove to within 40 yards of Tillman, and then shot him multiple times.
The Pat Tillman Story doesn’t answer many of the questions surrounding his death. An army medical examiner estimated the shooting distance at 10 yards, but most of fighting in Afghanistan takes place at 300 yards and beyond; how did the army’s most highly trained soldiers shoot their comrade at such close range?
The filmmakers and Tillman’s family don’t dwell on that. Instead, they focus on the cover-up by the army brass. In an extraordinary replay of the “Saving Private Jessica” episode, army officers seized upon Pat’s death—in the words of his brother Kevin—as an “opportunity.”
A story was quickly concocted: Tillman was charging toward the enemy when killed by Taliban fire. He was awarded a Silver Star.
His comrades were ordered to lie about the circumstances. Tillman’s private journal, body armor, and uniform were burned. The Army warned the White House about the “embarrassing nature” of Tillman’s death. The movie leaves little doubt that the cover-up extended to the highest reaches of government.
Most families would have grieved for their lost son, taken pride in the medals and speeches, and left it at that. But the Tillmans are intelligent and independent thinkers. Tillman’s mother, Mary, single-handedly destroyed the Hollywood ending and forced the army to reveal the real events leading to Tillman’s death. Pat’s father, a lawyer, wrote letters that led to congressional hearings.
Pat’s youngest brother, Richard, stood up at Pat’s funeral service and announced, amidst the feel-good speeches, that his brother, an atheist, was not in heaven—he was “just dead.”
The documentary is filled with men like Pat Tillman, current and former military men who fought on the front lines for blue-collar wages. Their patriotism is beyond question.
In the spirit of George Orwell and Daniel Ellsberg, these men bravely question their government’s propaganda. They recount in detail how their commanders ordered them to lie, and they explore the moral anguish that resulted from it.
Both the soldiers interviewed in the movie and the Tillman family refused to let themselves be used by the military or the government. They insisted on the truth, painful and muddled as it turned out to be. They remind us that bravery is not just the willingness to fight on the battlefield, but the willingness to fight for what’s right. They are great American patriots.
Below is a 50-second excerpt of Michael Kamber’s segment from the Good Men Project film, talking about his first-hand experience as a war photographer.