Monday, April 26, 2004

RIP PAT TILLMAN: Pro football player Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan last week. He was serving as a U.S. Army Ranger and was killed in an ambush.

Everywhere I turn on the Web today, even when I’m just trying to find a recap of the NFL Draft, I find another emotional, almost worshipful obituary for Tillman. This is a man who walked away from a $3.6 million NFL contract in order to put his life on the line in the service of our country. Peter King of Sports Illustrated writes, “[I]n 100 years, school children across a changed United States will be reading books about an American hero named Pat Tillman.”

Pat Tillman is a potent figure. From pro football player to Army Ranger: this guy’s real life was like two Nintendo games put together. I half-expect to read that Tillman dated the Playmate of the Year and test-drove BMWs in his spare time, just to complete the package, and make him the perfect object of male adulation.

What’s more, Tillman was cool, in the way rock stars and champion surfers are cool. He wasn’t a striver. His talent flowed out of him, bringing him joy, not angst. He defied the glitz and soullessness that fans too often observe in sports today. He didn’t succumb to the undignified fate of most bigtime jocks, desperately wringing every last day and last dollar out of his career. When the passion was gone, he walked away with hardly a look back.

I say all this with perfect hindsight. Tillman proved it by actually walking away from football. As it happened, what caused Pat Tillman to lose that passion was to look up and see the United States in peril. The enormity of the terrorist threat and the reality of American troops patrolling Afghanistan made football seem trivial. Men in Tillman’s family in past generations had put their lives on hold to serve in the military in times of national need. To uphold that tradition, and to join ranks with the thousands of anonymous servicemen and women in harm’s way overseas, was worth putting aside fame and wealth.

From all I can tell, Tillman himself would be truly embarrassed by the fuss being made over him today. He regarded his choice as a personal one; he didn’t want to be held up as a hero or a recruitment poster boy, and he would surely protest the amount of ink being devoted to his death as opposed to the scores of other recent deaths among our troops.

But the sheer fact of Tillman’s celebrity, and the remarkable selflessness of his decision to enlist, tend to blind us to some important questions raised by his story and his tragic death.

Who really feared that Pat Tillman wouldn’t make it home? I feel foolish for writing this, but surely I’m not alone in thinking it. Tillman did not even enter basic training until June 2002—months after we had apparently defeated the Taliban. War in Iraq was not planned at this time, if we take the Bush Administration at its word. When Tillman volunteered, football fans on the whole greeted the news with congratulations, not with forboding. He would be part of a policing operation. I could see Tillman was generously sacrificing a huge sum of money and a few years in the NFL spotlight. I had no inkling that he would sacrifice everything. Who dreamed that in April 2004, two and a half years after U.S. troops arrived in the country, that conditions in Afghanistan would still be so deadly?

The writers memorializing Tillman usually mention the lucrative contract he spurned when he joined the Army. He had been living on a filet mignon salary, but he willingly traded it for a steady diet of MREs. He was the complete antithesis of a war profiteer. But if we applaud Tillman’s economic sacrifice, what do we make of Halliburton and the other private subcontractors turning a profit in Iraq and Afghanistan? What do we make of the thousands of professional soldiers—Americans and others--who finish their hitch on active military duty, then quickly hire on to do a similar job for a sharp rise in pay for private security firms?

Football and warfare: both are the stuff of video games and prime-time television. Lots of American men would give up a body part for a chance to play football for a living. Sure, it’s a dangerous business, but a rewarding one as well. Warfare is a somewhat different matter. Certainly, many young Americans enter military service freely, out of a sense of duty, or sometimes as a path of upward mobility. But many others conclude that the risk and hardship outweigh the reward. We like the video-game version of warfare better than the reality; if military service is voluntary, most of us find that we have other priorities. Why are we so uncomfortable on the rare occasions when a public figure raises the question, as Sen. Chuck Hagel did recently, whether the United States should reinstitute a military draft? Why is Pat Tillman such an exceptional case? If the country’s freedom is worth fighting for, shouldn’t all citizens share in that cost?

What does it say about this moment in our history, when we make extravagant outpourings of grief over this star athlete, this golden boy, yet the multitude of people who are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan go uncommemorated by name? When the Pentagon does its damnedest to prevent civilians from seeing photos of our war dead, even unidentified, even laid out solemnly in flag-draped coffins?

I wouldn’t dare presume to ascribe my views to Pat Tillman. He seems to have pursued his mission with skill, bravery, and devotion. In my small way, never having known him, I salute his sacrifice and mourn his death. I hope school children are reading about him in 100 years, but I fear he will be forgotten. The final count of the dead may be too high; America’s cause in Afghanistan, too murky; the outcome, ambiguous or worse.

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