The Sacrifice of an American Gladiator

By David Swanson

Dan Ireland’s The Ultimate Arena: The Sacrifice of an American Gladiator is a fictionalized account, speculative in some of the details, but true in all the major facts, to the story of Pat Tillman. Any Good American who “supports the troops” has a duty to read this book, as it recounts the life and death of just about the only troop in recent years to be given a face and a name, if not a voice, by the U.S. media.

The most disturbing question raised for me by this story, as by news reports of the actual events, is unrelated to the killing of Tillman or the lying about it. My question is this: How could this larger-than-life, super-inquisitive, amateur ethicist and philosopher, raised in a uniquely intellectually stimulating and morally instructive family have come to the conclusion that it was a good idea to sign up for participation in mass murder? And secondarily: How, after concluding that he’d been duped and was engaged in purely destructive mass killing, could the same independent rebel have decided it was his moral duty to continue with it, even though he had the ability to easily stop?

This is not a question wholly unique to the case of Tillman. Many of the best veteran advocates for ending war were once among the most passionate believers in the goodness of what they’d signed up to do. But at least in some cases they had grown up in rightwing households. Tillman apparently had not.

Of course, I don’t know in detail what Tillman’s real childhood and adolescence were. In Ireland’s account Tillman had a veteran uncle whose story ought to have turned Tillman against war but in fact — as is very often the case — did not completely do so. In Ireland’s account Tillman was taught to use violence in personal relations and did so almost routinely.

What we can accept as established fact, however, is that one can grow up in the United States, succeed in school all the way through college, participate in a well-rounded range of activities, and never once encounter a history of war resistance, an argument for war abolition, an ethics class addressing the question of war, a consideration of the illegality of war, or the existence of a peace movement. Tillman, like many veterans I’ve met, very likely discovered all of these things only after joining the military. For him, in a unique way, but as for many others, that was too late.

In Ireland’s account, the financial corruption and opportunism of U.S. wars turned Tillman against them. There’s no similar account in the book of the human suffering of mass murder turning him against what he was doing. We are supposed to understand, and as far as we know this is true, that Tillman was prepared to speak against the wars, that he did speak to his fellow troops against the wars, but that he never threatened to set down his weapon or even considered the possibility of doing so.

This fits with the normalization of war that allows people to admire a man for giving up a big football contract to participate in war, and to accept that he became — like a congressman who votes over and over to fund a war while criticizing it — an opponent of a war he was participating in.

The most intriguing question raised by Ireland’s book is: What could have been? Would Tillman have campaigned for public office, winning votes from war supporters while laying out an antiwar platform? Or would it have been more of an “antiwar” platform, tweaking the imperial machine around the edges?

The power of such an account lies not in these questions, however, but in the fact that hits you like a pro defensive back: each of the millions of deaths brought about by recent wars has been an immense loss, a tragedy, a horror that no words could ever justify.

2 Responses

  1. “Dan Ireland’s The Ultimate Arena: The Sacrifice of an American Gladiator is a fictionalized account, speculative in some of the details, but true in all the major facts, to the story of Pat Tillman.”

    I’ll have to read the book before passing final judgement, but I’m skeptical of any author who claims Tillman was assassinated. I’ve followed the case since 2005 and have written extensively about the bi-partisan Congressional & White House whitewash of those responsible for the cover-up of Tillman’s friendly-fire death.

    I (and others who have looked into it such as Jon Krakauer & Stan Goff) believe the evidence points to friendly fire. And, I’m also skeptical of any book written without the cooperation of the Tillman family (Krakauer lost their trust, so JK wasn’t able to use their interviews in his book; except for his widow).

    For more about the story, I’d suggest Mary Tillman’s book “Boots on the Ground by Dusk,” “The Tillman Story” DVD, Jon Krakauer’s book “Where Men Win Glory” (a flawed book, by a flawed man, but good details of the incident itself and much of the government’s whitewash), and my posts at the Feral Firefighter blog.

  2. “How … could the same independent rebel have decided it was his moral duty to continue with it, even though he had the ability to easily stop? … Tillman … did speak to his fellow troops against the wars, but that he never threatened to set down his weapon or even considered the possibility of doing so.”

    Tillman was driven by an iron-clad sense of honor and personal integrity. Although he disagreed with the Iraq War (before deploying to Afghanistan perhaps he still held out hope for that war), he felt compelled to finish his enlistment. He wouldn’t take advantage of his celebrity to get out early, nor abandon his brother who enlisted with him.

    For what it’s worth, Pat and Kevin were the only soldiers in their Ranger Batt who supported the only Ranger who did become a CO [From “WORTH FIGHTING FOR” An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America by Rory Fanning (2014]:

    “After two deployments to Afghanistan, I had become one of the first Rangers, if not the first Ranger, to formally reject my unit’s orders to Iraq and Afghanistan. I was a conscientious objector (p. 10) … The only ones in the battalion who were sympathetic to my case were the Tillman brothers. They weren’t scared to talk to me in public. The empathized and said, “Try not to let it get to you.” Pat looked forward to getting out of the military himself, but knew his very public circumstances forced him to stick it out. I was able to navigate the rejection I felt … thanks to the respect and tolerance the Tillman brothers showed me during that time” (p. 140)

    For a hilarious take on the issue of a soldier deciding whether to take a public stand, I would suggest reading “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (which is also a movie in post-production).

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