What Pat Tillman’s story tells us about modern military heroism.
America’s Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force By Beth Bailey • Harvard University Press • 2009 • 352 pages • $29.95
Every war produces heroes. Their actions come to embody national aspirations in a given war; their stories say as much about the times as they do about the man (or woman) who earns renown. As history has moved away from theories of great men and toward a broader appreciation of everyman, American military heroes have also changed ranks, from General George Washington in the Revolutionary War to Sergeant Alvin York in World War I and Sergeant Audie Murphy in World War II.
A poor Tennessee farm boy, York led a patrol that captured 132 German soldiers in 1918, about a month before the war ended. He earned the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military award, for his exploits, and inspired an Oscar-winning film starring Gary Cooper. In World War II, Murphy won every medal for valor available, many of them more than once (he gained additional renown for his Hollywood acting career after the war). Something important changed during the indecisive war in Korea and the unpopular war in Vietnam; today the best known hero from Vietnam is almost certainly Senator John McCain, who earned renown not for killing the enemy but for enduring unspeakable torture in a POW camp.
Tillman was killed in one of the tragic "friendly fire" mistakes that have always been a part of war, but that have only recently become part of the public narrative of war. The national reaction to Tillman’s life and death illustrates the nature of heroism in our age. Sergeants York and Murphy earned public renown for decisions they made on the battlefield; going to battle wasn’t a choice either of them had to make, but once there, they did things most men would never find it in themselves to do. In the eyes of some, Tillman became more of a cautionary tale than a moral beacon once it became clear he had died from friendly fire instead of an enemy attack. But what is heroism other than the willingness to do something unquestionably good that most of us would never even attempt? In the era of the all-volunteer military, when few even consider leaving civilian life to defend their country, let alone leave behind a glamorous multi-million dollar job and a family they love, all of those who serve have some claim to heroism.
Pat Tillman was a man who could have done anything he wanted–and who chose the harder path for the common good. In 2001, he was an undersized strong safety with the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League with a $3.6 million contract. What led him to drop it all for the Army? Jon Krakauer explores this decision, and its tragic result, in Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. Krakauer is famous for his books on mountain climbing, and there is something breathless in his portrayal of the very unusual man who became a hero on the football field, America’s symbolic battlefield, and then gave up most of what Americans value–fame, money, glory, and comfort–for a chance to serve on a real field of battle. While telling the story of Tillman’s exploits on the sports field, Krakauer weaves together reminders of the outside events–the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda attacks on American embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania, the suicide boat attack on the USS Cole–that would bring Tillman to one of the least likely places in the world for a successful NFL player to meet his destiny.
But Tillman was a complicated person. In an interview just a few days after the attacks of September 11, he recalled, "My great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor. And a lot of my family has…gone and fought in wars. And I really haven’t done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that." Tillman and his brother Kevin, another gifted athlete who had played baseball for the Cleveland Indians system, enlisted together for service as Army Rangers in May 2002, during the few days between Tillman’s wedding to his longtime girlfriend and their honeymoon in Bora-Bora. Tillman refused to do any interviews on his decision, quietly accepting the sacrifice of his comfortable life and the shoulder-length hair that had contributed to his fame in the NFL. With their college degrees, Pat and Kevin could have gone in for the less physically demanding life of officers. But they wanted to be part of the action, and in 2002, enlisting in the Ranger Regiment seemed like a ticket to the front lines of the war against al Qaeda.
Instead, the Tillman brothers earned a trip to Iraq, a war that neither supported. Krakauer overplays his own disgust at George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and the flawed execution of the mission, rather than allow the narrative to carry itself; a four-page discourse on the contested presidential vote in Florida is only the most obvious misstep. The Tillmans’ service in Iraq was reasonably uneventful, although they did participate in a quick reaction force in support of the March 31, 2003 rescue of Private First Class Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital. Lynch had been taken there by the Iraqi army after her maintenance convoy was ambushed; she quickly became the most famous face of the invasion, lionized for reportedly fighting valiantly against her attackers (although in reality she hadn’t fired a shot). Krakauer argues that the nation needed a hero in a war that wasn’t going well at that point; Lynch filled that role, deservedly or not.
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