Was Pat Tillman Death Negligent Homicide?

The San Francisco Chronicle fronts a Matthew Stannard piece saying the Army has opened an inquiry into the April 2004 death of Pat Tillman that “will likely lead investigators from the Army Criminal Investigation Command to return to Afghanistan and conduct a monthslong investigation into whether Tillman’s death may have been a homicide, the result of criminal negligence or an accident.”

The initial investigating officer became a key witness in a subsequent inquiry, in which he testified that he thought some Rangers “could be charged for criminal intent.” For reasons that are not clear, the officer’s investigation was taken over by a higher-ranking commander. That officer’s findings, delivered the next month, called for less severe discipline than the initial investigator thought was warranted.

Tillman’s death was the subject of four reviews — two by the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, one by U.S. Army Special Forces Command and one by the Army’s Safety Center, which focused on preventing a similar case.

Seven soldiers received administrative reprimands, but no high-ranking officers have been disciplined. Tillman’s parents, who obtained heavily redacted versions of the investigations from the Army, complained publicly that the documents showed that Pentagon commanders — including Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command — had known soon after Tillman’s death that friendly fire had killed him.

The Army apologized in June 2005. But Tillman’s family, with the support of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and of Rep. [Mike] Honda [D-San Jose], demanded a further review of the case, and the inspector general agreed in August to conduct the review that led to Friday’s request for a criminal investigation.

The problem, however, is that none of the coverage on this gives any indication at all that Tillman’s death was the result of anything more nefarious than a poor tactical decision made at the platoon level.

Tillman’s platoon was split after a humvee became disabled — a decision one platoon leader protested was dangerous — and the two sides lost contact in a canyon, with Tillman’s group in the lead.

Some time later, according to testimony, the second group spotted Tillman’s group and opened fire wildly, despite the efforts of their lead vehicle driver — who recognized the group as friendly — and Tillman’s own efforts to identify himself by shouting and setting off a smoke grenade.

Somebody made a command decision that went terribly wrong. It is unclear what “one platoon leader” means in this context since there is only on Platoon Leader. Did some squad or team leader raise an objection?

Regardless, absent substantial evidence to the contrary, one does not charge leaders with crimes for poor tactical decisions. The risk of death is sufficient enough stress not to compound it with post hoc second guessing with criminal consequences.

The CNN‘s account offers no help, either, telling us that “fellow soldiers shot Tillman, thinking he was part of an enemy force firing at them.” We have known that for well over a year now.

WaPo also puts the story on A1. The key sentence: “Pentagon officials notified Tillman’s family on Friday that a review of the case by the Defense Department’s inspector general has determined that there is enough evidence to warrant a fresh look, after initial investigations that were characterized by secrecy, mishandling of evidence, and delays in reporting crucial facts about what had happened.”

The NYT account offers a bit more clarity:

Pentagon officials said no new evidence had prompted the inquiry and would not speculate about the outcome or timing. But the officials said that given the confusion on a battlefield, it would be highly unusual to pursue criminal charges against a soldier for the death of a comrade.

Col. Joseph Curtin, an Army spokesman, said that the scope of the new inquiry had yet to be defined but that investigators would look at whether the soldiers violated military law when they failed to identify their targets before opening fire on his position.

Army Rangers are not policemen. On the other hand, their Rules of Engagement (ROE) might have required them to act as if they were, announcing themselves to a target unless they were being fired upon. While that would have likely saved Tillman’s life in this case, it would likely get a lot of more Rangers killed as a general policy, taking away the element of surprise and ensuring the enemy always got in the first shot.

A Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, said that the inspector general in ordering another inquiry had not found evidence of a criminal offense, in Corporal Tillman’s death or in the other investigations. Rather, Mr. Whitman said, the inspector general concluded that the Army had failed to conduct a thorough enough investigation, including the possibility of criminal activity, immediately after Corporal Tillman’s death on April 22, 2004.

So, the “possibility of criminal activity” is merely a routine throw-in to emphasize that this would be a thorough investigation, rather than an indication that anyone thinks criminal behavior resulted in Tillman’s death.

Most of these stories highlight the continued frustration of Tillman’s family. From WaPo:

Mary Tillman [Pat’s mother] said yesterday that she believes evidence of a crime has existed all along, and that the family’s repeated calls for a criminal investigation were ignored until now. “It is completely obvious that this should have been done from the very beginning,” she said. “The military has had every opportunity to do the right thing, and they haven’t. They knew all along that something was seriously wrong, and they just wanted to cover it up.”

Patrick Tillman Sr. expressed skepticism that the new investigation will yield additional answers. “I think it’s another step,” he said. “But if you send investigators to reinvestigate an investigation that was falsified in the first place, what do you think you’re going to get?”

Indeed, it seems to me that the more likely finding of criminality would be in the events after Tillman’s death that led to it being reported as a heroic clash against the enemy rather than a tragic internecine blunder. While I understand why the Army would want that image to come out, for both altruistic and selfish reasons, knowlingly rendering a false report violates the UCMJ. Making a bad tactical decision to split one’s force does not.



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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jonk says:

    Good luck getting anyone to volunteer for service if they lock you up for this kind of thing. It is hard enough in combat, but having to second guess everytime you pull the trigger will result in more deaths, not less.

    As stated in Murphy’s Law of Combat:

    Friendly fire…isn’t


    The only thing more accurate than incoming enemy fire is incoming friendly fire.

    Yes, the tactical decisions were pretty bad…but if we locked up troops for that, we would not have a fighting force left.

  2. Bithead says:

    You know, back when Tillmen’s deaths originally occurred, I went to some links to point out that I was uncomfortable with the amount of attention his death was receiving versus that of Sergeant Joe Lunchpail.

    I said at that time;

    …I outright refuse to be caught in the trap of regarding the death of this one soldier as being of greater impact than the death of any other. I will not hold the service of this one to be unequal to any other that serves us true.

    now, I have to question whether or not this investigation would be extended so were anyone but Tillman involved. It seems to me, that the only people that were really benefit from the senate investigation, are those who have been all along seeking to minimize the contributions of our military, those who didn’t agree with our intervention in Iraq, and those to whom who appeasement was the only path to peace.

    James, your point about the only provable criminality going on here that can even be conceived of would be following the death of Tillman. We both know, in politics it’s not the action it’s the covering up of the action that’ll get you. Which in turn leads me to think that this entire Re-investigation is politically motivated.

    So again, comes the question: Whom does this investigation benefit? The only people that I can see this benefiting, are those seeking to discredit the military. Those seeking to weaken our military. Those also, seeking to discredit its commander in chief.

    And, at G., given this looks increasingly politically motivated, home to you suppose that would be?

  3. Bithead says:


  4. legion says:

    The definitely smells funny. After all this time, it’s quite odd to see an investigation into the event itself rather than, as James notes, the FUBAR’d notification and potential whitewashing afterwards by the Army. Which would make me lean towards Bithead’s opinion that this is purely political, except that it’s the Army itself that has decided to go ahead with the investigation. If there were some implication that it was triggered by a partisan group or Congressmember, that at least would make sense…

  5. legion says:

    Oh, and another applicable Murphyism:
    Incoming fire has the right-of-way.

  6. LJD says:

    Did you even read?

    the familyâ??s repeated calls for a criminal investigation

    Nothing ‘smells funny’. It was an accident that was previously ‘hushed up’ because of the typical media frenzy that would occur over this celebrity. Now we get to see it- yay!. The enemy is laughing their asses off.

    Pat’s Mom will not get ‘justice’ (there’s nothing to get) although she will do her son a great disservice. Hopefully, Mama Sheehan has not found a rally buddy.

  7. legion says:

    Oh, I read it all right. You’ll note though that “the family’s repeated calls” don’t mean squat to the Army IG – this is an internally-driven investigation, not one (as far as I’ve seen in any article yet) driven by Congressional inquiries, the “liberal media”, or the ACLU. The Army is doing this themselves, and I don’t think they’d re-hash this unpleasant affair if they didn’t have some sort of good reason…