As scores of NFL players took a knee to protest racism and Donald Trump yesterday, some conservatives pushed back on the symbolic gesture by summoning the name of a man they view as a pure, uncomplicated American patriot: former Arizona Cardinal and Afghanistan War casualty Pat Tillman.
On Monday morning, President Trump retweeted a tweet that amplified this line of thinking into the mainstream.
But as even a cursory search would reveal, Pat Tillman is exactly the wrong kind of American hero for the president to be invoking.
A brief recap of his story: Between 1998 and 2001, Tillman was a safety for the Cardinals, known for his intellectualism and iconoclasm among teammates. After the September 11 attacks, he began to find sports meaningless, and turned down a multi-million-dollar contract to enlist in the Army Rangers instead. He was sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was killed in 2004. At the time, his death was viewed as a tragedy that nevertheless demonstrated the glory of American self-sacrifice.
But in 2005, government officials informed Tillman’s family that he had actually been killed not by enemies, but by friendly fire. The Army and George W. Bush administration had concealed this fact from the public — and Tillman’s family — so that they could continue to use his life and death as wartime propaganda. According to Jon Krakauer, who wrote a high-profile book about Tillman’s life, the government cover-up included lying to Tillman’s family at his funeral about the circumstances of his death. Tillman’s notebooks and body armor were also destroyed to obscure the true circumstances of his death. It took years for the whole, sordid truth to come out.
At the time of his death, Tillman had become increasingly opposed to the Iraq War and Bush’s agenda, and had planned to meet with liberal agitator Noam Chomsky. It seems unlikely that he would have been a fan of President Trump.
In the end, Tillman’s story became less about unthinking, reflexive jingoism and more about the uncomfortable truth often lurking behind bumper-sticker slogans. In other words, Tillman is actually a perfect poster boy for our era — for exactly the opposite reason President Trump thinks.