Wednesday, May 05, 2004


At Pat Tillman's funeral, the speeches were mostly about the selfless sacrifice Tillman made for his country, when he had more to lose than many people. After 9/11, Tillman walked away from a multimillion-dollar NFL contract to serve in the military, which cost him his life - on April 22, in Afghanistan, Tillman was killed by 'friendly fire' while leading his team to help comrades caught in an ambush. His whole life - not just the bits that a made-for-TV movie could be based on, but his personal relationships, his position in the community, and his complete dedication and commitment to friends, family, and cause - reads like the archetypal hero's journey.

The politicians and celebrities and sports figures that gathered at his funeral, some 3000 of them, had a lot to say about sacrifice and patriotism and doing one's duty to God, Family, and Country... so much to say, in fact, that they seemed to forget that up until a few weeks ago, Tillman was a living breathing human being. In a sense they were only doing their part - both sides of every war have always required a chorus of voices proclaiming their side's deep connection with God... it's what helps justify the cause in the minds of all the people back home, and there is little qualitative difference between the Christian homily "he's with God now" and the Islamic promise of gloried martyrdom for those who die in battle.

It helps us deal with the pain of death, abstracting away the complicated realities, replacing them with simpler more palatable concepts. But this abstraction works too well - it keeps the reality of the situation so far from the minds of most people that they can go about their lives as though there is no war, after all it's just something that happens on the news, and besides when the other side dies they were evil anyway, and when our side dies they get to be with God... doesn't sound too bad, does it? Your president understands this all too well... in past wars our presidents would meet the planes at the airport, standing witness to the flag-draped coffins that brought our soldiers back home, but this guy goes down to his ranch in Texas, plays a little golf, and tells the whole country that our soldiers deaths are a matter for their families to deal with, not something that should concern the country at large. Bush's disrespect for those that died fighting his little war shames us all, but most people don't seem to care.

Tillman's younger brother Richard probably won't be remembered for his speech at the funeral... Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger will be quoted, as will John McCain and a few NFL luminaries. The soaring speeches that brought a tear to everyone's eyes and made their hearts burn with pride and patriotism will be absorbed into the collective rhetoric and used to abstract away more deaths and more wars. But suppose for a moment that Bush isn't just being dishonorably self-serving (I know it's a stretch, but work with me here), and that a soldier's death is the family's concern and not the concern of the people the soldier fought for... if that's the case, perhaps we shouldn't listen to the celebrity flagwavers who acknowledge the politically useful dead while ignoring the hundreds of other deaths. Perhaps we should listen to Richard Tillman, for whom the war is something more than just a blurb on the news:

Thanks Pat. [toasting him with a glass of Guiness beer] I didn't write shit because I'm not a writer. I'm not just going to sit here and break down on you. But thanks for coming. Pat's a fucking champion and always will be. Just make no mistake, he'd want me to say this: He's not with God. He's fucking dead. He's not religious. So, thanks for your thoughts, but he's fucking dead.

Regardless of your position on this war or wars in general, the fact remains that people are fighting and dying for a cause they believe to be true; they surrender themselves to what they perceive to be a greater cause, and follow the orders their leaders give them. That their leaders should unnecessarily place them in harm's way, that their deaths should be unacknowledged by the country they died for, that their memories should be whitewashed with abstractions, these things are disrespectful of their sacrifice. Think about all of the little things we use to make ourselves feel better about their deaths, when we shouldn't feel better about it, it is supposed to hurt, to remind us that it matters... because we should be able to trust that their lives would not be squandered on issues that did not matter. You aren't supposed to get a warm fuzzy feeling inside when you hear about Tillman or any of the other 847 coalition soldiers that have died on 'our side' in this war, let alone the thousands that have died on the other side... they are fucking dead. The least we can do is remember that.

Richard Tillman toasts brother Pat at funeral