THE BLOG
05/20/2010 05:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rethinking Memorial Day: The Pat Tillman Story

Memorial Day is upon us and Corporal Pat Tillman, killed in 2004 in Afghanistan, is among those who will be honored. When in 2002 football star Tillman gave up his $3.6 million NFL contract to enlist in the army, his decision made headlines and was toasted as the ultimate in patriotism. He chose to sacrifice his hugely successful career and personal life -- he had recently been married -- in order to defend our country.

Sounds like the perfect Memorial Day story. Well it is, but not in the way most of our military and political leaders would like.

Tillman's story raises fundamental issues concerning patriotism, service to one's country, the motivation of leaders in starting wars and of young men in going to war, and the military leadership's behavior towards those who serve.

Tillman and his brother Kevin joined the army at the same time, to fight al Qaeda after 9/11. Instead they were sent to Iraq. In her 2008 book, Boots on the Ground by Dusk, their mother, Mary Tillman, writes that by late 2002, when her sons came home on leave from boot camp, it was becoming clear that President Bush wanted to attack Iraq. She comments, "This was a war Pat and Kevin did not enlist to fight and one that everyone in our immediate family considered illegal."

After a stint in Iraq, In April 2004, Pat and Kevin, both elite Rangers, were deployed to Afghanistan. Pat was killed shortly thereafter by fellow Rangers. The official story was that he had died a hero killed in action by Taliban. His mother's tireless efforts led to the truth being uncovered and made public. The highly disturbing circumstances of his death are detailed in her book; in The Tillman Story, a documentary to be released in August; and in Jon Krakauer's biography of Tillman, Where Men Win Glory.

When questioned, one of the Rangers who fired at Pat who was waving his arms, admitted "I wanted to stay in the firefight." This kind of mind frame leads Krakauer to statement, "most of the untried Rangers yearned to experience the atavistic rush of having to kill or be killed -- a desire more common among the the male population than is usually acknowledged in polite company."(Similarly, author Sebastian Junger, who spent time embedded with a platoon in Afghanistan, writes, "combat is the ...game that young men fall in love with...").

For those of us who believe that the best way to honor soldiers killed in combat is to strive to ensure that future generations not die in unnecessary wars, Tillman's story is of utmost importance. The fact is that many if not most of the soldiers honored on Memorial Day did not die to protect our nation from enemy attack. They died in wars fought for economic, political, or ego reasons. (Many, like Pat Tillman were killed by friendly fire-- 39% in Vietnam.)
Until we admit this, our young men ,and now women, will continue to kill and be killed in unnecessary wars.

Back in 1935, one of America's most highly decorated soldiers, Marine Corps General Smedley D. Butler, whose service included several Latin American wars, the Boxer War in China, and World War I, published a book entitled War is a Racket. His perception of war had undergone a radical change since at 16 he had run away from home, lied about his age, and patriotically enlisted in the Spanish-American war. In his book he states, "I helped make Haiti and Cuba decent places for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in.,, I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1918. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested."

Daniel Ellsberg, former Marine and Pentagon advisor during the Vietnam war, and author David Halberstram have documented that our political leaders knew early on that the war was not winnable, and not essential to our defense. To save face and manhood (President Johnson, when told that a member of his administration had gone soft on Vietnam, commented "hell, he has to squat to piss.") they allowed close to 60,000 young Americans and two million Vietnamese to be murdered.

President Bush's lies about Saddam Hussein's involvement in 9/11 and his weapons of mass destruction have led to the murder of close to 4500 soldiers and, according to the lowest estimates, 100,000 Iraqis. Iraqi oil and Dubya's need to indulge in macho posturing are key to understanding this war.

President Obama, no doubt pressured by military advisors and fearful of appearing unpatriotic and unmanly, has sent close to 30,000 more Americans to Afghanistan, which no longer serves as headquarters for al Qaeda, on what is very likely a hopeless mission. Over one thousand Americans and over two thousand Afghans have already been killed.

Wars are facilitated by two factors -- many young men are drawn to danger and risk taking, and view wars as exciting adventures providing proof of courage and manhood; and military service is viewed as the ultimate in patriotism and service to one's country. The Tillman brothers exemplify both. They loved high risk activities, and Mary Tillman writes about how the family "glamorized the honor of military service," and admits sadly that "all of those discussions of the military and the honor of serving come back to haunt me."

Raised in this tradition, the Tillman boys did not revolt against being sent to Iraq to fight in what they considered an illegal and immoral war. Wouldn't the truly courageous act have been for Pat and Kevin to risk court martial by declaring their refusal to fight in an immoral war? Imagine the anti-war publicity this would have engendered, the lives it might have saved.

After Pat was killed, Kevin turned down the opportunity to be honorably discharged. He felt a responsibility to accept deployment to Iraq because he had made a commitment to the army. But he had enlisted to defend our country against the perpetrators of 9/11, not to fight in a war for oil and ego. What about the responsibility to not kill or be killed in an unnecessary war?

Imbued with high moral principles, Pat and Kevin were intelligent and well read -- their readings included works by war critic Noam Chomsky. But a traditional sense of honor, courage, and responsibility, and no doubt a desire for the adventure and danger of war, kept them from acting in accordance with the higher moral principle of not killing.

Our young men need new paradigms of honor, courage, and responsibility embodied in men like Daniel Ellsberg who risked life imprisonment to help stop the bloodshed in Vietnam, and World Champion Boxer Mohammed Ali who risked imprisonment and his career by refusing, on moral grounds, to serve in Vietnam.

Wars fought for economic interests or ego are neither honorable nor patriotic. They are criminal, just as killing for financial gain or because of a perceived insult is criminal. Many of those we honor on Memorial Day are the innocent victims of deception. They gave their lives in the belief that they were defending our country. In 2008, a very sobered and angry Kevin Tillman wrote "our naivete made it possible for our leaders to commit these crimes." What could be more fitting than to honor our war dead by committing ourselves to putting an end to these crimes?