View Full Version : Another Pat Tillman Article

05-01-2004, 12:37 PM
How to write your Pat Tillman panegyric.

By Matt Taibbi

THE INSTANT I heard that former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman had been killed in action in Afghanistan, my heart sank. "There goes the first 20 minutes of tonight's Sportscenter broadcast," I thought sadly. Red Sox-Yankees highlights would have to wait, while Stuart Scott and Suzy Kolber performed their obligatory grim ablutions over ESPN's computer-generated, soft-piano rhythms.

There was never any question that the Pat Tillman story, once it broke, would get the maximum possible amount of coverage in the mainstream American press. Although it was a unique story of an unusual person who acted—uncharacteristically for an American—out of a strong sense of conviction and individual purpose, it was at the same time a story whose every contour fit with perfect snugness into the more moronic assumptions of mainstream American thought. A football hero, moved by the images of 9/11 to give up $3.6 million dollars to serve his country. A beautiful youth cut down in his prime for love of the flag. A sober reminder of the steep price of freedom, coming just a day before that cheerful annual orgy of silly sports escapism, the NFL draft.

As the perfect American media phenomenon, the Pat Tillman story scratched every itch in the national mainstream consciousness, relieving the natural tensions of a consumerist culture by upholding a hero with patriotism greater than his greed. The excess of coverage therefore had to match the usual excesses. Too much must be matched by too much.

To understand what was wrong with the Pat Tillman story, you must pay close attention to the phenomenon of American sports fanaticism, and the way the story of sports is sold to the public. There is a moment at which the media brilliantly confuses fantasy and reality by blurring the distinctions between sports fan and American, and it is at that moment that the darker side of patriotism is rammed down the public's throat. Pat Tillman died in the very center of that blur.

If you watch a lot of NFL football, as I do to an absolutely psychotic degree, you learn to accept certain subplots to the game. Since 9/11 there has been a heavy emphasis on side features involving NFL players and the military: Kevin Mawae and Zach Thomas watching the Super Bowl from a warship in the Persian Gulf, Eddie George visiting the troops, Air Force flyovers at the games. When the players are interviewed by ESPN and Fox and CBS about their reactions to their interactions with the soldiers, they almost always have the same answer. "It really puts things in perspective," the linebacker says. "I mean, we're just out there playing a game, while they're risking something more important to defend our freedom…"

Your typical Nation-reading lefty type groans at this sort of stuff, in particular when the players gush over President Bush, but that's because they don't understand football. A true football fan knows that the average NFL player does not—and probably should not—distinguish between the president, and, say, the owner of his team. He's going out there to take hits over the middle and give 110 percent for Tom Coughlin and Ernie Accorsi and Wellington Mara or Bob Kraft—and then somewhere, farther up the chain, sits the secretary of defense and the commander-in-chief. Against the backdrop of this brutal and violent gladiatorial competition, it's the only mindset that makes sense. The game is about passion and violence and obedience and sacrifice; you die for your coach, your fans, your owner, your country. A wandering mind is a liability in team sports. (I should know. I was a liability as an athlete.) You want the guy who does what he's told, the committed soldier, a "machine out there."

It's a flawless, beautiful, completely engrossing fascist fantasy. Within its own parameters it probably cannot be improved upon as escapist entertainment. The problem is, when it's asked to extend beyond its fantastic parameters, when its values are asked to serve as real values for the real world, it becomes completely incoherent and extremely dangerous propaganda. This was on display in the way the Pat Tillman story was handled.

One of the things about football is that there is always another team you have to defeat. War is permanent. This is the central fact of the game. You want a guy who always fights because you always have to fight. Who does he have to fight? The other guy, naturally—it doesn't matter exactly who.

But in life? When you're fighting with guns and bombs? Well, it kind of matters who you're fighting; one ought to know who the enemy is—at the very least. But does anyone know whom Pat Tillman was actually fighting when he was killed? Not according to the news reports. As far as I could tell from most of the breathless paeans that appeared last weekend, the former Arizona State star died protecting our freedom from…a bunch of unidentified guys.

The most specific of the news reports came from a New York Times story by Bill Pennington, Carlotta Gall and Carol Pogash. The article did not identify who killed Tillman. It guessed by implication, in the following paragraph:

Military officials in Kabul said yesterday that his unit was patrolling one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan, close to the Pakistani border, in a valley where Al Qaeda and Taliban forces are known to cross into Afghanistan from Pakistan. American forces have been on special alert in recent weeks, watching for Al Qaeda and other fighters escaping an operation by Pakistani forces on their side of the border.

The New York Times, the most in-depth paper of record in the country, could do no more than elliptically identify Tillman's killers as being either Al Qaeda, Taliban or "other fighters." But even in this, they outclassed virtually every other paper in the country, at least showing interest in the question. The Times story assumed that readers understood the context of the Afghanistan operation and had been following the last two years' developments—it was assumed, in other words, that readers could distinguish between fighting terrorists, fighting regional warlords, fighting new fanatical groups completely unrelated to al Qaeda and merely fighting to stave off complete anarchy in a collapsing nation-building effort.

No one else bothered to be that specific. The typical sentiment was echoed by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who said at the draft: "Pat Tillman personified the best values of America and of the National Football League. Like other men and women protecting our freedom around the globe, he made the ultimate sacrifice and gave his life for his country.''

Tagliabue was flanked by five Marines when he made his statement. That is what the life of Pat Tillman was reduced to: a soldier's confusing, nightmare death converted into the simpler currency of mainstream sports values. You don't have to ask why, you don't have to ask where, you don't have to ask by whom. All you have to do is stand in a nest of Marines and read off the same old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Because that's true enough for football. We're in a lot of trouble if that becomes enough for life, too.

05-01-2004, 02:42 PM
If only Bush and Kerry deserved to share a section in this forum with Pat Tillman. i/expressions/face-icon-small-frown.gif

05-01-2004, 05:25 PM
some people can really ramble on and on without really saying anything...

05-01-2004, 06:28 PM

05-01-2004, 11:37 PM
Although it was a unique story of an unusual person who acted—uncharacteristically for an American—out of a strong sense of conviction and individual purpose, it was at the same time a story whose every contour fit with perfect snugness into the more moronic assumptions of mainstream American thought.

Horse SHIT. Americans have long been the first to defend those who cannot. Americans symbolize and personify those who act on a strong sense of conviction and purpose on adaily basis. This writer is a f*cking moron.

05-01-2004, 11:39 PM
All you have to know about this assmunch writer is that his first thoughts were about Sportscenter when he heard of the death of a hero patriot.

05-03-2004, 09:30 PM
The Uncelebrity
Pat Tillman, R.I.P.

The European newspapers and Arab television images of the average American soldier this week are full of atrocity. The appalling, sickening and immoral pictures of some American military miscreants in the Abu Ghraib prison deserve to be broadcast and the prime minister and president are right to condemn them and be disgusted by them. Those who always opposed removing Saddam Hussein from power - a man who perpetrated real atrocities and mass murder on a scale unimaginable to those of us in the comfort of the West - will seize on these images to further their belief in the evil of the United States. But these images are emphatically not the fundamental truth of the American military; and they are not the fundamental truth of the United States.

To give you a glimpse of a different reality, consider the case of a young man the Guardian would never dream of running above the fold on its front page, except out of schadenfreude. The details of his death in combat are like many such deaths. He was killed nine days ago serving with the 75th Ranger Regiment in the wastes of Afghanistan in a fire-fight with al Qaeda remnants. He was painfully young - 27 years old - and strikingly handsome. In American popular culture, he was a star. He'd gone to a public university, Arizona State, and graduated with high honors with a degree in marketing. He then went on to become a professional American football player - not the best, not the biggest, but certainly one of the more spirited players of the game. His team was the Arizona Cardinals. When he was offered a much more lucrative offer with the St Louis Rams, he turned them down out of loyalty to the team that had drafted him, the team from the city he called home.

And then like the rest of us, he woke up one morning to discover that a handful of religious fanatics were in the process of murdering thousands of innocents in the middle of New York City. But unlike many of the rest of us, he decided that his country was at war and that he had a duty to fight in it. He had just been offered a $3.6 million deal to play for the Cardinals. He turned it down for a salary of $18,000 to train as a fighter in a war that is still just beginning.

When I first heard about Tillman a couple of years ago, a few things struck me about him. The first was not just his obvious sincerity, but the fact that he refused any media interviews whatever. Search Google for a single one. They don't exist. Here was a story too rich and heroic to be ignored by a post-9/11 media, eager for personal stories to exemplify the changes and decisions and tragedies beginning to unfold. And some stories were indeed written. On my website, I made Tillman my personal man of the year for doing what he did. But at no point did Tillman answer a phone call, go to a television studio, return calls to book agents or even go on the radio to discuss his decision to abort a very lucrative career for a dangerous war. His point was a simple one. This wasn't about him. He was one among many other volunteers - young men and women from all over the United States and Britain and other countries who volunteered to fight in a new kind of campaign, where the rules of traditional warfare had been suspended. He wasn't special, his silence said. He wasn't different. He was just doing his duty, as he saw it. Quietly. Simply. But without hesitation.

When you look around our culture today and you see what celebrity does to human beings, how it destroys their souls, rapes their privacy, separates their own sense of who they are from the quiet reality of their own souls, it is sometimes astonishing simply to watch someone walk away from it. The Un-Beckham, if you will. And then when you look and you see how wealthy and famous and fabulous so many become because of things they should actually be ashamed of - the newspaper plagiarists, the forbidden girlfriends and boyfriends of married media stars, the disgraced politicians, the corrupted reporters, the criminals and murderers whose fifteen minutes stretch into a cable television eternity - then again it is astonishing to watch someone at the center of a such a culture and be so utterly unaffected by it. "He just viewed life through a different prism than a lot of other people do," a Sports Illustrated reporter said of him. That prism, in retrospect, was integrity.

You can read each day in every paper and see festooned across such outlets as the BBC the numerous failings of the coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hideous images from Abu Ghraib will only serve to reinforce the impression. A New England college website posted the views of one such anti-war campaigner. "Tillman, probably acting out his nationalist-patriotic fantasies forged in years of exposure to Clint Eastwood and Rambo movies, decided to insert himself into a conflict he didn't need to insert himself into," the writer opined. "It wasn't like he was defending the East coast from an invasion of a foreign power. THAT would have been heroic and laudable. What he did was make himself useful to a foreign invading army, and he paid for it. It's hard to say I have any sympathy for his death because I don't feel like his 'service' was necessary. He wasn't defending me, nor was he defending the Afghani people. He was acting out his macho, patriotic crap and I guess someone with a bigger gun did him in."

Every sentence in that paragraph is a lie or the extension of a lie. Pat Tillman died precisely because he was defending the East coast of the United States from a foreign invasion, an invasion launched on September 11, 2001. He was and is part of an army that has liberated one country in the grip of a theo-fascist thugocracy in Afghanistan and a fathomlessly brutal one in Iraq. He did so because the West was attacked, and because the fear of another attack with weapons of mass destruction made a response justified and vital. Unlike the pseudo-heroes of "Rambo," Tillman deflected attention away from himself, he eschewed heroics and fame. In short, he did what every soldier has to do: he faced terror and fear and violence with a calm and self-effacement and dignity that few of us manage at an average day at the office.

Yes, we should deal with Abu Ghraib. Those responsible should be hounded out of military service and prosecuted under military justice. But those images must also be placed next to those of the murderers of Danny Pearl, whose crime was being a Jew and whose throat was slit open in a video still not shown. Or the video of a murdered Italian hostage who fought back on videotape against his captors, tried to remove his hood, and told them that this was "the Italian way to die." No images of him yet shown. and next to them all, Pat Tillman, who is now an ineradicable assault upon the cliches that some wish to bestow on America and the West as a whole.

The indictment of the West is that it is shamelessly materialist, soulless, obsessed with celebrity, entranced by superficiality, addicted to the spin of appearances, the cult of contemporaneity. Much of this is, of course, true. But it is only part of the truth. It is also true that another America and another West exists. An America that is now risking the lives of its youngest and brightest to protect others; an America that is spending billions to reconstruct a devastated country and is happy to do so through a barrage of hatred and resentment; an America where, beneath the glittering surface, real virtues - of sacrifice and honor and duty - actually do endure. "There is in Pat Tillman's example," senator John McCain said last week, "in his unexpected choice of duty to his country over the riches and other comforts of celebrity, and in his humility, such an inspiration to all of us to reclaim the essential public-spiritedness of Americans that many of us, in low moments, had worried was no longer our common distinguishing trait."

Well it is still a distinguishing trait. And when it emerges in the least obvious of places - in the celebrity glamor of pro football - it's worth taking a moment to place it alongside the images from Abu Ghraib. Without it, the world would be a far darker place. Without it, the freedom to criticize a war would be impossible. Pat Tillman is no nobler than any of the other hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded who are the victims - along with so many of the Afghan and Iraqi people - of the horror of war. But he saw two critical things: that we are at war and that each of us has a responsibility, in different ways, to fight back. Except he also added one more thing. He wouldn't want this or any column to be written about someone like him. Which is why, every now and again, it must be.

May 2, 2004, Sunday Times of London.
copyright © 2000, 2004 Andrew Sullivan

05-03-2004, 09:36 PM
Nice job by andrew.