Marking the 10th anniversary of the death/killing of Pat Tillman, I thought I'd re-publish a piece I wrote on March 6, 2006, on "How the Press Was Spun" at Editor & Publisher, where I was the editor. More on this and other Iraq outrages in my book So Wrong for So Long.
While the criminal matter takes center stage, we should not forget that
the military not only lied to Tillman’s friends and family about the
episode, but also--in the tradition of the Jessica Lynch affair—to the
press. Eventually, the media played a key role in helping to get the
truth out. As far as anyone knows, none of the Army officials who misled
the world have been punished.
Tillman's mother, Mary, told The Washington Post on Saturday that she
believes evidence of a crime has existed all along, and that the
family's repeated calls for a criminal investigation were ignored until
now. Her husband, Patrick Tillman Sr., commented, "if you send investigators to
reinvestigate an investigation that was falsified in the first place,
what do you think you're going to get?"
The Tillman tragedy was last in the news in a major way last May, thanks
to an account in The Washington Post, which has taken the lead on this
story from the beginning.
The Post's Josh White reported in May that Tillman's parents were now
ripping the Army, saying that the military's investigations into their
son's 2004 "friendly fire" death in Afghanistan was a sham based on
"lies" and that the Army cover-up made it harder for them to deal with
their loss. They were speaking out because they have finally had a
chance to look at the full records of the military probe.
"Tillman's mother and father said in interviews that they believe the
military and the government created a heroic tale about how their son
died to foster a patriotic response across the country," White reported.
While military officials' lying to the parents gained wide publicity
then, hardly anyone mentioned that the press had dutifully carried one
report after another based on the Pentagon's spin.
Tillman was killed in a barrage of gunfire from his own men, mistaken
for the enemy on a hillside near the Pakistan border—perhaps, we will
soon learn, criminally. "Immediately," the Post reported, "the Army kept
the soldiers on the ground quiet and told Tillman's family and the
public that he was killed by enemy fire while storming a hill, barking
orders to his fellow Rangers." Tillman posthumously received the Silver
Star for his "actions."
The military investigation, exposed by the Post, "showed that soldiers
in Afghanistan knew almost immediately that they had killed Tillman by
mistake in what they believed was a firefight with enemies on a tight
canyon road. The investigation also revealed that soldiers later burned
Tillman's uniform and body armor."
Tillman's father said he blamed high-ranking Army officers for
presenting "outright lies" to the family and to the press. "After it
happened, all the people in positions of authority went out of their way
to script this," he told the Post. "They purposely interfered with the
investigation, they covered it up. I think they thought they could
control it, and they realized that their recruiting efforts were going
to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out. They
blew up their poster boy.”
Mary, the mother, complained to the Post that the government used her
son for weeks after his death. She said she was particularly offended
when President Bush offered a taped memorial message to Tillman at a
Cardinals football game shortly before the presidential election last
It is worth recalling that Steve Coll, then with the Washington Post, in
December 2004 described the early weeks of the Pentagon spin on
Tillman, before his paper helped reveal the truth.
"Just days after Pat Tillman died from friendly fire on a desolate ridge
in southeastern Afghanistan," Coll wrote, "the U.S. Army Special
Operations Command released a brief account of his last moments. The
April 30, 2004, statement awarded Tillman a posthumous Silver Star for
combat valor and described how a section of his Ranger platoon came
"It was a stirring tale and fitting eulogy for the Army's most famous
volunteer in the war on terrorism, a charismatic former pro football
star whose reticence, courage and handsome beret-draped face captured
for many Americans the best aspects of the country's post-Sept. 11
"It was also a distorted and incomplete narrative, according to dozens
of internal Army documents obtained by The Washington Post that describe
Tillman's death by fratricide after a chain of botched communications, a
misguided order to divide his platoon over the objection of its leader
and undisciplined firing by fellow Rangers.
"The Army's public release made no mention of friendly fire, even though
at the time it was issued, investigators in Afghanistan had already
taken at least 14 sworn statements from Tillman's platoon members that
made clear the true causes of his death.
"But the Army's published account not only withheld all evidence of
fratricide, but also exaggerated Tillman's role and stripped his actions
of their context. ... The Army's April 30 news release was just one
episode in a broader Army effort to manage the uncomfortable facts of
Pat Tillman's death, according to internal records and interviews."
Now the Army is going after soldiers who presumably pulled the triggers
at the scene. There is no evidence that it is looking at its own
"Maybe lying's not a big deal anymore," Tillman’s father told the Post
last year. "Pat's dead, and this isn't going to bring him back. But
these guys should have been held up to scrutiny, right up the chain of
command, and no one has."
More on Tillman and other Iraq and media outrages and controversies in my book, So Wrong for So Long.