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.


Bowe Bergdahl and the Military: An Unhappy Marriage

Bowe Bergdahl has always been a very interesting young man. As this profile by Kirk Johnson and Matt Furber makes clear, he carried around with him, as interesting people invariably do, a divided self, one drawn in several different directions all at once. Some psychic currents pulled him in the direction of spirituality and bookish solitude, others toward the outdoors, and yet others toward guns and adventure and traditional models of masculinity. These competing forces were enough to set up internal swirls and eddies, making his outward actions increasingly complicated, and setting him on an almost certain collision course with his employer, that bastion of hierarchical control: the military.

Many young men join the armed forces not because they want to go to war, but because they want to partake of certain benefits and pleasures that only the military can provide. (My father and my brother joined an air force because they wanted to fly. And they didn’t want to fly just airliners.) Some do it so they can travel, some to earn a college degree and marketable skills. And some, like Bergdahl perhaps, sense that the military might allow for a marriage of previously entertained passions. In this case, Bergdahl might have thought he would be able to traverse all manners of new landscapes, in the company of comrades, perhaps fulfilling a humanitarian mission of sorts, all the while equipped with gun and grenade.

We don’t know what caused Bergdahl to desert, or ‘go native’, or lose his bearings and allow himself to be captured. But we can guess at what might have gone wrong out there in Afghanistan. Perhaps, well aware of the histories of US and Afghanistan, and the manner of his use by the US Army, he had become possessed by the feeling that his mission was not as noble or well-defined or morally unambiguous as he might have imagined. More problematically, for a soul as restless as his, so used to questioning and inquiring, he would have found the military’s brooding indifference to his turmoil especially galling. This indifference would have been manifest not just in his superiors and the procedures they followed, but also in his comrades, many of whom would have better internalized the military’s expectations of them, and thus would have wanted nothing more than to complete their tours of duty quietly and return home.

The military, and war, can very often make men like Bergdahl into misfits. They find themselves out of place, literally and figuratively, their moral compass disoriented; even the vaunted camaraderie of the uniformed can seem a shallow cover-up for ugly deeds. They might expect mentorship from their superiors and only find unrelenting control and domination. Unsurprisingly, some snap–as Bergdahl might have.

Bergdahl’s re-entry to civilian life is likely to be very complicated. His older relationships need considerable reconfiguration and he might yet be punished–with varying degrees of punitiveness–by the Army. In any case, when the smoke has cleared, one can only hope he will write about his experiences. I look forward to reading his story.

On Meeting a Veteran

I have lived in New York City through the ten years that the twin wars of our time, the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been waged. In that time, I’ve met a few members of the armed forces who have served in those operations. (Their willingness to talk about their experience has varied: some reticent, some garrulous.)

I met another war veteran last week. He had served in Afghanistan, done his time, come back home. Back to high school friends, a girlfriend that is now his wife, and perhaps even the life he left behind. The war hadn’t left him alone. It had extracted its very particular grim price. Both his feet were gone, blown off by an improvised explosive device that had sent him flying twenty feet away. The military doctors had removed one foot almost immediately; they had fought hard, for weeks, to save the second foot before eventually giving up and removing that one too. The feet–and the legs till halfway up to the knee–had been replaced by prosthetic limbs. They  looked new and high-tech, marvels of science and technology, the products of the latest materials science and bio-medical engineering. He was already comfortable in them; he drove a truck, and casually crossed his legs as anyone else might.

When you think of ‘veteran’, you think perhaps of old men, grizzled types with blazers, medals, regiment caps, fading memories, reunion dinners and back-slapping bonhomie about postings to far off lands and the now-memorable discomforts of barracks life. What you might not immediately associate with ‘veteran’ is young, barely-twenty men with missing limbs who are expected to carry their experiences lightly, who might attempt a studied nonchalance about their catastrophic encounters with fate.

When you think of the costs of war, you often think of the trillion-dollar budgets and cost overruns that threaten bankruptcy and the straightforward, now numbing, numbers of the dead. You tend, sometimes, to forget the injured, those who returned, altered forever by what the war did to them. They are back, traveling along the modified trajectories of their new lives, leaving ripples around them in their families and communities,

I had traveled to Ohio, to the American Midwest, to attend the celebration of Eid, the Feast of Breaking the Fast, with my wife’s family. During the day, as the eating progressed, her cousin decided to expand the celebration by inviting his high-school friend–the vet–to come and partake of the lavish spread of curries, rice, sweets, and salads that we were noshing on.  M___ showed up; he had always liked these slightly chaotic, well-fueled gatherings that his friend had called him to for years.

We greeted him, we chatted; he ate a bit, and then stepped out on the porch to smoke a cigarette with his friend, my wife’s cousin. As I watched him from inside the living room, I was struck by how the weekday flirted with the dramatic: two friends sharing a quiet, utterly unremarkable moment together, one that could still be placed into a radically different context.

Ten Years After: The Anti-War March of Feb 15, 2003

Exactly ten years ago, I gathered with hundreds of thousands of others, on a freezing cold day in New York City, to take part in an anti-war march. I was still hungover from a friend’s book party the previous night. We marched, got corralled into pens, felt our extremities freeze, jousted with policemen, lost friends, made new ones, read angry, witty, colorful banners, shouted slogans, marched some more, and then finally, late in the evening, exhausted, numb, hungry, finally stumbled off the streets. (In my case, straight into a bar, to drink a couple of large whiskies. Yes, the hangover had worn off by then, and my rapidly dropping blood circulation seemed to call for rather vigorous stimulation.)

The march ‘didn’t work’: it was perhaps the visible zenith of the anti-war moment; an illegal, unjust and cruel war kicked off five days later. (I joined another protest march on the night news of the first bombings came in; it was pure unadulterated misery in cold, freezing rain, one only made barely palatable thanks to the running induced by attempted escapes from over-enthusiastic baton-wielding policemen.) Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans would die, and the next stage of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld nightmare began. Whatever its ramifications for the US, those for the Iraqi people were much worse: sectarian warfare would be the least of them.

I learned several important things that February 15th, ten years ago: massive mobilization of anti-war sentiment was possible some seventeen months after 9/11; a government committed to war is perhaps the most intransigent of all; policing of demonstrations was entering a new restrictive phase, one in which the First Amendment would be merely paid lip service and in which protest was to be as attenuated as possible. The first one was heartening and awe-inspiring; I learned later of the massive amount of organizing that the march required. The latter two were harbingers of further atrocities to come. (I also learned protective clothing for winters needs to be considerably enhanced if sustained, long-term exposure  lies ahead; I had worn long-johns, a heavy coat, gloves, and a hat, and I was still frozen after merely thirty minutes outside.)

Ten years on, war continues. The spectacular shock-and-awe bombing raids, the rumbling tanks, are gone, replaced by special forces operations and silent drone attacks, conducted from the US and felt far away. But non-combatants continue to die. The motivation for the war remains mysterious; the expenses for it steadily pile up, bankrupting budgets and national priorities. Two presidents got themselves elected to second terms using as a central campaign prop, the promise that they would pursue war as vigorously as possible. The Constitution took a battering; torture was defended; ‘rendition’ entered our vocabulary; war criminals were let off, and we were urged to move on. Veterans came home, sometimes in body bags, sometimes in wheelchairs; some committed suicide, others went off to try to adjust to ‘normal life.’ In their case, as with the dead children and civilians, we were urged to look away.

All war, all the time. Ten years of it. I’ve seen better decades.

Hyman Strachman the Pirate AKA Troops Supporter

Hyman Strachman is a pirate. But he doesn’t fly the Jolly Roger, drink rum, hop around on a pegleg with a cutlass tucked neatly into a cummerbund, board ships while yelling “aarrr!” or call anyone a ‘scurvy bilge rat.’ Rather, he buys DVDs, makes multiple copies of them using a ‘duplicator’ and ships them to US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He has not kept an official count but estimates that he topped 80,000 discs a year during his heyday in 2007 and 2008, making his total more than 300,000 since he began in 2004….

That sounds like massive copyright infringement to me. And it is. But Mr. Strachman is not going to be brought to justice any time soon. Not even by the MPAA:

Howard Gantman, a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America said he did not believe its member studios were aware of Mr. Strachman’s operation. His sole comment dripped with the difficulty of going after a 92-year-old widower supporting the troops. “We are grateful that the entertainment we produce can bring some enjoyment to them while they are away from home,” Mr. Gantman said.

Mr. Strachman’s activity, if carried out by anyone else, for any other reason, would have brought the wrath of the Righteous Copyright Enforcers, sorry, the MPAA, on his head. But Mr. Strachman is doing it for ‘the boys over there,’ fighting for our freedom. So Mr. Gantman eases up, knowing well that if there is one line you do not cross, it is the one that would turn you into a non-supporter of the troops. (Except when you are going after retired generals speaking unfavorably about the conduct of wars overseas; then you load both barrels and fire.)

Of course, the studios have tried to help ‘our boys’ as well, ‘sending military bases reel-to-reel films…and projectors for the troops.’ The reason studios send ‘reel-to-reel films’  to military bases and not DVDs is that they are well aware that DVD-burners and laptops are a dime-a-dozen on bases, and that the young, just-above-teenaged soldiers who make up a sizable portion of the troops overseas are quite likely to respond to DVDs in precisely the same way that young, just-above-teenaged men and women in the US react to DVDs back home: They’d make copies of them or rip them and pass those on. The studios love ‘our boys,’ they just don’t trust them to observe the laws they are defending.

Note:  As expected, the New York Times article linked to above uncritically parrots an MPAA talking point:

Although the most costly piracy now takes place online through file-sharing Web sites, the illegal duplication of copyright DVDs — usually by organized crime in Eastern Europe and China, not by retirees in their 90s in the American suburbs — still siphons billions of dollars out of the industry every year.

It would be extremely useful for the Times to tell us how these staggering ‘billions and billions‘ numbers are calculated. For I have no idea. It would also be a useful enhancement of this debate if once, just once, the Times might talk about how movie attendance is enhanced by the word-of-mouth buzz created by the presence of ‘pirated’ DVDs and torrented versions of movies. Just once.

This Summer I Hear The Drumming, Sixteen Dead in Panjwai

It seems a peculiarly American destiny, hovering over the heads of this nation and its people, to keep on reading, in the morning papers, news paragraphs like the following:

Any accelerated withdrawal would face stiff opposition from military commanders, who want to keep the bulk of the remaining American troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, when the NATO mission in Afghanistan is supposed to end. Their resistance puts Mr. Obama in a quandary, as he balances how to hasten what is increasingly becoming a messy withdrawal while still painting a portrait of success for NATO allies and the American people.

A military presence in a foreign land; a seemingly endless, intractable, formless conflict; a political establishment confused about war objectives, tactics, and strategy; military and political commanders at loggerheads; the calculus of troop withdrawal, as always, juggling with face-saving devices as the original provenance of war’s declaration and continued execution fades into a remote past; these are all familiar components of wars persecuted overseas.

And now, it seems, another more gruesomely familiar piece can be fitted into this emerging puzzle: the cold-massacre of innocents, carried out by a member of the military. US Army Sergeant X (we do not know his name as yet), coldly, deliberately, kills sixteen civilians in Panjwai District in the province of Kandahar.  He goes on a deadly walkabout a mile from base, hunting door to door for prey, breaking in to kill at three separate locations. At the end, he collects the bodies of eleven victims, which include four girls, and cremates them.

Assessment of Sergeant X as psychopathic is likely; he is in custody and presumably, the wheels of justice, military and civil will now grind to dispense the appropriate punishment. Well, one can hope; let us not forget that the gentleman whose name sprang to some folks’ lips when they first heard the news of the Panjwai massacre, Second Lieutenant William Calley, was convicted, found guilty of killing twenty-two villagers, given a life sentence, but only served three and a half years under house arrest.

But the policies, mechanisms, and machinery, both political and military that brought Sergeant X to Panjwai, that kept him there, along with thousands of other US troops (and their Afghan henchmen) will not be on trial along with him. Sergeant X will be tried as isolated singularity, as exception, the lens narrowly focused on him and his deeds. Synoptic perspectives on his presence in the midst of his victims will be in short supply; laser-like precision of diagnosis and prescription, discarding broader political views, will be much more popular.

Of course, what makes Panjwai genuinely tragic is that it was foretold: dirty wars like Afghanistan inevitably dehumanize and produce these moral catastrophes. The question was when, how often, where; the genuine curiosity was only directed, perhaps, at the eventual body count. Sergeant X has had a small, walk-on part to play; he has performed it with gruesome efficiency. The rest of the accompanying charade can now be kicked off.

Barbells for America? Crossfit, the Military and War

On any given day, if you were to click over to the Crossfit ‘mainsite’,  the chances are you will find a reference to the military  in the daily entry. Today, on February 25th, the blog prescribes a ‘Hero workout’ named ‘Zimmermann‘ named after U.S. Marine Corps First Lieutenant James R. Zimmerman, who died in action in Afghanistan. (The  ‘Hero’ workouts are almost invariably named after men; recently, one of them, ‘White’, was named after a woman, U.S. Army First Lieutenant Ashley White, who, like Zimmermann, died in action in Afghanistan.) The ‘mainsite’ often features photographs of members of the military working out at US bases all over the world, service members frequently write in the comments space, and occasionally articles with a military or national security orientation are linked to on the blog; Crossfit affiliate gyms all over the country offer discounts to the military; the annual fund-raising event Fight Gone Bad raises money for wounded servicemen; and many affiliates celebrate Memorial Day by performing the ‘Murph’ Hero workout (named after Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, killed in action in Afghanistan).

There is, it appears, something of the military in Crossfit’s genes. (This is partially explained by the fact that service members were among the first to adopt Crossfit training routines and that much military physical training already incorporated aspects of the Crossfit training methodology.)

So, is Crossfit ‘militaristic’, ‘pro-war’, ‘jingoistic’, ‘right-wing’, ‘cheerleaders for US imperialism and expansionism’, or whatever else? The answer, like that to any interesting question, is complicated. The flavor of the ‘mainsite’–moreso in the past–often seemed to indicate a facile ‘yes’ answer to those questions. (When I was first directed to the ‘mainsite’ by a Crossfitting friend, he warned me to ‘stay away from their frightening right-wing politics’; when I got to the site, I found an article by Charles Krauthammer just below the daily workout entry.)

But as Crossfit’s popularity has grown, and as the demographic associated with Crossfit has diversified from a core population made up of  servicemen, law-enforcers and firemen–the three groups that until recently, were the only ones to receive membership discounts; my affiliate now offers discounts to teachers–the ‘orientation’, such as it is, of Crossfit, has become more ambiguous. Crossfit doesn’t just mean Air Force crewmen working out in hangars; it also means Berkeley grads sprinting on beaches in North California; it doesn’t only conjure up images of crewcut privates working out in remote mountain outposts, but also those of post-natal soccer moms discussing paleo recipes (and perhaps even skinny-jean clad hipsters riding gearless bikes to the daily WOD).

The Crossfit world is made up of thousands of affiliates each with its own particular flavor, style, demographic, geographic location, and culture. And many of those who Crossfit now don’t like wars in general, they don’t like the wars the US wages, they think the best way to ‘support our boys over there’ is to bring them right back home so that they don’t get killed in action (and stop killing others), to stop spending money on drones or stealth bombers, and to spend it on public schools, infrastructure, and basic scientific research instead. Their membership, enthusiastic participation, and responses to Crossfit’s connections with the military complicate any easy answers to those questions.

Many Crossfitters disdain the political implications of a workout regime: ‘I workout, move the weight, sweat the work, and I’m done. I stay away from the politics.’ This apolitical response works most of the time. But at times like Fight Gone Bad, or at the Memorial Day ‘commemorations’, as one performs ‘Murph’, it is hard not to have to face up to the question of what affiliation with, or participation in, a perhaps-militaristic culture might entail for one’s own political commitments. (This complication is especially enhanced by that all-too-common exhortation, ‘Even if you don’t support US foreign policy, you should be behind the brave servicemen and women, out there, doing their jobs’).

I cannot–and will not–attempt an answer for anyone else that Crossfits. (I do hope that by writing this post, I can raise questions for any Crossfitter to consider. ) All I can do is offer a few thoughts about my personally complicated implication in all of this.

I’m a naturalized US citizen, I have marched in anti-war marches, I find the culture of masculine violence veneration obnoxious. But, I also write books on military aviation history; more particularly, air wars in the Indian subcontinent; members of my family–my father and my brother–have served in the military (the Indian Air Force); my father fought in two wars–the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan–and picked up a gallantry medal. Some of my most enjoyable childhood memories are those of watching jets–afterburners on–take off; some of my most pleasurable adult experiences have been of interviewing war veterans for my books.

Pro-military? Anti-military? For the ‘boys’? Or against them? Comfortable with Crossfit’s connections with the military, or not?

The answer, I think, is a mishmash of many competing impulses. The comfort-seeking apolitical part of me disdains a conceptual connection between a workout regime and a political orientation; another part, the one that thinks ‘the personal is political’, is made uncomfortable by my association with a ‘culture’ or ‘institution’ that is so passionately pro-military and perhaps militaristic. These responses are made ambiguous by my personal identification with members of the military; I find myself striking up conversations about service life with servicemen quite easily; I think of myself as a ‘military brat’ and find empathy with the children of service members. And somehow, I still cannot bring myself to think that when I do a ‘Hero’ workout I am honoring the memory of the fallen. To do that, it seems to me that I should work to ensure no more children are ever orphaned by war, that no more families ever have to confront the sight of a funeral casket. My father, someone that actually fought in a war, as opposed to those who merely cheer for it from the sidelines, described it as ’90 percent boredom, 10 percent confusion’; he refused to glamorize war and disdained the telling of tall war tales; he urged me to think about careers other than that of a fighter pilot; and by making sure I read more than just war comics, made me think about the politics that makes war possible.

The sum total of these competing impulses is ultimately determined, as it is for most people, by their own personal connections with Crossfit culture. I don’t ‘do Crossfit’; rather I work out with a group of folks that I can best describe as my friends, at a highly particular, specific location: Crossfit South Brooklyn. This, for me, isn’t Crossfit so much as it is ‘The House That David Built.’ It might utilize Crossfit training methodology but its deployment is uniquely personal and idiosyncratic. If there is an ideology on display here, it is that of working hard, and accepting as much diversity–in fitness yes, but in every other dimension as well–as possible. Fitting in here is easy just because the space accommodates so many in all their variety.

When I interviewed veterans for my books, to a man, they said their most important motivation in any display of courage was invariably personal; they fought not so much for flag or country but for the men, their friends, who worked with and alongside them; quite simply, they didn’t want to let them down. In my participation in Crossfit ‘culture’ a decidedly less martial variant holds true; I work out with my friends in a space that is accepting of my political stance, and in the end that is all that seems to matter. Last year, I dedicated my ‘Murph’ to my father and my brother. And even though I do not think performing a ‘Hero’ workout will honor the memory of the fallen as much as working to end wars will, if performing it helps someone think about war and its cost, then I’m all for it. In the end, it’s perhaps best to find– within this particular space–my personal orientation to the questions it raises and to answer them in my own way. What that way is, is something I’m still figuring out as I move on. (That is, when I’m not performing a workout or recovering from one; at those times, my mind is fixated, almost exclusively, on the demands my body is making on me!)

I remain, as always, deeply curious about what other Crossfitters think about the questions raised in this post, and would love to engage with their answers to it.