21 April 2010: Pat Tillman

Pat Tillman lived with passion and reason

Initially, I wrote him off as a cocky jock seeking glory on a real battlefield, so I had mixed emotions about the death of Pat Tillman, the NFL star killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan. As conflicting stories spread, I concluded he must’ve been “fragged,” done in by fellow soldiers due to his anti-war perspectives. Finally, after several encouraged me to read his story, by chance it caught my eye at the Tattered Cover.

I was hooked when I saw the title and subtitle. Had he lived three millennia ago in Achaea, Tillman might’ve been enshrined in the pantheon of superheroes along with Achilles and Agamemnon. Perhaps he was.

Author Jon Krakauer took the title “Where Men Win Glory” from a line in the “Iliad” and the subtitle “The Odyssey of Pat Tillman,” an allusion to Homer’s sequel.

April 22 marks the sixth anniversary of Tillman’s death, a senseless tragedy from the planning and direction of the exercise to the panicked stupidity that killed him despite him “holler[ing] at the top of his lungs, ‘What are you shooting at?! I’m Pat Tillman! I’m Pat f***ing TILLMAN!’” Krakauer assesses it through the WW II acronym now a word, SNAFU: situation normal, all f***ed up. That would be true too about the ensuing cover up, from military brass to the president.

In the introduction to Part Four, Krakauer quotes Aeschylus: “He who learns must suffer.” Tillman, no stereotypical, all-brawn-no-brain jock, became a life-long learner, beginning with himself. Lessons came early and hard such as when in high school he beat the crap out of kid in a case of mistaken identity.

After the September 11 attacks, Tillman, living an idyllic life, couldn’t live with himself being all he had to do for six months of the year was to play football for which he got handsomely paid. In the meantime, his peers, men and women, were putting it all on the line in Afghanistan going after the brains that attacked his country.

By wrapping the story in the context of events beyond young Pat’s world that would in time engulf him such as the bombing of the USS Cole, Krakauer’s account is not a simple chronicle of Tillman’s life. He cites a passage from Susan Neiman’s “Moral Clarity” in which she writes about one who has that “it,” Rousseau’s “force of the soul” and Arendt’s “love of the world.”

“You may call it charisma,” Nieman writes. “Is it a gift from the gods, or something that has to be earned? Watching such people, you will sense that it’s both…having it makes people think more, see more, feel more.”

The essence of “contempt” is intellectual, a rational endeavor unlike hate, which is emotional and irrational and, therefore, base. I think of Scott Romer, the assassin of Dr. Tiller, and gun-toting militia spawning across the country. I think of the little dude legislator who wants to create a state militia, the mission of which would be to protect Oklahomans from, one supposes, dust mites, spores, and alien life forms from Baja Oklahoma during the annual Sooner v. Longhorn showdown. I imagine Tillman contemptuous of such “men.”

In his Postscript, Krakauer draws a connection between Tillman and Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch” the “over man” who is “an exemplary, transcendent figure…virtuous, loyal, ambitious and outspoken, disdainful of religious dogma and suspicious of received wisdom, intensely engaged in the hurly-burly of the world.”

Tillman died with a gun in his hand, not aimed at perceived enemies of his hearth and home, but at real ones.

The night before moving out to rescue Jessica Lynch, with whom he’d share a strange commonality of fate, Tillman spent the night reading the “Odyssey,” not unusual faire for his mind. He had already read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” which “touched [his] soul” with the words, “Whoso be a man, must be a nonconformist.”

But in the irony of life, which he would’ve come to appreciate, he journaled on the eve of Bush’s Invasion of Iraq, “My honor will not allow me to create a life of beauty and peace but sends me off to order and conformity…I follow some philosophy I barely understand…My direction is selfish, my telos destructive.”

Going to war was curiously a form of “order and conformity,” which were in turn opposed to “beauty and peace.”

Pat Tillman was a young man conflicted between doing that in which he believed and living the life he was supposed to be leading. It was his moral quandary.

“To err on the side of passion is human and right and the only way I’ll live,” he wrote.

I wish he were still around for me to argue that it wasn’t about passion but of reason and moral clarity. Regardless, it was the way Pat Tillman lived, and then died.

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