Illustration by Peter Bennett
Hours after Army Ranger Pat Tillman was killed during a firefight last week in Afghanistan, CNN interviewed one of his fellow soldiers, who looked eerily like the actress Lauren Ambrose from Six Feet Under. “It was shocking,” she said of his death, “because he was an American hero, like we all are, because we’re . . . here.”
Of course, some heroes are more equal than others, and the onetime Arizona Cardinal had the advantage of starting out semifamous and dying in the Afghanistan military campaign that nearly everyone supports. Even as our faceless soldiers were being blown up in Iraq, you heard Tillman called “the ultimate hero” for giving up a million-dollar-a-year NFL career and going off to become a soldier for just 18 grand. Although his end was unglamorous — gunned down outside the tiny village of Spera — his “ultimate sacrifice” was rapidly transfigured into uplifting mythology, a glorious counterweight to the news out of Basra and Falluja.
The Cardinals instantly retired his number, 40, and named the perimeter of its new stadium Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza. President Bush sent condolences — publicly, for once — hoping to steal a few rays of a fallen Achilles’ noble glow. Predictably, Tillman’s death became a way of punishing others. Sportswriters used his example to thump smug-faced Eli Manning for saying he didn’t want to be drafted by the Chargers (he finds San Diego a step down from Mississippi?). TV anchors used his “selfless” behavior to badmouth today’s professional athletes who supposedly care only about contracts and endorsements. It was a blessed relief when a Sports Illustrated reporter finally pointed out that not a lot of MBAs had lined up to fight in Tora Bora, either.
Emerson famously said that every hero becomes a bore at last, and in our 24-hour media culture, that moment comes mighty soon. Within a day, I was sick of Tillman and the inescapable bromides about heroism, sacrifice and patriotism. Don’t get me wrong. I admire his bravery and willingness to fight for his country; I’m moved by the fraternal camaraderie of enlisting with his brother Kevin and the modesty of refusing to discuss it with the media. Like most male writers, I’m secretly a sucker for the warrior ethic, even when displayed by Uma Thurman.
But one of wartime’s most dangerous lies is that heroism is something simple. Tillman was repeatedly described as “a man’s man,” and as our great anatomist of masculinity, novelist James Jones, showed in From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, manhood is one vast tar pit of contrary motives. Guys go to war for reasons far too tricky to be reduced to mere patriotism or sacrifice. It does not diminish Tillman’s valor to say that he was driven by a romantic, perhaps even crazy, sense of personal destiny. You need merely see photos of his dark-eyed, burning stare — he could have been played by the young Viggo Mortensen — to know that this lifelong overachiever was goaded to join the army by more than pure altruism.
Here was a man hooked on intensity. He slaved in the weight room, craved physical contact. As a player, Tillman was known as The Hitman, less skilled at covering opposing players than flattening them: He set the Cardinals’ single-season record for tackles. This carried over into his personal life. In high school, he got in legal trouble when, in a street fight, he kept beating and beating another kid.
But where a guy like Pete Rose funneled his need for adrenaline into gambling, Tillman was a seeker, searching out physical and mental challenges to keep himself stoked. He once remarked that he never wanted to be happy with himself, because “then I’ll stand still, and then I’m old news.” To be killed hunting down jihadists was a not unfitting fate for such a restless soul, although a decent man dying in war may be the oldest news of all.
While Pat Tillman’s life was being served up as the very model of heroism, his death served as a necessary reminder that the U.S. is still fighting an unfinished war in Afghanistan. He was the 110th soldier to die in Operation Enduring Freedom, a worthy undertaking whose name continues to be more than a little optimistic. Thirty months after the Taliban fell, the country’s dapper leader, Hamid Karzai, a man born to be played by Ben Kingsley, controls an area of land about the size of Los Angeles.
Tillman’s highly visible death also reminded us of something else: The U.S. government wants to render our dead (and wounded) invisible. Eulogizing the former Cardinal star, one ESPN reporter intoned, “The flag that Pat Tillman loved and served to protect will now cover his coffin.” It was precisely such flag-draped coffins that the Pentagon had stopped the media from showing — until last week, when the Seattle Times quite properly violated the ban. That decision finally let American citizens glimpse one inescapably painful cost of war and prompted many daily papers to fulminate against a prohibition they had timidly honored for a dozen years. Meanwhile, the president has yet to attend a single soldier’s funeral lest some photograph associate him with their demise.
Hiding away dead soldiers is business as usual for this White House, which holds fast to Tartuffe’s dictum that to sin in secret is no sin at all. Until lately, Bush bashers have blamed such furtiveness on loyalty-mad Dubya and his cloven-hoofed Richelieu, Dick Cheney. But this spring, attention briefly switched to Condi Rice, who, in doing the 9/11 dirty work for her superiors, became a new lightning rod. While the right admired her talent for righteous stonewalling (if nothing else), the left disliked her for not telling the truth — that gap-toothed grin
didn’t fool anybody. Condi is lousy at being reassuring, perhaps because she always seems wound so tight. You feel that if she ever tried to relax, her brain would go off like a car alarm. Once The Apprentice rose atop the ratings, it became hard not to see her as the Bush team’s equivalent of grandiose, condescending Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth. Condi may be less skillful at telling whoppers than The Donald’s would-be protégé, but she’s also less nuts — you could hit her with a ton of plaster and she’d still keep saying that Clinton’s people had left no plan to fight al Qaeda.
Still, for all her unpopularity, Rice believes in the policies she’s supporting. For all his popularity, Colin Powell does not. One lasting truth to emerge from the kerfuffle surrounding Bob Woodward’s best-seller Plan of Attack is the extent to which the secretary of state takes care to have things both ways. In early 2003, he used his sterling reputation to back the Iraq war; when he addressed the U.N., many Americans were swayed by belief in his integrity. Now, he wants us to know that he had doubts about the invasion urged by Cheney and his so-called “Gestapo.”
Such slipperiness should come as no surprise, for Powell, an African-American forced to maneuver in bureaucracies run by whites, has spent his career as a supremely adept company man. He’s learned how to protect the people and institutions he’s serving, whether overlooking allegations of massacre in Vietnam, playing along with Iran-Contra while doing nothing illegal himself, or giving earnestly insincere speeches to promote an Iraq war he privately thought risky. Even when Powell disagrees with a policy, he always follows his commander’s orders. This has made him what’s called, too often admiringly, “a good soldier.”
Of course, a truly good soldier doesn’t do as he’s ordered, then cover his ass by whispering to the media — off the record, of course — that he questioned the policy but lacked “influence.” That’s the sort of thing Powell has been doing for years. Never one to go to the wall for any idea, he has learned to play both sides of every street with an ease that’s positively Clintonian, being both for and against war in Iraq, being for affirmative action but not too much, convincing both liberals and conservatives that, deep down, he’s actually one of their own. Now, neither side trusts him.
To be fair, Powell’s caution and finesse would have made him a pretty fair diplomat. But as James Mann notes in Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet, this White House has no time for diplomacy. Powell’s only true power as secretary of state would have lain in pointedly resigning. Such is his appeal that a few skeptical words about the Iraq war might well have turned public opinion against it. But unlike Pat Tillman, Powell is not one to give up everything, not even to stop a war he feared would be a colossal blunder. He’s too practiced a careerist for that. I eagerly await this good soldier’s inevitable memoir distancing himself from the deadly mistakes those other guys made on the road to Baghdad.