One Interesting American Thing per Day

Ben Railton

Ben Railton
Needham, Massachusetts, US
August 15
Associate Professor
Fitchburg State University
One interesting American thing per day, from a professor of American literature, culture, history, and Studies. Check out for more!

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MAY 29, 2012 1:53PM

May 29, 2012: Remembering Pat Tillman

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[The next post in the Memorial Day-inspired series, on a much more contemporary and controversial American soldier. Plenty of room in the series for your suggestions, and/or guest posts!]

Why we must remember the contradictions at the heart of the identity and story of perhaps our most famous contemporary soldier.

Pat Tillman was opposed, in his political and personal opinions, to both the concept of the “War on Terror” and the particular wars (especially the Iraq War) that it precipated. And yet he volunteered to serve, leaving behind (tragically, forever) a successful and lucrative career in the NFL. For those of us American Studiers who likewise opposed and continue to oppose this sweeping post-9/11 set of foreign and domestic policies, and yet who recognize the individual, familial, and communal sacrifices entailed in wartime military service, Tillman’s story is both strikingly representative and yet extremely complex. Does his political opposition render his own sacrifice more genuine and impressive? Ironic and even more tragic? Courageous? Ridiculous?

Pat Tillman was, according to his own words but even more fully to the testimony of his parents and family after his death, an atheist. In an era when a striking strain of fundamentalist Christianity has become at times virtually synonymous with the U.S. military—and I’m familiar with the cliché that “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but this zealous missionary fervor is nonetheless at least somewhat new to our military’s overt identity and community—Tillman’s overt lack of religious faith was even more significantly at odds with his public image than were his political opinions. For those of us American Studiers who would like atheist Americans to be more widely acknowledged and accepted in our national conversations, Tillman’s perspective could be an important element in that work; but it’s also a deeply private element, one revealed in large part only because of his death and the subsequent narratives about it. So how we discuss his religious perspective without further dishonoring or even abusing his memory?

Pat Tillman was apparently, as a grudgingly slow and secretive military investigation was eventually forced to reveal, killed by friendly fire. Of all the complex sides to Tillman’s story, this is without a doubt the most difficult and yet perhaps the most important with which we must grapple. Or is it totally unimportant? Does the tragedy, the sacrifice, the familial loss, change at all if Tillman were killed by Taliban fighters, or by local Afghan insurgents? Obviously Tillman’s family deserves to know the truth about what happened, or at least to learn as much as it is possible for them to know (and certainly as much as the military knows)—but do the rest of us? Is that another invasion of his and their privacy? Can we use this information critically, or analytically, or will it just become another chip in various arguments and debates? Can we, that is, remember Tillman, and every side of his story, or will we always already be making him into an icon and an idol, for one purpose or another?

Damned if I know. But on this Memorial Day week, seems like we should try, doesn’t it? More tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

5/29 Memory Day nominee: Patrick Henry, whose genuine courage and radicalism were instrumental in starting the American Revolution, whose war-time governorships of Virginia helped it succeed, and whose opposition to the Constitutional convention makes clear just how much diversity of opinion the founding era and community included.

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That one sentence could be broadened to read "we must remember the contradictions at the heart of all our identities and stories." So many contradictions, ironies, myths, propaganda, unanswered questions surround every war. David Atkins on Hullabaloo (dated 5/28) has an article on who has blocked investigation of Tillman's death. [r]
Hi DD,

Thanks for the comment! Definitely agree about how we must try to do that for every American story and history, and I'm always up for learning more about places and ways to do so!

Thanks, take care,
What happened to Pat Tillman is just tragic. My heart breaks for his mother and the rest of his family. I know I'm not alone in saying that I hate the term "friendly fire" for all of the obvious reasons and then some. He was a man of convictions and apparent contradictions. That he died by "friendly fire" does not take away from his sacrifices.
Hi Deborah,

Thanks for the comment, and agreed on all counts. Slightly off-topic, maybe, but I don't know of any American text that explores the concept of "friendly fire" (and many other equally complex aspects of war) better than the film _Courage Under Fire_.

With the information you provided me, is it possible that Tillman was deliberately "fragged" by his own men?
Hi Aristoxenus,

Thanks for the comment. I don't know nearly enough to be able to answer that either way; the investigations are ongoing, as the recent Hullabaloo ( piece mentioned in the first comment indicates, and so there might well be further info to come out. I believe Tillman was a Ranger, and so had likely trained and served alongside his group for a good while, which makes it seem less likely to me. But again, lots of questions remain I'd say.

PS. Apparently Jon Krakauer's book on the subject is pretty thorough on Tillman's death:
I say that because of his infamy which may have caused some soldiers resentment, plus if word got out that he was against the war on terror, and didn't believe in American Spirituality as decreed by the masses, he could have placed himself in a situation for a fragging? I don't know the details as to his death...was it just him? Were others killed with him, or was he alone?
Apparently per Krakauer there were others involved, and at least one other (Afghan soldier) killed alongside him. Again, I should learn more, and K's book seems like a good next step. The questions do get at bigger issues in any case, though, and are worth considering no matter what, as is every aspect of this tragedy.

as a combat vet(rvn'69) friendly fire deaths in every conflict are extremely under reported.... and totally inevitable. Tillman's death, whether by friendly or enemy has no effect on my highest regard for him as a true american. knowing the military mindset, i doubt the whole truth will ever be known.
If I had any lingering doubts about my bad feelings toward the military in general and our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, reading Pat Tillman's story as told by Jon Krakauer put the final nail in the coffin. The most sickening thing of all in a series of sickening events was how the Army tried to use him and turn him into some kind of poster boy for the cause. Covering up the circumstances of his death, lying to his family, forcing his brother and wife to dig for information and his mother to demand the truth, the other soldiers who knew what happened serving alongside his brother and being ordered to leave him in the dark - it was almost funny if not so tragic. What happened to him was the opposite of everything he believed in and it made a mockery of what he did.

You ask, "Does the tragedy, the sacrifice, the familial loss, change at all if Tillman were killed by Taliban fighters, or by local Afghan insurgents?" Yes, it does. Because if you understand the circumstances of his death, how ineptitude and bureaucracy and the left hand not knowing or completely ignoring what the right hand was doing, put him where he was when he died, you come to see how pointless his presence was.

Of course mistakes happen. But this was just ludicrous, a comedy of errors. And unacceptable. The Army and the other branches should be held to a higher standard because the stakes are higher. And yet the whole Keystone Kops scenario played out all the way to the top. And I'm sure there're plenty of other stories just like Tillman's that aren't public because they're not high-profile.
Look what they did with Jessica Lynch. She is a classy lady and she downplays her own story and doesn't like that they've tried to turn her into a hero.
It is nearly impossible for me to feel any respect for the military anymore. The kids who serve? Sure. But the institution itself, what it represents and most of all the lying liars who try to spin it otherwise - it deeply disgusts me.
Always in our memory's and in our harts
Thanks for the comments, all! Really enjoying the conversation and different perspectives.

God bless Mr Tillman, in spite of his beliefs.
And congrads on EP.
agree particularly with Margaret. the audacity and the shamelessness of the cover-up and even further pr exploitation to an Orwellian degree of Tillman's death. the dark secrecy of our government and military is horrifying. the Jessica Lynch story, the Tillman story. So many stories, so many horrors. We need empathy. And we need a paradigm shift from patriarchal authoritarianism and sociopathic profits over people competitive power and control using violent weaponry gratuitously and exploiting our young troops as expendable cannon fodder for what Zeese calls "the forces of greed" to a moral higher ground of humanism and partnership and cooperation. Corporate legal persons have the personality profiles of psychopaths yet in the interests of "legal corporate persons" our wars are being waged (I almost typed raged) with little respect for human welfare and the humanitarian benefits of peace and cooperation. Also, the government and NATO's pretense of waging wars for "humanitarian" purposes like in Libya, Syria, etc. has got to be called out. Playing the citizenry via the corporate media by skewing reality and pretense of concern for human beings when that seems a priority that does not begin to make the US or NATO list certainly does not engender trust in those of us out of the American exceptionalism and "trust the media branding as benign of our non-representing government leaders from the top down" bubble. best, libby
Hi Libby,

Thanks for the comment and your thoughts!

I don't dispute any of that (in fact agree with all of it), but I would say that part of the point of this post is that I don't want to reduce Tillman just to those narratives and realities. Doing so, it seems to me, is not ultimately distinct from those who want to reduce him just to the jingoistic narratives.

That isn't to say that we can't engage directly with all the points you're raising. But they don't sum up Pat Tillman's life and identity, and one of my most central interests is in trying to analyze American lives and identities, stories and histories, beyond any overarching narratives. Y'know?

Thanks again,
Ben, I got that sensibility from you reading the post. I don't think my perspective lessens his memory. I don't think I am taking away from the spirit of Pat Tillman by saying what I said, Tillman, whom I consider spiritually heroic from all I have heard about him beneath the media/military mendacity. I don't want to be conflated with those who exploited his "image" for pr purposes. I hope and trust you aren't doing that conflating now. Conflating the fringe right with the so-called "fringe" left which Obama and so many "centrist pragmatic Dems" have done and which I find insulting. I am not accusing you of doing this, just sayin'. fwiw! best, libby
Hi Libby,

Thanks for the follow up!

Definitely not conflating you with those folks, or with any of the things I was critiquing. If anything, I myself struggle at times with these dual goals: advancing arguments in the present and about politics (for example) about which I care deeply; while trying to do complex justice to histories, identities, and so on. I think both efforts are very worthwhile, and yet do struggle with keeping them distinct as I believe they have to be. So these are communal questions for me!

Libby, How do you suggest that dictators such as in Libya, Syria be deposed if not for NATO assistance? Would you rather leave them to a slaughter by government forces? Nay, some military action is acceptable and needed. The key is to right the wrongs of the past, and set the future straight so war becomes unnecessary for future generations. Remember, we were born into this mess...we are largely trying to figure out what was done by our predecessors.
Aristoxenus, I have lost TRUST in our governmental leadership that is run by the corporate elite! I turn more and more to the foreign press to find out the truth of what is happening, or to try to find out the truth. The humanitarian bullshit spoken by Obama and Hillary about NATO intervention. Our black ops operations all over the world. Who are we protecting? Are we supporting dictators or implanting new puppets who will focus on elite's interests who are negotiating with us for "American interests" a/k/a profits for the 1% and are we (yes) helping them KILL movements for freedom and their leaders fighting for justice for the citizenry there or simply collateral damage civilians we really don't give a serious sh*t about. The facts coming out of the foreign press about what was going on in Libya was so different from what I finally decided was shameless and dangerous propaganda coming at us from big media. Why are so many troops committing suicide or buckling psychologically and physically from the incredible stress and dangers and horrors? What are the 2 million vets from Iraq and Afghanistan once they get their heads on straight lets hope after enduring such horrors going to say about the heart of darkness of our government knocking off nations like they are dominoes. If the UN and the US really did care about people, the plight of children and women in particular, in a reliable way I would cheer. But corporate agendas don't give a serious sh*t about human life. What is happening in other countries, with horrifyingly oppressive leaders is tragic, but when NATO and the US come along to help, that is code for WORSENING CONDITIONS FOR ALL. FOR BETRAYAL OF HONORABLE REBELS though are we working with honorable rebels or war lords and sell outs? Our government is eager to play and betray anyone anywhere with bloodshed easily involved. An institutionalized evil. The same way our government has betrayed its own citizenry and will continue to do so with more and more of a police state heavy hand with the more of us beginning to come out of the denying bubble. imho!!! best, libby