Pat Tillman and the heroics of celebrities

Pat Tillman and his brother Kevin Tillman in Afghanistan


Let’s see, the anniversary of 9/11 one day, and the opening Sunday of the pro football season the next?

Wow, that’s the kind of cultural whiplash we’ve come to expect from the carnival that passes for public life nowadays, a complicated matrix of pain and pleasure, punctuated by beer ads and promos.

Yes, it seems like a non sequitir – and what is American life circa 2010 but a parade of non sequitirs? But there’s actually at least one strong and consistently fascinating link between 9/11 and the NFL, and my bringing it up is a pretty good indicator on why I don’t get invited to too many tailgate parties.

It’s Pat Tillman.

It’s a name that packs a punch, doesn’t it? He was, of course, the San Jose boy who grew up to become a star defensive back at Arizona State and then, the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. He was also the guy who walked away from stardom and riches in football when he made a pact with his brother that the two of them would enlist in the Army following the 9/11 attacks. In 2004, he was killed in Afghanistan in a friendly-fire incident that would mushroom into an indictment of the military’s homefront campaign to sell the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in an election year.

Why Tillman is relevant now is that the documentary “The Tillman Story” opens in Santa Cruz next week. It’s a throat-grabbing story that attempts to do two very difficult things: figure out exactly what happened to Tillman that April day in a convoy of his own men; and to understand the dude himself, a complex figure who apparently chafed at the idea of being made into a flag-draped symbol of the war.

At this point, I can line up behind the 10,000 other media schmoes who’ve declared to the world that Tillman is an authentic American hero – which I genuine believe – as if that’s some miraculous insight. But after watching the film, I’ve come to suspect that another pom-pom-waving ode to the fallen football star would be a subtle sign of disrespect, however pure of heart such a sentiment might be.

In the film, Tillman’s family hammers home the point that, in life and death, Pat never wanted to be seen as anything more than another soldier. Singling him out seems like a smear on his memory.

Yet he must be singled out, because he was singular. How many other professional athletes were so moved by 9/11 that they put aside their millions to fight overseas? I’ll wait while you come up with a name.

Of course, it wasn’t always thus. In World War II, many of America’s most beloved athletes saw combat. Ted Williams served two tours of duty, which cost him five years of his prime playing career. Bob Feller signed up right after Pearl Harbor. Yogi Berra was at Normandy on D-Day.

A few athletes served in Vietnam, including Roger Staubach and Rocky Bleier. One NFL-er was killed there.

But in the twin wars of the post-9/11 era, Tillman is an outlier. He was not only the lone pro athlete to serve and be killed in the current wars, he was the lone celebrity, period.

This is not to shame Tillman’s contemporaries or the ballplayers of today. Who can expect that kind of sacrifice from elite millionaire athletes? And, from someone who has served nothing other than coffee on Memorial Day at the neighborhood Grange breakfast, I’m in no position to point fingers.

Instead, Tillman’s lone-wolf status points only to the outsourced nature of today’s wars, and how a largely anonymous class of young men and women are allowing the rest of us to live almost wholly untouched by these wars. It’s also compelling evidence that, when it comes to celebrity and the warped values it entails, all men are not created equal.
With a very few exceptions – the sons of both Sarah Palin and Joe Biden have served in Iraq – the Venn Diagram circles of famous people and those who fight our wars don’t even touch, much less overlap.

In World War II, it wasn’t just high-profile athletes signing up. Henry Fonda won a Bronze Star in the Navy. Clark Gable flew missions over Europe though he was well past combat age at the time. Sacrifice was so part of the American fabric that it wasn’t even called sacrifice. It was just duty.

Now, Tillman’s story is so amazing because it stands out as a gesture of an age long gone, but only as far as celebrity is concerned. He was so against being exploited for his fame because he knew that the guy next to him in his unit was just as heroic in his sacrifice. Tillman’s story has retained a mythic stature, but it sits on top of thousands of other stories we’ll never hear.

The only person who even approaches Tillman’s fame in the arena of the twin wars is, of course, the telegenic Pvt. Jessica Lynch. Both soldiers found themselves as stars in nicely packaged melodramas of sacrifice and bravery presented to us by the military and the craven news media.

“The Tillman Story” will probably find an audience, but I would guess only a tiny one. A recent film about real soldiers’ experience in the hills of Afghanistan, “Restrepo,” was largely ignored. Even with the Oscar sweep earlier this year of “The Hurt Locker,” and the legions of embedded journalists within fighting units, the experience of the everyday soldier remains strangely invisible in popular culture.

Is this just a predictable outcome when a government refuses TV cameras to show flag-draped coffins, but is willing to spin complex combat situations into pleasing, bite-sized media narratives for public consumption? Or is it a function of an exhausted population who, whether they support the wars or not, find nothing in these war stories new or illuminating, only cynicism and despair?

But it’s close to kickoff now. Maybe those are questions to ponder at halftime.


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