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HARRINGTON: Tillman, Kaepernick not at odds

Pat+Tillman%2C+who+left+the+NFL+to+enlist%2C+was+killed+by+friendly+fire+in+2004.+
Pat Tillman, who left the NFL to enlist, was killed by friendly fire in 2004.

Pat Tillman, who left the NFL to enlist, was killed by friendly fire in 2004.

Photo by AP

Photo by AP

Pat Tillman, who left the NFL to enlist, was killed by friendly fire in 2004.

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With Colin Kaepernick’s newly unveiled Nike campaign making waves on social media, another former NFL star’s name has made its way into the public discourse: Pat Tillman.

Tillman famously left both the football world and millions of dollars behind to enlist in the military, only to be killed by friendly fire in 2004. Contemporary critics of Colin Kaepernick and Nike’s new ad campaign use both Tillman’s image and military service to distort Kaepernick’s protests into anti-military demonstrations, a far cry from Kaepernick’s intentions.

The image of Tillman as the “Anti-Kaepernick” is both reductive and disrespectful to Tillman’s life and legacy.

Tillman, like many others, felt the same call to service that many others around the nation felt in the wake of 9/11. Forgoing a three-year contract that would have earned him over $3.5 million, the athlete enlisted in the United States Army and served during the initial invasion of Iraq. Biographers have said Tillman viewed the war in Iraq as “imperial folly,” and Tillman’s attitude towards President George W. Bush was less than supportive. Tillman also expressed concern over the United States’ media strategy regarding the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tillman’s keen awareness regarding the Bush administration’s tactical imaging was expressed before his death. A former colleague of Tillman’s claimed Tillman feared that the Bush administration would use his potential death as a propaganda tool to protect the image of the war.

In the aftermath of Tillman’s death in Afghanistan, this was precisely what occurred. At a large, televised military funeral in complete opposition of his wishes, Tillman was praised as the ultimate military hero who was tragically killed by the enemy.

This, of course, was a lie told by the United States government. Tillman was shot and killed by members of the United States military in an instance of friendly fire. This conflicting story was shared to not only the media, but to Tillman’s own family as well. In support of a dangerous political agenda, the United States government lied to the grieving family of a veteran to appropriate his image and life as a marketing tool.

The very same kind of appropriation is occurring today by those political commentators who use Tillman’s service and death as a foil to Colin Kaepernick’s recent Nike campaign. Those close to Tillman have come out strongly against these kinds of arguments, with Tillman’s widow releasing a statement saying her husband served in the military and sacrificed his life in defense of the right to express oneself the same way Colin Kaepernick has protested against police brutality.

The reduction of a man’s military career to exclude that soldier’s own doubts and firmly-held political convictions to push a political agenda is propagandizing at its most repugnant. To do so with the life of a man whose very death was pervaded and exploited to support an ideology diametrically opposed to his own is sickening and inappropriate. Those who served with Tillman have stated that he would not only support Kaepernick’s freedom to protest, but that Tillman would likely have knelt with the former quarterback.

The narrative of Pat Tillman representing true militaristic sacrifice persists more than a decade after his death. There is no denying the optics that Tillman’s career provided for the Bush administration, as well as conservative commentators for years to come. He was a professional athlete who turned down millions to fight for American values and eventually sacrificed his own life in battle.

Tillman’s intelligence was the greatest threat to the recruiting campaign the United States Army could orient around his service. He viewed the United States intervention in Iraq as “f—ing illegal” and regularly expressed his opinions that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were engaging in fear-mongering to foster support for their overseas interventions.

When an outraged Kaepernick critic posts about Tillman’s sacrifices, there is rarely a mention of Tillman’s own politics. Rather, his likeness is paraded around like some macabre GI Joe. Just as the United States government warped his life’s narrative in 2004 and used a patriot’s death to prove a political point, everyday Americans share an inaccurate portrait of a safety-turned-soldier as opposed to the morally complex and conflicted individual Tillman really was.

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1 Comment

One Response to “HARRINGTON: Tillman, Kaepernick not at odds”

  1. Guy Montag on September 11th, 2018 8:13 am

    Thanks for writing your thoughtful column. There’s been far too much uninformed commentary out there! I’ve closely followed the Tillman story since 2005. If readers want to know more, I’d suggest starting with the 2010 DVD “The Tillman Story” or Mary Tillman’s 2008 book “Boots on the Ground by Dusk” (Jon Krakauer’s book has valuable information on the incident, but is flawed since he had lost the trust/cooperation of the family, except for his widow Marie). And, I’ve written extensively about the bi-partisan whitewash of those responsible for the cover-up of Tillman’s friendly-fire death at my Feral Firefighter blog).

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