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.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Conversation With The Devil In A Silver Subaru

The stretch of 4th Street leading south past the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine rises sharply but is fairly easy to ride up quickly without too much effort. Unfortunately, there is a stop sign at the intersection with Mapleton Avenue at the top of the hill that kills whatever momentum you have carried up the incline, and there are usually enough cars going up or down Sunshine Canyon to force an awkward “No, please, you go” scenario when you get there. That is, if you bother to stop at all.

The silver Subaru revved unnervingly behind me as I began to accelerate through the intersection, grinding my previously perfect but now painful gear back up to speed. I knew from the sound of the engine that this car had just performed a “California Roll” through the stop sign and was quickly bearing down on me as I crossed over Mapleton Hill. Normally this is not a concern but the street was beginning to narrow and there were cars parked all along the right curb, cutting my lane by a full four feet almost immediately. This did not matter to the silver Subaru, who raced along side me going well over the speed limit, pushing me further to the right and forcing me to brake in order to avoid doing a Davis Phinney impersonation into the back of a Lexus SUV.

I pulled back into the street and watched as the silver Subaru accelerated toward a large truck that was heading up to one of the many remodeling and construction projects on Mapleton Hill. For a moment I was certain that there would be a head-on collision, likely resulting in various unpleasant injuries and an even more unpleasant 911 call by yours truly. But honestly, a darker part of me kind of wanted to see the Subaru taste a little instant karma (as well as the bumper of a fully-loaded Toyota Tacoma).

The trucker laid heavily on the horn and finally managed to curb-check it enough to allow the silver Subaru to squeeze through without damage, but it was incredibly close. The truck stopped and a bearded man began leaning his head out of the window as I passed, both of us shaking our heads in mutual disgust. I could not make out the details of the driver’s comments but I am confident that they were not suitable for children.

The silver Subaru took a right turn at the bottom of the hill and I casually followed its path into the condominium parking lot at the end of the street. Usually I do not follow aggressive drivers (and certainly do not recommend it) but for some reason I felt a need to let this person know that he or she was probably not meeting the standard mental health requirements for Colorado driving privileges. Or at the very least, I wanted to ask why he or she chose to drive in such a manner when they only lived a few blocks away. I didn’t expect a positive reaction but I was wearing a helmet and had easy access to a bike pump if things got really out of hand.

When the forty-fifty-ish woman with a man’s haircut and sandals got out of the silver Subaru, she acted like nothing had happened. When she noticed me pulling up to the car she shockingly exclaimed, “Can you believe that truck honked at me? He almost hit me!”

I almost fell down in amazement but managed to circle back around and compose myself before responding, “Well, usually people honk when they are about to get hit, not when they are doing the hitting. I think that was actually your fault back there.”

She finished pulling her yoga mat out of the car and began to say something stupid when I interrupted her and stated in a firm yet unemotional tone, “You nearly hit me after blowing through the stop sign on Mapleton and then drove into oncoming traffic and nearly hit that truck. Just so you could get home from yoga class three seconds sooner? YOU are the problem and you are a menace.”

After those words came (semi-involuntarily) out of my mouth, I realized that last part may have been a bit excessive and it seemed to trigger a weird reaction in the manly-coiffed silver Subaru driver. She stuttered for a moment, shaking angrily in her stupid yoga clothes that would be inappropriate for a woman half her age and then blurted out, “I don’t have time for this right now.”

The mannish yoga wench stormed across the parking lot like a spoiled eight year-old brat and then suddenly (and rather humorously) realized that she had not locked her car. I watched for a moment as she turned back toward me, looked at her keys, then turned back around and walked away. She was apparently willing to leave whatever stupid valuables she may have had in the silver Subaru unprotected in order to avoid speaking to me again. But I didn’t really have anything else to say anyway, so it was probably better for both of us that she ran home like a little girl with Tom Brokaw’s haircut. Besides, her yoga mat was a better weapon than my bike pump.

If I were a meaner person (like her) I would have done something unpleasant to the exterior of her car after she ran away like a flexible, elitist coward. If I were really messed up I probably would have ripped out her stereo. But I’m the kind of guy who feels bad about yelling at stupid drivers, so I just rode away silently and lit her condo on fire later that night.