For electing to serve in the military rather than remain in the National Football League, Pat Tillman deserved to be known as a man who'd made an extraordinary choice.
In 2004, after he was killed in Afghanistan in what turned out to be a deadly mistake, he should have been remembered as the victim of the sort of hideous accident that is common in the chaos of war.
Instead, Pat Tillman, late of the Arizona Cardinals and then the Army Rangers, is in the news again this week as the man whose death inspired the military and the government to construct a self-serving lie so persistent and elaborate that three years after Tillman's death, his family is still trying to force the authorities to acknowledge the extent of their shameful fiction, identify and punish those responsible for it, and own the true account of what happened to Mr. Tillman.
One of the attractions of football is the definitive nature of the game. It's played by the clock. Its moments of confusion are dramatic, but temporary. Immediately after the ball is down, numerous referees, line judges, and umpires on the field perform careful measurements and consult with each other to determine precisely what has happened. Then they tell everyone who's watching what they have decided. Beyond that, the game's significant moments are so often replayed that there's no danger that even the guy who's gone to fridge during the touchdown catch will fail to understand exactly whose fault it was.
War is different. Bombs sometimes fall in places where there are only non-combatants. Everybody involved on both or all sides lies about who has secured what and at what cost and what will certainly happen next. But even in the context of the madness of war, the attempt to twist the story of Pat Tillman's death into a tale that would reflect well on the military and the government by means of a cynical campaign of inventions, lies and denials seems exceptionally cruel to his family and his nation.
The irony here is that when he enlisted, Pat Tillman made clear his wish to be left alone. He didn't want to be anybody's poster boy for patriotism. The attempt to pervert Tillman's service and death into what his brother this week called "an opportunity" is something of which the chain of command all the way to the top should be ashamed.
This program aired on April 26, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.