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Posted: 5/3/2004 3:20:57 PM EST
NB, this was written for British readers.

The Uncelebrity
Pat Tillman, R.I.P.

By Andrew Sullivan

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.
Link Posted: 5/3/2004 3:29:24 PM EST
Link Posted: 5/3/2004 4:39:20 PM EST
We still have heroes among us.

Thank you, Pat.
Link Posted: 5/3/2004 5:15:41 PM EST
Very well written... I especially like how he didn't mention Rene Gonzalez by name, thereby diminishing his celebrity-ass-hat status by +1.

Tillman was and will always be a strong role model for our future.
Link Posted: 5/3/2004 5:18:27 PM EST
A selfless patriot who understood that a cause was larger than himself.
Link Posted: 5/3/2004 5:27:04 PM EST
When you think America has gone down the tubes, we get pleasantly surpised by the likes of Pat Tillman and Todd Beamer.

Link Posted: 5/3/2004 6:41:35 PM EST
evidence that America is built on more than capitalism and greed, it is and was built with the literal blood, sweat and tears of those who believe in the dignity and sanctity of human life.

a true shame that a man like Patrick Tillman had to give his life so that myself and my family could enjoy ours.

i am personally in debt to this man, as are we all.
Link Posted: 5/3/2004 10:37:50 PM EST
His parents should be proud.
Link Posted: 5/4/2004 1:55:32 AM EST
[Last Edit: 5/4/2004 1:55:48 AM EST by 1776]
That should go for ANY service man or woman.
Link Posted: 5/4/2004 2:04:32 AM EST

Originally Posted By pathfinder74:
Very well written... I especially like how he didn't mention Rene Gonzalez by name, thereby diminishing his celebrity-ass-hat status by +1.

Tillman was and will always be a strong role model for our future.


Link Posted: 5/4/2004 8:08:47 AM EST

Originally Posted By 1776:
That should go for ANY service man or woman.

I agree, Tillman was an outstanding patriot, but let us not forget ALL who have given some, and most of all, those who have given ALL.

Celebrity status should not diminish the light of the rest of our patriots.
Link Posted: 5/4/2004 12:57:09 PM EST

Originally Posted By Lapp_Dance:

Originally Posted By 1776:
That should go for ANY service man or woman.

I agree, Tillman was an outstanding patriot, but let us not forget ALL who have given some, and most of all, those who have given ALL.

Celebrity status should not diminish the light of the rest of our patriots.

Absolutely. But I believe Tillman also illustrated the true American Dream. It's not about chasing riches. Wealth can be fine (I wouldn't know personally!), but it needs to be kept in perspective.

The Dream, or Vision if you will, that I see exemplified in Tillman is a man who will set aside the crass for things of substance. He set aside his personal goals (pro football career) to serve our great nation. He went to right wrongs and fight evil. He went to stand up for the right and the good and do his part to see that those who hurt us are dealt with.

The position he came from and the contract he turned down to enlist naturally drew attention. He didn't want it and demonstrated himself to be a man of integrity and honor, unlike some other entertainer/athletes. Even though he tried to avoid the attention he is a high-profile hero. That's just the way it is.

And yes, every other young American that goes to the MEPS and raises their hand is also worthy of our appreciation and respect. Some of us know some of their names, but we can't know all of them. I have a nephew in the Army, recently back from Korea and probably going to Iraq or Afghanistan soon. My daughter has a friend in the Army headed for Iraq. I have friends in the USAF who are in theater for varying periods. There are thousands more I will never know. But every last one has my respect, my prayers and my support.
Link Posted: 5/4/2004 1:10:10 PM EST

Originally Posted By mattja:
His parents should be proud.

They certainly should, he was a hell of a man.
Link Posted: 5/4/2004 1:37:42 PM EST
Not many things move me to tears but this got me...
Link Posted: 5/4/2004 1:41:25 PM EST

Originally Posted By pathfinder74:
Very well written... I especially like how he didn't mention Rene Gonzalez by name, thereby diminishing his celebrity-ass-hat status by +1.

Tillman was and will always be a strong role model for our future.

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