The Sacrifice of an American Gladiator

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.

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  • MrLiberty

    “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”

    Seriously? Is there ANYONE in America who is not aware of the peace movement of the 1960’s? At least? Is there anyone who is not aware of “Gulf War Syndrome?” Is there anyone who is not aware of the nearly 1 per day suicides of military veterans? Does anyone know any current or former member of the military who has ONLY good things to say about the military, military efficiency, the reasons for what they were doing “over there,” etc.?

    I for one am a good American and I most certainly DO NOT SUPPORT THE TROOPS. If you are gullible enough to actually believe the lies of the recruiters, the insipid commercials, and the criminals in our government who never met a war they didn’t like or couldn’t profit from, then you deserve to learn the big lessor the hard way.

    This is the internet age. NO INFORMATION (except what the government is concealing) is hidden from access. EVERYONE can easily find out about peace movements from the Civil War, including Abraham Lincoln’s jailing of Northern newspaper owners for not supporting his criminal war – and thus violating the CLEAR Constitutional protections of Freedom of the Press. They can read about the America First movements surrounding WW1 opposition, WW2 opposition, opposition to Korea, and large protests in the streets of many major cities prior to the immoral wars we continue to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. If you go into the military ignorant, it is because of WILLFUL CHOICE, not an absence of available infomation.

    I am truly getting sick of these hollow arguments about how we need to support those who “fight for our freedoms.” The ONLY people who threaten our freedoms, destroy our way of life, etc. are the employees and elected officials of our Federal, State, and local governments. NO terrorist has EVER taken away a single freedom, nor any German, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Libyan, Afghani, or Iraqi (unless they had been elected to government office). Meanwhile, our troops blindly follow the order of these freedom destroyers while lying themselves into complacency with their own immoral actions.

    • wunsacon

      >> Seriously? Is there ANYONE in America who is not aware of the peace movement of the 1960’s?

      Agree.

      >> This is the internet age. NO INFORMATION (except what the government is
      concealing) is hidden from access. EVERYONE can easily find out

      Not “easily find” when it is *drowned out*.

      • MrLiberty

        It doesn’t take long to find the sites that tell the truth. I will agree that there is information overload, but simply put in peace movement, war is illegal, war is immoral, and similar phrases into a search engine and you will find what you are looking for IF YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO (and that is more the key – nobody really wants to know the truth about how horrible their “parents” in government have been behaving).

        • animalogic

          Really wanting to know — that’s a big part of the problem, isn’t ? Let’s face it: many Americans don’t even know when Canada is, let alone, say, Afghanistan. Many people simply have NO intellectual curiosity about ANYTHING, Nevermind peace and ethical subjects. They have been expressly designed to be what they ARE: consumers, not citizens. (Tillman is, of course, a different case)

  • paul

    Let me just translate this article from the saker-ish putin-apologetics bs code it is written in: the author is saying that Russia does not at all mind that the US wants to carve up small countries that don’t toe the line. Russia just wants a piece of the action. Russia wants a cut.

    • animalogic

      Are you responding to the Swanson article above ? Sorry, I missed any reference to Putin “bs” whether in code or otherwise…

  • paul

    oops wrong article – i actually think this tillman article is great