Monday, February 08, 2010

Space shuttle Endeavor's night launch

In the middle of the night last night Endeavor blasted off en route to the International Space Station in what may be the final night launch of an American space shuttle. Oh to have been there . . .

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Thinking of Tillman on the NFL's big day

Tonight New Orleans beat Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV. I tuned in for the second half of the game. I don't watch much football but I am glad I watched--good sport wasn't lacking tonight. The interception to touchdown play was epic. It was also great to see the underdog come out on top.

After the big game, I finished Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, a book by Jon Krakauer. Tillman played in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals and then hung up his football jersey after the 9/11 attacks. Though he qualified to serve as an officer he, along with his brother, enlisted as a private. Tillman was killed in an incident of friendly fire on April 22, 2004 in Afghanistan.

A Sundance film called “The Tillman Story” got me interested in this former NFL star and American warrior. His story is not a story that leaves you feeling very warm-hearted about the U.S. Government or military. In fact the military and political handling of Tillman's death is downright shameful.

Tillman and his family are admirable. The family's pursuit of the truth surrounding his death is part of a complicated story, but their persistence is inspiring even as it exposes tragic human and institutional weaknesses. Tillman had many gifts. He was a talented and driven athlete. He was a devoted husband and loving son. He was a loyal brother, especially close to his brother Kevin--who served with him in the same unit in the army. Tillman was also a thinker. He kept a journal, loved ideas and conversation. He respected and was genuinely curious about the opinions of others and had many opinions himself, yet he lacked dogma and adapted his beliefs based on additional knowledge he gained in his endless explorations. Tillman read voraciously, everything from Noam Chomsky to the Bible--though he was an atheist himself.

Pat Tillman is not the man that was portrayed to Americans at the time of his death. The military invented a story about the circumstances of his death that was a pure lie, and everyone involved knew it. But they hoped to use Tillman as a propaganda tool to build support for the war so the army told his family, and the American people that he died at the hands of the enemy. They thought this invention would play better than the actual circumstances of his death.

Tillman's real story was much more interesting than the one that was invented about him, first by the military and then by a hungry media all too happy to feed Americans the propaganda that the media felt they wanted. His story says something about the impact of politics and power on the lives of one man and those who loved him. Tillman is probably the most famous recruit of the past decade. His case provides some insight into what others who serve (and their families) face in a time of war.

Krakauer ends the book by highlighting Tillman's idealism, calling it his tragic virtue. Tillman believed he had a duty to do something more important than play football. Though he often saw people do wrong, he believed that most people would do the right thing. He trusted his government to do right by him. A grounded and capable man, he ultimately died by literally standing up into the line of fire coming from his comrades in arms. It was a futile attempt to get them to stop shooting. His ending was tragic, though friendly fire is common in war (a fact that adds to the tragic nature of war).

If you don't know the full Tillman story I strongly encourage you to learn it. Read Krakauer's book, the book by Tillman's mother titled Boots on the Ground by Dusk, or keep your eyes out for the excellent documentary that premiered at Sundance last month.

Tillman's story, with all of its twists and turns, is a story loaded with many lessons for all of us. On this Super Bowl Sunday, let's all think of Pat Tillman: football player, soldier, thinker, husband, son, brother, American.

Photo of Tillman from the Pat Tillman Foundation. The foundation "was established to carry forward Pat’s legacy of leadership and civic action by supporting future generations of leaders who embody the American tradition of citizen service."