The Chomsky-reading NFL star killed in Afghanistan wasn’t who you think he was — no matter who you are
The death of Pat Tillman, the National Football League star turned Army Ranger who was killed by friendly fire — or “fratricide,” as the military puts it — in Afghanistan in April 2004, was a strange event in recent American history. On one hand, Tillman’s death was covered far more extensively than those of any of the other 4,700 or so United States troops killed in the Iraqi and Afghan combat zones. To put it bluntly, he was the only celebrity among them.
On the other hand, Tillman’s story remains poorly understood and has little social resonance. As a colleague of mine recently put it, Tillman didn’t fit, either as a living human being or a posthumous symbol into the governing political narratives of our polarized national conversation. That’s true whether you’re on the right or the left. If he struck many people at first as a macho, hyper-patriotic caricature — the small-town football hero who went to war without asking questions — it eventually became clear that was nowhere near accurate. Yet Tillman was also more idiosyncratic than the equally stereotypical ’60s-style combat vet turned longhair peacenik.Mind you,
Tillman might well have become a left-wing activist, had he lived longer. He had read Noam Chomsky’s critiques of U.S. foreign policy, and hoped to meet Chomsky in person. But as Amir Bar-Lev’s haunting and addictive documentary “The Tillman Story” demonstrates, Tillman was such an unusual blend of personal ingredients that he could have become almost anything. It’s a fascinating film, full of drama, intrigue, tragedy and righteous indignation, but maybe its greatest accomplishment is to make you feel the death of one young man — a truly independent thinker who hewed his own way through the world, in the finest American tradition — as a great loss.