Pat Tillman, The Skeptical ‘Warrior’ And ‘Hero’

The Pat Tillman who is the centerpiece of Jon Krakauer‘s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman is a familiar, often admirable, archetype: the ‘warrior’ who wants to fight, to win glory, but who doubts the moral standing of the domain in which he will exercise his courage and skills, and as such, his own standing as a hero. This kind of soldier finds deeply problematic all those aspects of military life which are the subject of critique by those on the ‘outside’: the fascist discipline, the endless chickenshit (so memorably described by Paul Fussell in Wartime), the dubious justification of deadly violence, the quiescent acceptance of political atrocity. This ‘warrior’ finds, in the company he keeps, the best and worst humanity has to offer; his companions are not the bravest, the best, or anything like that; they are, instead, in the diversity they embody, perfectly ordinary. The battlefield promises sublimity, but it is also a zone for stupidity, cowardice, treachery, and the worst humanity has to offer. This ‘warrior’ sees it all; takes it all in; and continues to fight, to support his ‘brothers in arms.’ He remains conflicted; not for him the simple clarity of those who obey orders and care for little else. His inconsistency is a familiar one; we are all afflicted by it. We know we can despise something one moment, and yet still be unable to tear ourselves away from it, because of a conflicting commitment.

Tillman, an NFL player who signed up for the US Army after 9/11 because he wanted to ‘do something,’ to ‘fight for the right thing,’ found, almost immediately, that the military was not what he imagined it to be, that the wars he would fight were not the ones he imagined them to be. Yet, he fought on, unwilling to back out and quit even when he had the chance to do so–his contractual commitment called for a three-year stint, and he would complete it, despite his increasing disgust at the conduct of war, at military manners and ways of being. Given the conflict that seemed to be an ever-present aspect of his life in the military, his life’s end seemed grimly appropriate: Tillman was killed, in Afghanistan, by ‘friendly fire’ and his death was covered up by a military and administration keen to use his death for its propaganda value, to cover up any of its own operational, tactical, and ultimately, moral, shortcomings.

There will be more wars in our future, and many more soldiers will die fighting them. They will continue to fight alongside the ‘dregs of humanity’ and the ‘best their nation has to offer’; they will be led by clowns and geniuses alike; they will kill innocents. And  they will include, in their ranks, soldiers like Pat Tillman (and Bowe Bergdahl.) They will be caught up in the rush, but they will find time to step back and cast a quizzical glance over it all. Reading about them is useful, especially in the American context; we are a nation that fights wars all the time; we should know who fights for us, and what is on their minds. We should expect to find humans in all their complicated glory.

 

2 comments on “Pat Tillman, The Skeptical ‘Warrior’ And ‘Hero’

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Having been a pivotal “international” event in my pre-teen and early teen years (in Irving, Texas, of all places, and later in southern California), the Vietnam War had an enormous impact on my lifeworld and the eventual formation of my worldview (and not just because I missed having to register for the draft by a year or so: I’ll never forget the TV reporting and corresponding conversations and debates among family members and friends). Ever since, I’ve found myself devouring works on the war, and especially material by veterans who came to oppose the war. And I was fortunate enough to be a teaching assistant for the late Walter Capps’ groundbreaking college course on the conflict (‘The Impact of the Vietnam War on American Religion and Culture,’ or something like that–it became a model for such things*). Despite having never been there, I’ve come to love the country and the people of Vietnam. And, of course (for those who know me), I eventually assembled a bibliography on the war. …So this post strikes a deep chord.

    * In fact, there was very little directly related to religion in the course, although it was offered in the Religious Studies Department!

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Perhaps I should have noted that I realize your post was not about the Vietnam War as such but war(s) generally ….

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