April 29th, 2004

Tillman — It’s Not That Simple

Since the news broke last week about the death of former NFL player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, there have been a couple of occasions on which I’ve considered posting my thoughts about Tillman. In essence, they boil down to, “This guy gave up the chance to earn millions of dollars playing football in order to go get shot at (and ultimately killed)? What an idiot.” But it isn’t nearly as simple as that. And I haven’t really been able to get my head around the complexity of it. So I’ve decided to shut up about it.

Not so much, Rene Gonzalez, a grad student (I don’t know what discipline) at UMass, Amherst and a writer for the campus newspaper, the Daily Collegian. Gonzalez penned a piece for yesterday’s paper in which he painted Tillman as a Rambo type, calling him a “‘G.I. Joe’ guy who got what was coming to him.” He’s getting blasted for it, by readers and by university officials, includeing President Jack Wilson.

I have to say that I think Gonzalez goes too far. It’s cold-hearted and immature to suggest that someone who has been killed while performing his duty as a soldier “got what was coming to him.” No he didn’t, Rene. And you weaken your overall point by saying as much. You could argue that he got what he asked for. You could argue that he got what he should have expected. But to claim he got what he had coming to him is absurd. With the possible exception of terrorists, no one who has died in Afghanistan or Iraq got what they had coming to them. No one.

The piece is, of course, overly simplistic. It could only have been written by a college student. Tillman’s decision to quit football and join the army after September 11 was almost certainly capricious and probably foolhardy. (I’m sorry, but smart people don’t put themselves in the way of artillery unless they have to, either because of class/economic circumstances or because there’s an actual invasion on — and usually not even then.) But it doesn’t make sense to conclude that Tillman was looking for Rambo-style glory. Chances are, he really was doing what he thought was right. Chances are, he really believed there was a threat that needed to be confronted and felt an obligation to be part of the fight. I can’t begin to understand that instinct. I can’t begin to understand why he would give up what he gave up to go and fight at a time when our military was plenty full of people who weren’t making $3.6 million to play a game. But I’m sure the decision wasn’t driven by a lust for glory. There’s plenty of fake glory to be had with much less risk on the gridiron if that’s the kind of personality you have.

All that said, I think Gonzalez is mostly on the mark. It’s nonsensical to hold Pat Tillman up as a hero. He’s certainly not someone I’d want anyone I love to emulate. He’s no more a hero than anyone else who has died in this war, and they’re mostly not heroes either. They’re people who were doing their jobs. And theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die. (I’m not invoking Tennyson here because it’s fun, by the way. It seems to me “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” and a bit of Crimean War history, is appropriate reading for anyone who wants to understand this little war of Mr. Bush’s.)

And let’s be realistic. Tillman’s getting the attention he’s getting because it’s good for the war effort to say, “Look. Look at this big, right, successful athlete and the sacrifices he made for you and your freedom.” Because almost no one’s gonna speak ill of a dead soldier. And no one’s gonna point out, at least not right away, that the truth is that Pat Tillman and all those other dead soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan died for exactly nothing. Not freedom (which the Bush administration knows and cares little about), not democracy (which is a just an insulting fucking joke given the way Bush came to power), and certainly not to make anyone safer (creating a breeding ground for terrorists is not the way to make the world safer). It’s just too hard to admit. So all most people (everyone except Rene Gonzalez so far) are every gonna do is say, “Wow. He gave up everything. I guess I’d better keep on supporting the troops [which shouldn’t mean supporting the war, but somehow does].” And that’s seven points, easy, for the hawks.

That’s part of the ugly truth, anyhow. And that’s my take on Pat Tillman. Mostly. It’s still way to simple, but it’s what I’ve got for the moment.

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