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Heroes, Winners, and Losers  
By Raymond Pierotti | June 4, 2004
"He's a walkin' contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction."

"Hero" is probably the most overused word in America today. It seems that in today's parlance, every person who dies in the line of duty is characterized as a hero. Most of these folks are ordinary people who were doing their job and simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This characterization is every bit as misleading as the similar tradition of lionizing athletes as heroes; in reality, most athletes are simply individuals who have more highly developed physical skills than other people.

These two phenomena have converged in the case of Pat Tillman, a 27 year old former NFL football player who, after the events of September 11, 2001, chose to quit the NFL and enlist in the Army. Tillman's odyssey ended in late April when he was killed Afghanistan while on patrol in Taliban-controlled areas of the mountainous regions along the Pakistani border. According to information recently released by the US Army, Tillman appears to have been the victim of "friendly fire", one of those horrible euphemisms invented for the Vietnam conflict, which means in essence that he was killed by his own troops.

The release of this news on the Saturday before Memorial Day, not coincidentally the day that the World War II memorial was dedicated, was an obvious attempt to bury this rather disturbing story under a fog of patriotic blather.

The reason for burying the reality of this tragic news is that Tillman's death has been romanticized endlessly in the national news and on ESPN, where Tillman's memorial service was broadcast live. The mainstream media has attempted to make Tillman the face of the Iraqi war dead, even though he met his fate in Afghanistan (where, unlike Iraq, there is at least some justification for a US military presence.) Sports Illustrated put Tillman on its cover the week after his passing, which was, ironically, an honor he never achieved during his unusual and accomplished life.

Perhaps a more powerful irony is that what appears to have been most heroic about Pat Tillman was not what he was celebrated for, either as a football player or as a soldier. Pat Tillman was a complex person, certainly not the super patriot whom the media have tried to portray. Pat Tillman was a dedicated nonconformist who spent his whole life marching to a different drummer. This is obvious from any of his football pictures which show his long hair flowing from his helmet in both his days as an undersized linebacker at Arizona State and his pro football career as a safety with the perennially losing Arizona Cardinals. Interestingly, all the pictures (except the cover shot) used by Sports Illustrated (henceforth "SILLY") show Tillman with short, close-cropped hair, which is in keeping with the patriotic blither inside, written by SILLY's master of schlock, Gary Smith, the writer who once attempted to portray famed NFL sociopath Buddy Ryan as a sympathetic figure.

In American sports the tradition over the last half century has been that "nice guys finish last", "winning isn't the most important thing, it's the only thing", and "you don't win Silver; you lose Gold". Americans like to visualize themselves as "Number 1" and have the giant foam fingers to prove it. In contrast, Pat Tillman appears not to have cared about winning so much as he cared about testing himself.

Tillman was the archetype of the player who does not have outstanding physical skills but who manages to become a good football player through will and determination. As a college player he was famous, perhaps notorious, for climbing the light towers in Sun Devil stadium at night. He also ran off season drills barefoot and befriended handicapped students on campus. Perhaps most impressive, while achieving all conference honors on the field he managed to graduate summa cum laude in three and half years. This is highly unusual for any college athlete, let alone a football player, where most players barely scrape by, taking gut classes simply to maintain their eligibility. On any campus the football team invariably has the lowest average GPA of any sports team because the sport does not attract the cream of the intellectual crop. Contradictory as ever, Tillman's major was marketing, an interesting choice for a player who told his coaches that the college football recruiting process "stinks" and that "nobody tells the truth", who said "I've got things to do with my life", and "There's more to life than football! I want to contribute to society and help people."

Oddly, Tillman's decision to contribute to society was to become an Army Ranger. Apparently the family hero in the Tillman household was his grandfather, who was in Pearl Harbor during the attack in 1941. In the SILLY article the grandfather and two uncles are described as having been "sitting ducks at Pearl Harbor when the sky began raining death", even though all three apparently survived the attack without injury, lending a whole new meaning to the concept of "sitting duck". It appears that, like many other intelligent American men, Pat Tillman was a victim of what I think of as the "fallacy of the greatest generation". That is the idea that men are only truly men if they are tested in battle and if they emerge victorious. I find myself wondering, if Pat Tillman really wanted to "contribute to society and help people" and to do things with his life, why didn't he use his excellent mind to major in education and help train the next generation in something besides the idea that only by carrying a gun and killing other human beings does a man accomplish anything with his life.

To me the genuine heroes of the US military operations overseas are Joseph Darby, the young MP assigned to Abu Ghraib who refused to participate in the torture of Iraqi prisoners and filed a complaint with US Army CID, turning over a CD of photographs that exposed the horror of how some alleged American "heroes" defended democracy by humiliating and assaulting their fellow humans; and General Antonia Taguba, who conducted a thorough investigation of Darby's charges, writing a report condemning these practices. These men stood up for their principles and did their jobs in the face of pressure to do otherwise. They showed genuine courage and not simply machismo. I like to think that Pat Tillman would have agreed that they were heroes.

As for Tillman himself, he falls into that sad category well summed up by the poet ee cummings:

we are gathered here today to honor these heroic happy dead,
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter.
they did not stop to think, they died instead!

Pat, we will miss you. You could have been so much more than the empty symbol they are turning you into. You could have been a genuine hero, not simply a dead one.

 


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