Sunday, July 4, 2010

Don't Cover Up My Freedom, Sam

Well, it's Independence Day and I, as you probably did, celebrated by watching fireworks and eating lots of grilled meat. Many are feeling more patriotic this year than they have in the past few, thanks in part to a general sense that things are getting better in the world. Maybe they are and maybe they aren't, I don't know. After all, our nation is still at war in two places at once, the Gulf of Mexico is filling up with oil, and Arizona is arguing about its silly little immigration law. Many of these problems seem so far out of our immediate control though, that it makes today as good a day as any to party our brains out.

Our freedoms should never be taken for granted, as so many of them erode away. So many of them, from the right to bear arms, to the right to run a business without too much government interference were fought for and won through the sacrifice of many American lives. Every generation has its military heroes, and as the country entered the first and longest lasting conflict of my adult life, a man near and dear to my heart emerged as the face of the war. His name was Pat Tillman.

Tillman, as you may have heard, was the National Football League player who left his career on the field behind in order to pursue loftier and more challenging ambitions as member of the US Army Rangers. Filled with a sense of duty, Tillman opted to fight the seeds of 9/11 terror rather than get paid handsomely to fight on the field on any given Sunday.

For his troubles he was killed, supposedly by enemy fire in an ambush, and before the whole story could be told, Tillman became an immortal American Hero overnight as the media printed all information provided to them by the military without asking too many questions.

It's too bad then, that the entire story that the American people were told was a lie, fabricated by a military machine completely aware that they had fucked up royally by even putting the most famous face in combat in this position. Tillman, as it turns out was killed not by heinous Al Qaeda insurgents, but rather by members of his own platoon. The story of the cover-up is outlined in intricate detail by famed adventure novelist Jon Krakauer in his book 'Where Men Win Glory'.

I first came to be intrigued by Pat Tillman back in the late 1990's, when he was playing football for Arizona State University, my Alma Mater. Sports Illustrated ran an article on him which painted the warrior as a stoic and introverted, thoughtful even, individual. He rode his bike everywhere, even in the overbearing Phoenix heat, and seemed to live by some higher moral code than many of his contemporaries did. The picture that accompanied the article displayed a contemplative Tillman dressed in jeans and Birkenstock sandals in the rafters above Sun Devil stadium, god-like and removed from all the baloney down on the field.

It was an image that resonated with me, of a sports star I could relate to.

Pat went on to play professional football for the Arizona Cardinals, and was a shining light on a team that was absolutely horrendous at the time. So when his contract was up, many competitive teams came calling, offering big money knowing full well that Tillman could help them improve. But by that time the world outside of football was getting confusing, and Tillman couldn't stand by and do nothing. So he and his brother Kevin enlisted in the army, determined to become Rangers, and kick some terrorist butt.

The army was not quite what Tillman expected it to be. Many of those he was coming up through the ranks with did not have intentions as noble and defined as he did. Most had just graduated high school and were still quite immature, never having had real jobs and responsibilities to speak of. Krakauer makes it very clear that Tillman was frustrated with these kids to no end.

As a fan of both Pat Tillman and Jon Krakauer, 'Where Men Win Glory' was not a very satisfying read for me though. It's a very politically charged book that seems to serve as a springboard for bashing the Bush administration's blunders rather than shine any real light on Tillman's death. I had high hopes for this book because to date, the only other book written on this subject was by Tillman's mother, which would automatically be quite biased. Krakauer tries to gain journalistic respectability by including length notes at the end of his narrative (an area he took tremendous heat for with 'Into Thin Air'), but almost all of his sources are Mrs. Tillman and the Tillman Family.

The American People seem okay with the fact that Tillman was killed by friendly fire. It doesn't make him any more or less a hero than if he had in fact been killed by insurgents. Currently, the race that bears his name in Tempe draws more and more runners every year. The Pat Tillman bridge bypassing Hoover Dam is nearing completion. The Arizona Cardinals have erected a giant bronze statue in Tillman's name outside University of Phoenix Stadium. Pat Tillman is a hero.

An American hero who died fighting for our freedoms.

Unfortunately, he got hit with a bullet that was fired by one of our guns.

Happy Independence Day Everybody!

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