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The Fog of Fame: Pat Tillman as Everyone's Political Football

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Neither the universe nor life is linear. Things weave through one another. The past and future are more than discrete units of time apart from the shifting instant of now. The ripples on a pond crash into and through one another. The political realities of our time are likewise over-determined, complex, irreducible, a splashing, surging, whirling current of evolutions -- personal, geographical, institutional, cognitive-and-affective, inter-subjective, and cultural... so we have to circle these phenomena -- like a recon team circling an objective -- to get the fuller picture of what we observe and try to understand. The patterns that emerge from the totality of these observations we might begin to call a system. And if that system is a horror; then we cannot escape the responsibility for confronting that system and simultaneously escape the consequences of our inaction.

In 1979, after a break in my Army service and having recouped my sergeant's stripes as a mechanized cavalry scout in Fort Carson, I volunteered for the Rangers. Off to Ranger School I went, and upon completion I was assigned to 3rd Platoon, Company A (Alpha Company), 2nd Ranger Battalion, 75th Infantry Regiment in Fort Lewis, Washington. Each of the three rifle platoons (organizations of around 40 light infantrymen) had nicknames, in this case, First to Fight, the Blacksheep, and Third Herd. A Company, known for its iron discipline, was called the Alpha-bots. When I left there in 1981 to become a tactics instructor at the Jungle Operations Training Center in Panama, I never had a notion that I might somehow be entangled with Alpha Company again... two-and-a-half decades later.

Brothers Pat and Kevin Tillman were Alpha-bots, assigned to the Blacksheep (2nd Platoon), when Pat was killed by friendly fire on April 22, 2004 near a tiny village called Manah in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border. When I was a member of the adjacent platoon in the same building, Pat was a baby.

Neither those who knew baby Pat then, nor I, slogging away in the wilds of Fort Lewis, had crystal balls. They did not know that this precocious child would someday play professional football. Even when he did, so many years later, they never reduced this young man to his identity as an athlete. He was a kid, a whole person, with two brothers, Mom, and Dad, living in the Central California mountains near a old mercury mine, a river, and a state forest.

I wrote a short reflection-piece on the friendly fire incident in April 2006, two years after Pat was killed. Someone read it online and forwarded it to Mary (Dannie) Tillman, Pat's mom. She found something in it of which she approved, and she contacted me. We talked on the phone, many times, and I went to San Jose to spend a few days with her after I started writing a series about the whole episode. Eventually, the family would allow me to accompany them to the briefing they were given this year by the US Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID). Army representatives lied directly to the family's face... again.

In the interest of full disclosure, this is personal for me now. Dannie Tillman is my friend. So is Kevin, who was close enough to hear the shots that took his brother's life on April 22, 2004. I am angry as I write this.

Pat Tillman was a lot more than a football player, and in all the right ways also a lot less -- humble when he needed to be, unassuming, tender with loved ones. He joined the Army because he didn't trust fame. He was afraid it might keep him from growing up and being honest and being responsible. He saw a lot of other young people -- and the generations before him -- going through this grunt-thing in the military, and had this idea that having a physical gift shouldn't be some kind of exemption.

Anyone might argue with that for a host of reasons; I would.

But it is something essential about Pat Tillman that needs to be out there... that sense of ethics that will not substitute words for deeds. And he hated idealizations.

He was 26 when he fell. Pretty thoughtful for 26, in this culture especially.

The Congressional Committee investigating Pat's death, a committee that fawned all over Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Meyers, and John Abazaid on August 1st needs to take note. I'm angry, so I'm saying it. Sometimes invective is appropriate.

Most members of that Committee haven't the ethical sense to qualify for wiping Pat's ass. Instead they kissed Donald Rumsfeld's, Richard Meyers', and John Abazaid's. I'll be coming back to this shameful and anemic display. It's emblematic of not just Congress, but in particular of Democrats who continue to tip-toe around anything to do with the war as if they're walking through a rattlesnake pit.

Pat was right to be suspicious of fame.

This craven display by Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike was just the last entry in a growing archive of opportunism that circles around fame like a vulture over a corpse.

Fame in the wrong circumstances can throw up a carrion scent like a thick fog. The scavengers of American political life -- elected officials and candidates, crackpot polemicists, and the profit-press -- chase the smell along the shifting winds.

That same so-called press that has blood all over its hands for the war in Iraq today was on exhibition again with the recent, and salaciously irresponsible, reporting -- excised from context -- on a few lines from thousands of pages of documents, igniting the imaginations of every conspiracy-buff in the nation. I'm talking about the Associated Press story in late July that suggested Pat was "fragged."

The subsequent orgy of rumors and ill-informed speculation, the utter failure of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, and the maddening impunity of the War Troika lies that went unchallenged there, compel me to write this.

The Army has insisted that Pat was killed in "the fog of war" by his own comrades; I am insisting that both Pat's memory and the truth are being murdered in the fog of fame.

Had Pat not been famous, his death would be buried inside the lengthening list of sorrow from this obscenity in Southwest Asia. Had Pat not been famous, the Army might not have lied about the circumstances of his death to press and family.

On the other hand, many families have now discovered that the military covers up fratricides. From The Tillman Files:

Why were at least three other known fratricides reported falsely, and the families deceived, within a two month period of Pat's death? Kenneth Ballard? Patrick McCaffrey? Jesse Buryj? There was a pattern of deception that corresponded to the toxic combination of April's tactical debacle in Iraq, the release of the first Abu Ghraib photographs, and Seymour Hersh's exposé of Donald Rumsfeld and Stephen Cambone's "Grab whom you must. Do what you want" program.

Kenneth Ballard was killed in Najaf by friendly fire from his own vehicle in May 2004, and the military told his family that he'd been killed by a sniper on a rooftop. Jesse Buryj, killed in May, had his family told that he died defending a checkpoint from an oncoming truck that crashed into him. When they questioned the story months later, they were told that he had in fact been accidentally killed by a Polish soldier. A former member of his unit (66th Military Police Company, the same unit that "command rape" victim Suzanne Swift was assigned to at the time) visited the family and told them that Jesse was, in fact, shot by his own platoon leader, Lieutenant Hogan (who may be implicated for negligence in the Swift case). Patrick McCaffrey was killed exactly two months after Pat Tillman, and his mother was told he died in an ambush. They neglected to say that the "ambush by insurgents" was in fact conducted against him and his fellow team members by the very Iraqi forces they were training, after having reported more than once to the chain of command that the "allies" had shot at them.

When Karen Meredith, Kenneth Ballard's mother, asked the Army why it was deceiving people about these fratricidal incidents, she was told that there had only been six cases of this happening. She asked, how was it that she knew four of them?

Nadia McCaffrey and Mary Tillman have been told by military representatives that the concealment of fratricide is an act of compassion... that these reports, given too much publicity, might lower the morale of the troops.

But we know that Pat's case was special to the administration, precisely because of his fame. Claims to the contrary now are disingenuous to the point of stupidity. They just don't want to answer the questions.

This administration, like the powerful generally, has a sense of entitlement that resents having to answer questions; and when it does, it uses the legal system as a shield. If you can't prove in court that I did it, then fuck you.

Unfortunately, for reasons I'll explain below, Congress doesn't want to ask the questions. When is anyone up there, especially from the Democratic Party, going to quit that godawful speechifying and start a real fight? If Republicans had a case like this against the Democrats, you can bet they'd be sinking their teeth into a carotid artery right now. That's why they know they can scare people to win elections; and they will again soon enough. We don't need Dems on Capitol Hill to strategize around the next election cycle like lawyers. Pat's case is emblematic of what the whole country is going through right now; and for this we don't need any more lawyers.

We need junkyard dogs.

Now that I have that off my chest, and having read the documents accumulated around this case, often several times, and having stayed in constant contact with Dannie Tillman (who hates the limelight and stays at this as a furious act of love), it's time to review again not just what we can prove happened, but also what likely happened. There is a lot of information available to make reasonable assumptions on this case.

If Waxman's Committee had listened to the family, instead of assuming (incorrectly) that they know what they're doing better than the rest of us rubes, then why didn't they carefully construct a prosecutorial hypothesis, (1) systematically take each aspect of that hypothesis and subpoena the documents and testimony necessary to rule out said hypothesis or support it, (2) swear in their witnesses, (3) encircle the witnesses with the facts at a distance, (4) hedge the witnesses in with direct questions that carry the threat of perjury charges, (5) offer to hold the witnesses in contempt if they equivocate (as all of those pricks did... and got away with it), and (6) state the obvious when these witnesses were ridiculously disingenuous or suffering selective amnesia.

There is a one-word method for stating the obvious in these cases: bullshit. But Congress is so busy spreading the same substance that its members are generally loathe to call anyone out on it. Congress cannot say that the emperor has no clothes; and as a body -- barring a thoroughgoing social revolution -- they never will.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ought to be renamed: The House Groveling and Gratitude Committee. Oh thank you thank you thank you Lord Rumsfeld for gracing us with your presence; we shall do FULL ARTICLE