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Andrew Bickford

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Shadow Elite: Pat Tillman & Why Soldier Hero Worship Serves the Powerful ... Not the Soldiers

Posted: 09/30/10 09:01 AM ET

"Disgusting" is one of the printable words that Pat Tillman's brother Richard used last week on "Real Time with Bill Maher" to describe the Army's cover-up of the former N.F.L. player's death in Afghanistan 6 years ago. (Follow this link to hear the unprintable ones; you will quickly see that the Army chose the wrong family to cross.)

Tillman, who joined the Army after 9/11, died at the hands of other soldiers, not in combat as the Army first claimed.The recently released documentary, "The Tillman Story", chronicles the family's fight with the military's mythmakers intent on creating a hero. Why did the U.S. want a hero? The obvious answer is that U.S. war efforts were struggling, and morale needed boosting.

Another possible motive stems from the state's need to promote an authentic image of the uniformed warrior, at a time when the actual work of war is increasingly done by remote-control or outsourced. As Janine examines in her book Shadow Elite, and the recently released report, Selling Out Uncle Sam, U.S.-paid contractors greatly outnumber uniformed military personnel in Afghanistan and are almost as plentiful as military personnel in Iraq. The valorized image of the "man in uniform" becomes all the more important in maintaining the fiction that enlisted Americans, not hired guns who may even be foreign nationals, are helping to carry out our battles. Anthropologist Andrew Bickford, himself an Army veteran who studied the militarization of East German society, agrees with that assessment. This week he looks at another way soldier hero worship blinds the public -- by denying the reality of where servicemen and women come from, why they serve, and what they need as flesh-and-blood mortals like the rest of us. ~ Janine Wedel and Linda Keenan

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It is not hard to see why the Army would be tempted to invent a Hollywood-worthy ending for football star-turned-patriot Pat Tillman: hero worship is a way for the state to create a positive -- and politically useful -- emotional connection with soldiers. But it also results in an emotional disconnect. In the process, we forget who they are. We mythologize our soldiers, turning them into ideals of ourselves, but in the process remove them from ourselves and even themselves, setting them up as beings who can accomplish the impossible. We need to think about the consequences and dangers -- to our soldiers and our selves -- of turning them into "supermen." Image is everything to a military and state, and soldiers are expected to uphold this image, to act and perform as imagined. This is the aestheticized making of soldiers.

To understand how soldiers are imagined, we need to go back to the word "aesthetics" in its original Greek meaning -- to experience the world through bodily feeling and emotion. This is also the basis of the word "anesthetics," to block out pain, feeling, and emotion. Our conceptions of soldiers as heroes comes from this interplay. By imagining our soldiers -- all of our soldiers -- as heroes, we create not only a class of heroes, but also a class of superheroes -- men and women who can do no wrong, whom we think of as invincible, and perhaps more troubling, as indestructible. As a propaganda term, a term that shapes the political playing field, "Hero" does not simply mean someone who has done a single heroic act: it implies someone who will always perform heroically, again and again and again.

An important aspect of the Hero is that a large portion of his or her past is obscured and unknown -- resulting in a blurring of origins, of where she came from, who he was before he became a hero. Heroes emerge as autochthonous beings from the nation/state, rising up to defend it in its time of need. They have no pasts: only an heroic present and an imagined, glorious future of heroic immortality. (In the case of Pat Tillman, the biographical detail that seemed to matter most in the many media profiles was the one that furthered the hero narrative: that he was a football star, another kind of American warrior.)

It is exactly this sort of deleting of pasts that is at work in the U.S. today. The killing and wounding of soldiers who come overwhelmingly from lower class socio-economic backgrounds, who join the military as a way to gain a rung up the political ladder for themselves and their families, are masked by U.S. society through heroism: ethnicity and class are erased when the poor die- they rose above their backgrounds and became heroes, and heroism hides the need to question who they are, where they came from, and why they joined the military in the first place, unless it helps to maintain the myth.

Societal and political narratives of heroism act as a kind of war magic, transforming everyday citizens into something more than mere mortals. These narratives also act as an anesthetic, numbing us to their experiences. And by creating this anesthetic, we block out the need to actually think about what it means to be a soldier, or the need to ask soldiers themselves what they think or how they feel about being cast as heroes. Tillman himself was notably circumspect about trumpeting his exact motivations for joining the military, seemingly reluctant to play the preconceived role.

I'm reminded of the scene in Homer's Odyssey, when Odysseus visits Achilles -- the hero's hero, the best soldier of his time -- in, Paradise, in the Elysian Fields in Hades. Odysseus asks Achilles the hero, killed while young and in his prime, if he is happy as a hero in paradise.
Achilles replies:

Keen Odysseus, do not try to make me welcome death. I would rather live on earth as a hireling of one who was but poor himself than to be the king of all the ghosts there are.

So in a word, No. These are the words of the hero of heroes, the "Aristoi Acheon" -- the "Best of the Acheans."

"Heroism" is used and heroes created to aestheticize and glorify war and, it seems, is the ideological band-aid we use to cover up the suffering, wounding, and killing of disposable soldiers, the balm we use to soothe the suffering of the families and friends impacted - both emotionally and financially -- and left behind. It is the anesthetic we administer to ourselves. They died as heroes, and who can question that?

Pat Tillman's family did. Bill Maher last week recounted a scene from Tillman's memorial service much like the one from The Odyssey, with politicians and public figures lining up to say,  "Pat, you are home. You are safe." Richard Tillman refused that glory, standing up to say this:

He's not with God. He's f------ dead. He's not religious. So thanks for your thoughts, but he's f------ dead.

The Tillmans are notable for their refusal to take the anesthetic. They forced a rewrite of the military's tall-tale, exposing the fact that their son did not die "charging up a hill" in combat. In doing so, they did more than just reclaim the truth. They also restored their son from "hero" to human being.