Book Reviews

Everyday Heroes

What Pat Tillman's story tells us about modern military heroism.

By John A. Nagl

Tagged HeroismMilitary

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman By John Krakauer • Doubleday • 2009 • 416 pages • $27.95

America’s Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force By Beth Bailey • Harvard University Press • 2009 • 352 pages • $29.95

Every war produces heroes. Their actions come to embody national aspirations in a given war; their stories say as much about the times as they do about the man (or woman) who earns renown. As history has moved away from theories of great men and toward a broader appreciation of everyman, American military heroes have also changed ranks, from General George Washington in the Revolutionary War to Sergeant Alvin York in World War I and Sergeant Audie Murphy in World War II.

A poor Tennessee farm boy, York led a patrol that captured 132 German soldiers in 1918, about a month before the war ended. He earned the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military award, for his exploits, and inspired an Oscar-winning film starring Gary Cooper. In World War II, Murphy won every medal for valor available, many of them more than once (he gained additional renown for his Hollywood acting career after the war). Something important changed during the indecisive war in Korea and the unpopular war in Vietnam; today the best known hero from Vietnam is almost certainly Senator John McCain, who earned renown not for killing the enemy but for enduring unspeakable torture in a POW camp.

Tillman was killed in one of the tragic "friendly fire" mistakes that have always been a part of war, but that have only recently become part of the public narrative of war. The national reaction to Tillman’s life and death illustrates the nature of heroism in our age. Sergeants York and Murphy earned public renown for decisions they made on the battlefield; going to battle wasn’t a choice either of them had to make, but once there, they did things most men would never find it in themselves to do. In the eyes of some, Tillman became more of a cautionary tale than a moral beacon once it became clear he had died from friendly fire instead of an enemy attack. But what is heroism other than the willingness to do something unquestionably good that most of us would never even attempt? In the era of the all-volunteer military, when few even consider leaving civilian life to defend their country, let alone leave behind a glamorous multi-million dollar job and a family they love, all of those who serve have some claim to heroism.

Pat Tillman was a man who could have done anything he wanted–and who chose the harder path for the common good. In 2001, he was an undersized strong safety with the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League with a $3.6 million contract. What led him to drop it all for the Army? Jon Krakauer explores this decision, and its tragic result, in Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. Krakauer is famous for his books on mountain climbing, and there is something breathless in his portrayal of the very unusual man who became a hero on the football field, America’s symbolic battlefield, and then gave up most of what Americans value–fame, money, glory, and comfort–for a chance to serve on a real field of battle. While telling the story of Tillman’s exploits on the sports field, Krakauer weaves together reminders of the outside events–the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda attacks on American embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania, the suicide boat attack on the USS Cole–that would bring Tillman to one of the least likely places in the world for a successful NFL player to meet his destiny.

But Tillman was a complicated person. In an interview just a few days after the attacks of September 11, he recalled, "My great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor. And a lot of my family has…gone and fought in wars. And I really haven’t done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that." Tillman and his brother Kevin, another gifted athlete who had played baseball for the Cleveland Indians system, enlisted together for service as Army Rangers in May 2002, during the few days between Tillman’s wedding to his longtime girlfriend and their honeymoon in Bora-Bora. Tillman refused to do any interviews on his decision, quietly accepting the sacrifice of his comfortable life and the shoulder-length hair that had contributed to his fame in the NFL. With their college degrees, Pat and Kevin could have gone in for the less physically demanding life of officers. But they wanted to be part of the action, and in 2002, enlisting in the Ranger Regiment seemed like a ticket to the front lines of the war against al Qaeda.

Instead, the Tillman brothers earned a trip to Iraq, a war that neither supported. Krakauer overplays his own disgust at George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and the flawed execution of the mission, rather than allow the narrative to carry itself; a four-page discourse on the contested presidential vote in Florida is only the most obvious misstep. The Tillmans’ service in Iraq was reasonably uneventful, although they did participate in a quick reaction force in support of the March 31, 2003 rescue of Private First Class Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital. Lynch had been taken there by the Iraqi army after her maintenance convoy was ambushed; she quickly became the most famous face of the invasion, lionized for reportedly fighting valiantly against her attackers (although in reality she hadn’t fired a shot). Krakauer argues that the nation needed a hero in a war that wasn’t going well at that point; Lynch filled that role, deservedly or not.

While in Iraq, Tillman, who carried Emerson essays and Homer’s Odyssey in his rucksack, grew disenchanted with an army that did not quite live up to his ideals, but his loyalty and sense of duty remained. Not long after arriving, his agent said he had found a way for Tillman to get out of the remaining 18 months of his Army contract after his Iraq tour and rejoin the NFL in time for the 2004 season, but Tillman refused. Instead of doing preseason drills, April 2004 found him deployed to Afghanistan, again with Kevin at his side. Within a week of their arrival, they began patrols in Khost Province to search a series of mountain villages for Taliban insurgents infiltrating from Pakistan. A 10-day mission entailed extraordinarily arduous conditions but no contact with the enemy until the last day of the patrol–a day when friction and the fog of war combined to deadly effect.

A Humvee was inoperative, crippled by a faulty solenoid. The "Black Sheep" of Second Platoon divided themselves into two different patrols, one to drag the vehicle back to base, and the other to search for enemy forces in the last village on the mission list. Pat and Kevin were split between the two patrols, Pat heading off to search a nearby village and Kevin escorting the Humvee back for maintenance. Kevin’s patrol was ambushed by Taliban fighters, receiving mortar and machine gun fire that harmed none of the Americans but did set them on edge. It was also Kevin’s patrol that mistakenly opened fire on Pat, who had moved into position to support the ambushed unit. Tillman was killed, as was an Afghan soldier alongside him; two other soldiers were wounded in the engagement. Though most members of the platoon knew almost immediately that the incident had been fratricide, Kevin Tillman was told that his brother had been killed by the Taliban. That became the official Army version of events as well, and Pat Tillman became a very public exemplar of sacrifice and valor.

Krakauer paints a picture of a national conspiracy to broadcast this narrative that is not entirely convincing to anyone who has served in a government bureaucracy for long; incompetence rather than malfeasance generally plays the decisive role in disasters like the Army’s handling of Tillman’s death. In this case, however, the evidence does point to a disturbing litany of errors, including a Silver Star awarded to Tillman "for his selfless actions after his Ranger element was ambushed by anti-coalition insurgents." The citation was carefully written to both be technically true and imply that Tillman was killed by an armed enemy, rather than his comrades. By the end of May, though, the truth had come out; the Army officially announced that, contrary to previous statements by many general officers and civilian political appointees, "Corporal Tillman probably died as a result of friendly fire."

Although he is the most famous victim of friendly fire in the current wars, Tillman has a great deal of company; Krakauer reports that 21 percent of the casualties in World War II, 39 percent of the casualties in Vietnam, and 13 percent of the casualties in Afghanistan have been caused by friendly fire. Recent advances in communications technology and precision weapons have reduced the butcher’s bill somewhat, although warriors have mistakenly killed their own since the invention of the bow and arrow. But this truth does not comport with what we wish to believe. Our concept of heroism demands that the valorous youth perish at the hands of a perfidious enemy, not those of their friends and comrades in arms.

Yet as Tillman’s case illustrates, our concept of heroism needs some rethinking. Today less than 1 percent of the American population serves in uniform; the comparable figure during World War II was more than 7 percent. What drives young American men and women to volunteer to serve in the Army, despite the risks of enemy (and friendly) fire, the undoubted demands of military life, the abnegation of the self to a higher purpose that is the essence of heroism? Beth Bailey provides some answers in America’s Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force. Bailey appears as unlikely a person to write a book about the Army as an NFL safety in the prime of his career is to put on an Army uniform; her previous books include Sex in the Heartland and From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America. But this book is published by Harvard University Press, and it is both a very serious and a very positive evaluation of the all-volunteer U.S. Army as a progressive force in American society.

It is hard to remember, now, with the all-volunteer force succeeding well into its fourth decade–and in the midst of two protracted wars–what a dramatic change the end of the draft represented as the Vietnam War neared its end, and what a gamble it seemed to be. The American colonists relied upon the British militia system, in which all able-bodied citizens–or at least all able-bodied white male citizens–were obligated to serve the common defense. Both North and South used conscription to fill the ranks during the Civil War, and many members of the "Greatest Generation" who fought to save civilization during World War II did so as draftees; Lieutenant General Lewis B. Hershey, head of the selective service system in 1965, noted that in 1943 the nation was drafting 450,000 young men a month.

However, that was at a time of national sacrifice and general unanimity behind the goals of decisively defeating Japan, Italy, and Germany. By 1970, there was no such consensus on the subject of the Vietnam War, and the Army was riven with racism, drug use, and indiscipline. It was hardly an auspicious time to convince young Americans to sacrifice many of their freedoms, and much of their hair, to join an institution that was profoundly at variance from the "Me Generation" ethos of the time. But Richard Nixon was determined to fulfill his 1968 campaign promise, and he did so when Dwight Elliot Stone, the Army’s last draftee, began his period of "obligated service" on June 30, 1973; the all-volunteer force began the next day.

At that point, the Army had to compete in the labor market for recruits; the story of its evolving advertising campaign is the most entertaining part of America’s Army. From the initial and cloying "America’s Army Wants to Join You" through the late 70s’ "Some of Our Best Men Are Women" to the simple "Army Strong" of today, the Army’s message to potential recruits says a great deal about its concept of itself–and about what it thinks American youth want to hear. The Mother of All Army Advertising Campaigns was "Be All That You Can Be," which debuted in 1980 under the supervision of General Max Thurman, the head of U.S. Army Recruiting Command and arguably the most important figure behind the success of the all-volunteer force. When Thurman saw the ad for the first time–with its lyrics of "Be All That You Can Be/Because we need you/in the Army" sung to a tune written by Jake Holmes, composer of the "Be a Pepper" jingle and, more interestingly, the original version of Led Zeppelin’s "Dazed and Confused"–there were tears running down his cheeks.

Bailey does a good job explaining the love that both generals and sergeants feel for their Army. The service is composed of people who have chosen to give up their freedom and to a great extent their personalities to become part of an organization dedicated to the common good; Peace Corps volunteers and soldiers have much more in common than most outsiders realize. The Army’s leaders thus experienced profound emotional trauma as the all-volunteer force struggled through the drug problems and funding shortfalls of the 1970s. They had sincere if ultimately misguided concerns about integrating African Americans and women into the service to which they devoted their lives; understanding the depth of the emotional connection between those who serve and their institution is essential when evaluating the current hesitance about changing national policy to allow the full integration of homosexuals into the ranks.

Bailey demonstrates how the choices to provide fuller opportunity to women and minorities not only made the Army stronger, but also served to jump start race and gender integration into American society more broadly. In a chapter titled "The Army as Social Good," Bailey notes that "the army offered, both actually and symbolically, an unprecedented level of equal opportunity and inclusion across the boundaries of race and gender during the 1990s" and endorses the argument of sociologists Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler that the Army "offered the entire nation a model for race relations" by 1996. The Army likes to say that its soldiers aren’t any color but green; Moskos and Butler posit that the Army is "the only place in American life where whites are routinely bossed around by blacks."

The military is also the only place where young people volunteer for unlimited liability, literally putting their lives on the line when they sign up. That they continue to do so in a time of protracted war is, rightly, remarkable to most Americans, who increasingly recognize the heroism implicit in the very decision to serve. Those who put on the uniform today have many other career options; in fact, it is very difficult to qualify to join the Army. Only about 30 percent of American youth can make the grade, the others disqualified for health reasons, previous criminal convictions, or an inability to graduate from high school. Many of America’s youth work hard to qualify to join the Army after earlier life mistakes, correctly seeing service in uniform as a hard but useful path to a meaningful career. Bailey argues that "an institution that once seemed mired in crisis has achieved remarkable success, both as a purveyor of military force and provider of social good."

Reading Bailey’s description of the Army’s role in leading social change makes it hard to imagine that the Army will not someday soon integrate homosexuals into its ranks. That decision will remove the excuse that too many of our top national institutions of higher learning use to discriminate against those who choose to serve. Harvard University, which published Bailey’s book praising the U.S. Army, does not have a Reserve Officer Training Corps program in Harvard Yard; instead, Harvard students are forced to commute to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for their ROTC classes. Harvard would be well-served to ponder Bailey’s concluding words: "In a democratic nation, there is something lost when individual liberty is valued over all and the rights and benefits of citizenship become less closely linked to its duties and obligations."

Pat Tillman felt those duties and obligations more deeply than most; that his commitment fell victim to bullets fired by one of his own makes his commitment all the more poignant and his service more tragic. Tillman was a hero not for his actions on the battlefield, but because his very decision to join embodied a sacrifice many Americans are unwilling to make. Military valor has become obscure and distant for most Americans; men like Pat Tillman create an emotional avenue for us to reengage with the many Americans who have chosen to serve on today’s battlefields. We can imagine, just barely, how hard it was for Tillman to give up so much in order to put himself in harm’s way. Our emotional connection with Tillman then gives us some window into men like Michael Murphy and Jared Monti, who not only chose to serve but made additional decisions under fire that cost them their lives. Reading about their heroic lives and even more heroic deaths can then become a spur toward examining our own life choices, encouraging all of us to ponder whether we truly have the courage of our commitments.


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John A. Nagl is the president of the Center for a New American Security. A retired Army officer, he fought in operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom and wrote Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya to Vietnam.

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