[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.