Friday, April 23, 2004

If you want to go tooling around you can find an area to comment on the death of former NFLer Pat Tillman. I think you'd be better served reading this column, which sums things up pretty nicely. On the reader commentary site you will see a lot of unquestioning wartime rhetoric, a few backlashing anti-war types, and a couple of people reminding us that Pat Tillman is only one of many soldiers getting killed in foreign wars. Of course I usually agree mostly with groups 2 and 3, but on this one I think they all have it wrong.

Pat Tillman is one of the few stories in recent times in which I can remember finding no irony, no smarminess, and no cynicism. I'm not shy about my feelings about the U.S. military complex--spend all we need on defense, but stop spending so damn much on offense. I understand too that 9/11 was a direct attack on the U.S., and while I don't think our response has been what it should have been (both militarily and in lack of true introspection), I think I basically get it--certainly the Afghanistan part if not Iraq, and certainly the overall drift if not the specifics of strategy and tactics. I also understand that for people of certain inclinations, military service is the highest form of patriotism, which is among the highest of values. Again, I don't share that perspective, but I get it.

For me, Pat Tillman is a real hero because he made an existential choice based on a particular set of values and followed to their logical and ultimately unfortunate conclusion. I don't think that's true of most American soldiers who die in combat, and that's why I say that lumping Tillman into "one of many" is incorrect. Many people in our all-volunteer military--particularly in the low ranks--are there because they see few options. I'm not denying that they too have idealistic motivations, but the material, socioeconomic reality is that the military is one of few options for many 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds who are not academic stars. The commercials make it look like a lot of fun, play on those idealistic values, and promise money for college; they tend to leave out the parts about firefights, sneak attacks, and even just mundane boredom ("Port of call: Bayonne, New Jersey"). And the commercials are actually right--the military probably is the best option a lot of those people have in order to propel themselves into a decent life.

And that's exactly why I'm not willing to write Pat Tillman off as just one of the many dying abroad. Tillman didn't die because he went into the military because he didn't have any better choices. He left a multimillion dollar contract on the table to pursue something that he saw as too important to pass up. Since I'm basically pomo in attitude, I'm not willing to endorse or challenge his perspective in seeing the world that way--his subjective perception of the world was valid for him, just as mine is for me. What I ultimately admire, though, is not his patriotism or his anything like that, but rather the single-mindedness, decisiveness, and consistency that allowed him to make that decision in the face of what most of us would see as better life options. Those are rare qualities and ones that impress me deeply as someone who can't decide where to eat lunch without dithering for half an hour.

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