Desert Storm veteran John Oliver examines the Tillman story through the lens of a former Army Ranger.
Most of my Ranger buddies have not read Jon Krakauer’s book about Pat Tillman. To a man, we’re fans of Krakauer’s writing about ruggedly self-reliant adventurers who face natural forces that reduce them to a mortal scale. Most of us played football or rugby at levels sufficient to admire Tillman’s accomplishments on the gridiron.
Perhaps most importantly, we’re deeply familiar with the Tillman’s labors after he volunteered for military service. We’ve walked in those boots.
It would seem that we’re an ideal audience. So, why haven’t we read Where Men Win Glory?
It boils down to this: we know how the story ends. It’s an especially painful tragedy. Men—particularly men that have made choices similar to Tillman’s—don’t enjoy reading stories wherein the hero is accidentally killed by his friends.
Nevertheless, I did read the book. Krakauer ably reconstructs the tactical events that led, directly and indirectly, to Tillman’s death. But Krakauer seems intent to avoid confronting the most accurate—if not the most flattering—interpretation of the Tillman narrative: While citizen Tillman was indeed a hero, Tillman the soldier was no Superman.
Even if Krakauer seems intent to overlook it, to the eyes of a former Ranger, this, more than any other, is the narrative that emerges.
Krakauer wants us to see Tillman as a rare, pure and stoic individual, worthy of Homeric legend. He places Tillman within a small circle of enlightened warriors who are otherwise surrounded by self-serving incompetents.
But when Tillman became part of the Ranger and Special Ops community, he was no longer the NFL hero who gave up his perfect life to serve; instead, he was a common Everyman surrounded by Nietzshean Supermen.
The rites of passage that seemed so mundane during Tillman’s early days in the Army (Basic Training, Advanced Infantry Tactics), when soldiers were truly a reflection of mediocrity, quickly gave way to increasingly more selective tools for letting the best and most idealistic of our society emerge—Airborne School, Ranger Training, and Indoctrination into the Second Ranger Battalion.
By the time Private Tillman found himself in Afghanistan, he was merely a member of the rank and file.
And while Tillman had escaped from the preceding rituals unscathed, he very sadly succumbed to the first great test he faced in mortal combat, failing to preserve his own life from overwhelming friendly fire by simply remaining in a covered position.
This perspective is callous, but it’s accurate. It gets little attention only because it undermines the narrative of Corporal Tillman as a hero among warriors. Sadly, in his endeavor to prove his mettle in combat, Corporal Tillman’s own powerful sense of invincibility contributed to his demise.
By contrast, there is heroism in Pat Tillman the civilian. He atoned admirably for his poor judgment when, on a night of drinking during high school, Tillman beat a helpless bystander to near death, mistaking him for a friend’s attacker. There is depth to citizen Pat Tillman, as a protector of his comrades, and as someone humbled by his own misdeeds. Tillman served his jail sentence nobly, then used the experience to focus on becoming an industrious scholar-athlete at Arizona State University.
Citizen Pat Tillman best exemplifies the Nietzschean ideal with his decisions to enlist, rather than enter service as a commissioned officer, and to forego a life of relative ease as a highly paid NFL superstar, so he could participate in his nation’s wars.
But Pat Tillman’s Superman persona fades the moment he becomes Private Tillman, who is without a doubt an Everyman—he suffers sadness, loneliness and despair with being displaced from his wife. He questions his presence among regular infantry soldiers, many of whom are inferior in intellect and morality. Later, when he enters the fraternity of elite warriors within the Second Ranger Battalion, Tillman craves the opportunity to prove himself in combat, even when he has reservations about the mission.
Private Tillman was mortal.
By joining the Rangers, Tillman surrounded himself with many great, enlightened moralists. In so doing, he reduced his own stature to that of a front-line soldier charged with operation behind enemy lines. It is a tragic irony for Pat Tillman’s family and fans. But it is an all-too-common story for the one percent of our society that bears the burden of our ongoing wars.
Tillman’s central story, wherein a seemingly invincible celebrity voluntarily reduces his influence for the sake of his ideals, is sadly rare in the public consciousness. I only wish that the public might discover what most of my Ranger buddies know, that within the warrior community, Corporal Pat Tillman was just one among many to eschew comfort for something greater than themselves.
Citizen Pat Tillman earned the respect of those men. We all wish he were still alive.