Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day Discourse - The Price of Courage

Veterans Day means many things to many people. Personally, it is a time to reflect on the horror of war and honor those who have died in battle. But mostly, it is an opportunity to be exceedingly grateful that I have never had a compelling reason to join the military. I am also quick to recognize how lucky I am to have even had a choice in the matter. Thankfully, the thought of being forced to war (a frightening reality in the U.S. until 1973) is utterly inconceivable and I am thoroughly appreciative of the ability to consciously, legally avoid situations where I am forced to kill or be killed.

Since my generation has never had to worry about a draft, there has always been an assumption that one joins the military to either a) locate some financial assistance or a future career, or b) satisfy some kind of psychological urge for structure or violence. This is a generalization, of course, but also neatly sums up the core themes of Armed Forces advertising campaigns, so these opportunities must be appealing to someone. Without question, the decision is certainly a combination of various critical factors and there are obviously very complex reasons for signing your life away to Uncle Sam for a minimum of two years. Yet somehow I imagine that the best soldiers (at a time when enlistment is not mandatory) possess a healthy appreciation of (or at least a tolerance for) the latter elements.

For the record, I say all of this with a strong military presence in my family and deep respect for the security we enjoy courtesy of our Armed Forces. But beyond this appreciation of personal fortune and the sacrifice of others, I generally accomplish my patriotic duty for Veterans Day by watching football all week long and drinking domestic beer. I do this most Fall weeks anyway but recent military-themed NCAA and NFL programming over the past few days has forced me to come to a seemingly unpatriotic and unsettling conclusion: America killed Pat Tillman.

For those familiar with Tillman’s story (and more importantly, with the extent to which he has been glorified by the media; especially NFL-related sports outlets), this statement may fall somewhere between mildly shocking to grossly offensive. In truth, even I am disturbed by the potentially inflammatory nature of a claim that, if misinterpreted, may seem to minimize the inherent value of a life taken in the line of duty. It should be clear that this is certianly not my intent. It just seems as if his legacy should be examined within a semi-objective cultural context that serves as more than a vehicle for Chris Berman's labored superlatives, a heavily-orchestrated soundtrack and Arizona Cardinal football highlights.

Theoretically, Pat Tillman left a successful NFL career and sacrificed his life defending the United States of America. This is his lasting public legacy. But in reality he has (in the media-driven wake of his horrifyingly un-glorious death) become a depressingly simplified representation of a highly dangerous, uniquely American mix of arrogance, aggression, and tragedy. In reality, Pat Tillman, and most importantly his death as a result of being shot in the head three times by “alleged” friendly fire in Afghanistan, represents little more than a grim casualty of this country’s fundamental political, industrial, military and sporting ideology. Kill or be killed.

In public, Pat Tillman’s legacy is recounted with words like “hero” and “warrior.” In private, by those who truly loved him and miss him, there are likely unheard cries of “victim” and “waste.” These are not angry, mean-spirited words. They are deeply, painfully sad words. To his family and his country, Tillman was a tragically willing manifestation of a culture that outwardly encourages personal sacrifice while comfortably judging the world through television sets in the safety of warm living rooms. His legacy is carved in stone among the largely irrelevant flag-waving, jersey-wearing masses but Marie Tillman is now a widow and his family has been forever devastated by his choice to fight in a war that he may have ultimately come to question.

Pat Tillman was different than most people, and probably did not have much in common with many of those who now claim to idolize him. He was a man of extreme action and outward strength, whose life was brutally extinguished in an effort to embody values few possess, and which rarely exist in the real world. By representing an almost Hollywood-esque vision of patriotism (and perhaps, from a psychological perspective, subconsciously motivated by a personal desire for revenge as much as an active civic responsibility) Tillman consciously put his sworn obligation to care for his wife and family behind by volunteering for a starting position on the front lines of a lopsided war taking place halfway across the globe.

In 2002, Pat Tillman turned down a contract offer from the Arizona Cardinals of $3.6 million over three years to enlist in the U.S. Army. This money would have secured the financial future of his wife and family, while still allowing significant room for charitable contributions to any number of military causes. A fraction of Tillman’s annual salary would have been able to enrich the lives of hundreds of families already affected by the war(s) in Afghanistan and Iraq. But instead of maximizing this potential good will, he chose to quit the NFL, leave his family and risk becoming yet another number in the growing death toll.

Again, it should be clearly reiterated that I have immense respect for Pat Tillman on many levels, both personal and professional. It is virtually impossible for me to take issue with someone who has, at least in principle, sacrificed his life for my country. While I may disagree with his perceived logic and decision-making in this particular instance, such differences of opinion are common among thoughtful human beings and certainly not indicative of a personal desire to damage his reputation in any way. For the record, my concern is with the cultural context of his death and how it has been portrayed and manipulated by the media. In fact, Tillman’s reputation (and what it says about America) is what I am most concerned with.

Judging from standard media portrayals, Pat Tillman was the epitome of a contemporary hero, exemplifying the best “warrior” qualities of a football player, soldier and the All-American Man. However, I fear this description is misleading and potentially dangerous. One would hope that such a Man would place higher value on his potential contribution to family and society. Such a Man would ideally put these obligations above his own short-term personal motivations, no matter how noble they may have seemed to him at the time. Sadly, it is difficult to locate this mentality in the final act of Tillman’s life and subsequently, he has been reduced to a caricature of himself within much of the mainstream media. His legacy has now moved from that of a curiously tragic figure to a one-dimensional ultra-man who made the courageous, yet largely inexplicable choice to turn his back on millions of dollars in order to fight a war that ultimately, did not require his presence.

The mysterious nature of Tillman's death and subsequent controversy regarding its details have only served to further distance his public story from whatever the original truth may have been. It seems that no one (including the U.S. Army and his family) knows exactly what led to Pat Tillman being shot three times in the head by a fellow American soldier and at this point, it is difficult to separate the gruesome reality from the glamorized "warrior" images that now serve as the only visual reminder of his life for the general public. Strikingly similar to football, the true violence and danger of war is often masked by a shining, heroic facade of valor and honor. Tillman may have honestly embodied these traits as he performed his duty on the football field and battle field but in reality, both endeavors likely favor those who are willing to sacrifice any such notions. Valor and honor cannot guarantee a safe return home.

By all accounts, Pat Tillman was a good man, a good football player, and a good soldier who actually had very intelligent, critical thoughts on the war effort. By nature, one would assume that he would probably be uncomfortable with the title of “Hero.” Instead, he would likely prefer to be remembered as a “Patriot” and seemed to exemplify this description in both thought and action, perhaps more than almost anyone I can recall in my lifetime. That was probably enough for him and it should be enough for us. Heroes only exist in myths and sadly, Pat Tillman’s life and death are very real.


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PELewisPE said...

I think you are right to be concerned about the exploitation of Pat Tillman.

I think you are right to be careful (apologetic might be a better word) in your tight-rope walk, trying to trash Tillman's admirers without trashing Tillman.

I also think you should reconsider your disdain for Tillman's admirers. The fact they express their admiration for Tillman in ways you find offensive does not automatically mean they are any less sincere or thoughtful than you are.

CaliRado Cyclist said...

Thank you for your comment, and please forgive the delay in my response.

However, it should be noted that the criticism in this piece is focused on the simplistic media representation of Pat Tillman and its cultural origin, not individuals who admire him for reasons which may be different than mine. Notions of heroism and patriotism are referenced but there was no intended sense of "disdain" for those who admire him, or question of whether they are "sincere" or "thoughtful."

Although, it could be reasonably inferred from the tone of the piece that this comes from a perspective of "sincere" "disdain" for the limited "thoughtfulness" of a "kill or be killed" cultural ideology. That is "trash."