Sport in one section of the paper, news in another. It has been that way forever and, despite the personal obsessions of those of us who believe sport may matter in the greater scheme of things or, even more fancifully, serve as a metaphor for real life, the demarcation is probably not a bad idea; it stops confusion. Serious stuff over there. Fun and games over here. But every once in a while the two worlds collide and when they do you cannot but help think that sport, for all its ultimate inconsequentiality, is not a metaphor for real life but an essential escape from its corruption and cynicism. Pat Tillman's story is a case in point.
Unless you follow NFL football, you will not have heard of Tillman. He was a defensive back with the Arizona Cardinals until the summer of 2002, when he turned down a new $3.7m (£2m) contract and enrolled in the US Army. The player declined to speak publicly about his decision, although it came out that he wanted to help find Osama bin Laden. To liberal-minded British ears, this probably makes Tillman sound like a knuckle-headed Rambo. He wasn't. He was an articulate and well-informed man who subscribed to the Economist, travelled with a small library of Noam Chomsky books and urged his friends to vote Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.
For the Bush administration, recently embarked on its "war on terror," Tillman's story was an enormous PR boost. Professional athlete eschews fortune for patriotic duty - not even a White House well-versed in spinning self-serving propaganda could have dreamed up such a perfect recruitment story. Tillman finished his basic training in time to be sent to Iraq as part of the US invasion force, before he was sent to Afghanistan in early 2004. There he remained until April 22 2004, when he was killed while on patrol in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
His death came at a bad time for the US government. The occupation of Iraq was not going well, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal would break within a few days. The Pentagon immediately announced Tillman had died a heroic death while fighting the Taliban. George W. Bush, whose own patriotism never stretched to completing his Texas National Guard duty, spoke of Tillman's "ultimate sacrifice for the war on terror" and offered to record a tribute to be broadcast during a live NFL game. The soldier was awarded a posthumous Silver Star. On April 30 an Army press release described how Tillman was killed while storming enemy positions. As Frank Rich of the New York Times later wrote, "It would be a compelling story, if only it were true."
Over the past two years investigations by the San Francisco Chronicle and Washington Post, with help from Tillman's family, have since pieced together the truth about his death. It is a complicated narrative but it can be pared down to a simple fact: he wasn't killed by Taliban fighters but by members of his own platoon who, in the confusion of nightfall, believed he was attacking their positions.
Fratricide is one of the inevitable consequences of war. It is tragic but, in its context, understandable. What is not understandable or forgivable is the behaviour of Tillman's superior officers (and presumably, given his high profile, their superiors back in Washington), who knew that he had been killed by friendly fire but continued to spin the fiction that the Taliban were responsible.
Tillman's family was only told about the true cause of his death five weeks after his memorial service had been broadcast on national television. "People in positions of authority went out of their way to script this," said the dead man's father, Patrick Tillman. "They covered it up. I think they thought they could control it and they realized their recruiting efforts were going to hell in a hand basket if the truth got out. They blew up their poster boy."
For months Tillman's family has been calling for a independent inquiry into the circumstances of his death and the subsequent cover-up. Given the secrecy of the Bush administration such an inquiry is unlikely, though there was a breakthrough of sorts this week when it was revealed that Tillman's death was to be the subject of a criminal probe.
"The Army owes it to the family to answer their questions," a Pentagon spokesman said, which is just about the most honest thing anyone from it has said through this entire sorry affair.
© 2006 Guardian Newspapers Limited