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.

Crossfit and the Military: A Way Forward

As a long-time member of Crossfit South Brooklyn, I have blogged here on Crossfit-related issues before (posts on Crossfit and the military, Crossfit and women, and of course, some training notes on weightlifting.) I’m not done yet writing about Crossfit, especially when it comes to issues of inclusiveness. On that note, I’m glad to welcome a guest post by Noah Barth, also a fellow Crossfitter, who has written a thoughtful post on the vexed relationship between Crossfit and military culture, a topic which I discussed–a while ago–in one of my most-read and discussed posts.

Noah offers a critique of Crossfit-military ties and goes on to suggest a possibly new orientation and focus for the community at large. It is his hope that by writing this post, he can spark a broader discussion about Crossfit–its past, present,and future.

Without further ado, here is Noah:

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Young Lady, You Too Can Strap On An Ammo Belt

It’s official: American women can now  kill strange people in strange lands, put themselves in harm’s way and die for their country.  The Pentagon’s announcement that women in the US military will now be allowed to serve in combat zones finally brings to an end a discriminatory policy that had looked increasingly ludicrous as women continued to serve in them anyway. It says a great deal about the world we live in that an announcement such as this is cause for celebration. Of course, my preliminary facetiousness notwithstanding, this is not celebration of the kind that says ‘Hooray! I’m gonna go get me some scalps now’ but rather, one of a more sober kind, one that acknowledges the lowering of a long-standing barrier that had served to showcase unquestioned prejudice, reinforced sexism, and more practically, denied employment opportunities and advancement to women. Consider, for instance, that it was always unlikely that in an armed service, one devoted to armed combat, that non-combatants would ever rise to the highest posts, be granted significant executive power, or have their workplace related issues taken seriously. This systematic discrimination continued while one sad truth was sometimes visible to those that cared to peek around the edges of official military policy:

The biggest safety concern for women in the military is actually not so much enemy fire as sexual attacks from fellow members of their own service. Because the crime is so underreported, it’s impossible to say how many women suffer sexual assault while they’re in uniform, but 3,192 cases were recorded in 2011.

These sexual assaults took place in an atmosphere where, thanks to the proscription of women from combat duty, an internal caste system had been created, one which was guaranteed to generate resentment too: while women were deemed unfit for combat, they were also made the brunt of the aspersion that they couldn’t ‘hack it’ and as such ‘had it easy’ while the men went off to die. So a sexist policy engendered a misogynist response. The creation of this two-tier system was always going to be more of a threat to women than enemy fire.

But women did not ask to be kept out of combat. Au contraire, over the years, an increasing number of women actively sought out responsibilities that would move them ever closer to combat: they flew fighter jets for instance. Conversely, modern warfare, at least in the way that the US conducts it, had made it ever more possible for ‘combat zone duty’ to be defined in such a way that the imagined risks were not those of older combat zones.

Having said all of this, I must return to the tone with which I began this post for try as I might, one cannot be too celebratory about an announcement that the largest, most aggressive military power in the world has widened its recruiting pool. The US military faces recruitment difficulties, and keeping women out of combat zones was always going to be an increasingly untenable policy in light of that. When the disenfranchised have always gone off and fought wars, then why not cast the net wider to rope in a few more of them?

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.