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.