Andrew Ladd weaves his take on the Tillman narrative through reviews of Jon Krakauer’s ‘Where Men Win Glory’ and Tony Blair’s memoir, ‘A Journey.’
I never paid much attention to the Pat Tillman story when it was making the media rounds in the first half of the decade, and it was only with some reluctance that I recently read Where Men Win Glory (Anchor Books, $15.95), Jon Krakauer’s account of Tillman’s simple childhood, his NFL stardom, and ultimately his service and tragic death in Afghanistan.
Tillman went to great lengths to keep himself firmly out of the spotlight—refusing all media interviews, leaving explicit instructions that the military not have a hand in his funeral arrangements, etc.—so quite apart from my own cynicism about American Military Hero stories, ignoring Tillman’s in particular seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
In fact, given Tillman’s own well-documented resistance to the American Military Hero narrative, there’s something slightly unseemly about the first part of Krakauer’s book, which shamelessly peddles the sorts of clichés Tillman seemed keen to avoid:
In Kracauer’s telling, Tillman is a humble boy, fiercely loyal to his family, determined to achieve his goals through hard work and gumption, and full of the honor and decency that can only signal a man destined for greatness. (I don’t deny that these things were true of Tillman, but a humble boy probably wouldn’t want them trumpeted, especially not to the degree that Krakauer does so.)
There’s something slightly unseemly, too, given Tillman’s prescient worries that he’d be commandeered as part of the government’s war agenda, about the way in which Krakauer seems equally to commandeer him for the anti-war agenda that dominates the book’s final sections; Krakauer clearly has it in for the Bush war machine, and he pulls no punches in portraying its key players as sinister and ruthless. And yes, perhaps that falls closer to Tillman’s own politics than anything else—though we can never know for sure—but using his death as a partisan stick with which to retroactively beat the Bush administration still feels awfully tawdry.
And that’s a shame, because sandwiched between the hero-worship of Krakauer’s early chapters and the demagoguery of his later ones, he manages, through judicious excerpts of Tillman’s letters and diaries, and a thoughtful eye for detail, to give us an inspiring portrait of his subject—one that shows him not as a stereotypical Great Man, I don’t think, but rather as a mostly unremarkable man who always tried his best to do great things.
A man who even struggled to do the great things he’s remembered for—who struggled with the culture of the military, and the politics of the wars he fought in, and the pain his absence caused his loved ones—and who kept on trying anyway, purely because he thought it was the right thing to do.
To me, that dedication to his personal ideals shows him as a far more heroic figure than the usual bland generalizations about his all-American patriotism—and more importantly it gives us a hero who we can more easily be inspired by. Because Tillman’s story is inspiring, in that bittersweet way that most tragic heroes are, and if he deserves to be remembered for anything—if his memory deserves to be used for anything—it’s as an illustration of how simple and how noble patriotism can be when it’s done the right way. A better example of that we’ll never find.
I recommend it not because I think it’s a particularly well written book—I submit that political memoirs ought never to include gratuitous exclamation marks, for instance, and yet Blair writes his book as if it were the order of ceremonies at a church bingo night—but because it makes an interesting and even occasionally convincing case that the Iraq war wasn’t such a horrible idea after all.
You would expect that, of course, coming from one of the war’s chief proponents (if not chief architects), but nevertheless Blair’s analysis strikes me as thoughtful and deserving of consideration—especially compared to the sorts of “analysis” (if you can call it that) we used to get from the guy Tillman called “that cowboy.” And in the end, Blair doesn’t even try to convince his critics it was right to go to war: “I have often reflected as to whether I was wrong,” is all he says. “I ask you to reflect as to whether I may have been right.”
That potential “rightness” hinges, in his mind, on whether Iraq after the invasion is better—politically, morally, practically—than it was before the invasion. It’s not an answerable question, really, nor obviously is it the one that informed the decision to invade, but I think it’s an admirable one to ask, both for its clarity and for the way it shifts our focus to the external—because in this country the only (rather selfish) question we seem to ask about Iraq anymore is whether America after the invasion is better than it was before the invasion.
It’s hard to see in any immediate sense how the answer to that second question could be yes, which is probably why politicians and pundits are so fond of asking it, and certainly why the public here is so ready to wash their hands of Iraq, and of Afghanistan. But it’s good to be reminded sometimes that there’s more at stake in our foreign wars than how much of our GDP they’re eating up.
And perhaps it was still wrong to invade Iraq, anyway; I don’t think I could ever say for sure. But that, surely, is the reason we elect our leaders in the first place. And just as surely, it’s the reason we often feel in awe of people like Pat Tillman: they do their best to solve the problems of the world, and make the difficult decisions, and face the hugest of hardships—so that the rest of us, if we’re lucky, will never have to.