I was not sure I would like a book called Worth Fighting For by a former soldier who walked across the United States to raise money for the Pat Tillman Foundation. The website of that foundation celebrates military “service” and the “higher calling” for which Tillman left professional football, namely participation in the U.S. war on the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. Rather than funding efforts to put an end to war, as Tillman actually might have wished by the end of his life, the foundation hypes war participation, funds veterans, and to this day presents Tillman’s death thusly:
“On the evening of April 22, 2004, Pat’s unit was ambushed as it traveled through the rugged, canyon terrain of eastern Afghanistan. His heroic efforts to provide cover for fellow soldiers as they escaped from the canyon led to his untimely and tragic death via fratricide.”
Those heroic efforts happened, if they happened, in the context of an illegal and immoral operation that had Tillman defending foreign invaders from Afghans defending their homes. And the last two words above (“via fratricide”) tell a different story from the rest of the paragraph, page, and entire website of the Pat Tillman Foundation. Tillman was shot by U.S. troops. And he may not have died a thorough-going supporter of what he was engaged in. On September 25, 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Tillman had become critical of the Iraq war and had scheduled a meeting with the prominent war critic Noam Chomsky to take place when he returned from Afghanistan, all information that Tillman’s mother and Chomsky later confirmed. Tillman couldn’t confirm it because he had died in Afghanistan in 2004 from three bullets to the forehead.
Rory Fanning’s book — Worth Fighting For — relates, however, that Tillman looked forward to getting out of the military and sympathized with the actions of Fanning, a member of his battalion who became a conscientious objector and refused to fight. According to Fanning, Tillman “knew his very public circumstances forced him to stick it out.”
That’s obviously a different use of the word “forced” from “gravity forced the weight to drop” or “the missile striking the house forced the people inside to split apart into fragments of flesh and gore.” Imagine the benefits to the cause of peace if the one troop who had a name, face, and voice had shattered the bullshit choruses of “Support the Troops!” by doing what Fanning did, and thus living to tell the tale? Instead Tillman stuck it out and left many believing that military propagandists had either become quite fortunate or something worse, when Tillman did not live to quite possibly oppose — better late than never — what he had been doing.
When I worked with a number of talented people to draft articles of impeachment for George W. Bush that were introduced by Congressman Dennis Kucinich, they included this:
“The White House and the Department of Defense (DOD) in 2004 promoted a false account of the death of Specialist Pat Tillman, reporting that he had died in a hostile exchange, delaying release of the information that he had died from friendly fire, shot in the forehead three times in a manner that led investigating doctors to believe he had been shot at close range.
“A 2005 report by Brig. Gen. Gary M. Jones reported that in the days immediately following Specialist Tillman’s death, U.S. Army investigators were aware that Specialist Tillman was killed by friendly fire, shot three times to the head, and that senior Army commanders, including Gen. John Abizaid, knew of this fact within days of the shooting but nevertheless approved the awarding of the Silver Star, Purple Heart, and a posthumous promotion.
“On April 24, 2007, Spc. Bryan O’Neal, the last soldier to see Specialist Pat Tillman alive, testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that he was warned by superiors not to divulge information that a fellow soldier killed Specialist Tillman, especially to the Tillman family. The White House refused to provide requested documents to the committee, citing ‘executive branch confidentiality interests.'”
What made Pat Tillman a particular hero to many in the United States was that he had given up huge amounts of money to go to war. That he had passed up the evil of hoarding wealth in order to engage in something even more evil does not register with supporters of war. And had the U.S. Army not killed him, and had he not subsequently killed himself (the leading cause of U.S. military deaths now being suicide), Tillman might have lengthened his life by leaving the NFL, which abandons its players to an average lifespan in their 50s and in some cases dementia in their 40s — an issue that arises in Fanning’s book as he meets with former NFL greats to raise money for the Pat Tillman Foundation.
Tillman was, by all accounts, kind, humble, intelligent, courageous, and well-intentioned. He clearly inspired many, many people whom he met, and whom he never met, to be better people. Fanning would, I think, include himself in that list. But when Fanning decided to walk across the country raising funds, and finding support and shelter for himself along the way, in the name of Pat Tillman, he was playing on the beliefs of a propagandized public, beliefs that he himself had ceased to fully share. A sheriff, in a typical example, takes Fanning’s empty water bottles, drives 12 miles to refill them, and hands them back to Fanning with tears in his eyes, saying, “What Pat did for our country is one of the bravest, most admirable things I can remember anyone doing. Take this for your cause.” And he handed Fanning $100.
Was generating hatred and resentment in Afghanistan by killing helpless people a service to the United States? Was the environmental destruction and economic cost and eroded civil liberties a benefit to us all? In the minds of the people whom the Pat Tillman Foundation is still trying to milk for funding, perhaps so. Such a foundation not only saves the government from providing for veterans (or anyone else) while investing more in weaponry, but it also generates public support for and identification with supposed military heroism. It’s a double-victory for the makers of war in Washington, most of whom are far more misguided than Pat Tillman ever was, but most of whom are more remarkable for cowardice than bravery.
As I say, I wasn’t 100% sure I would like Fanning’s book. I believe things are worth working for, struggling for, suffering for, and dying for, but not fighting for. What could he mean? I was very pleasantly surprised, and recommend the book enthusiastically. It recounts an adventure worth having that contained no fighting at all. It’s a tale told with wisdom, erudition, kindness, humor, humility, and generosity of which I think Tillman might have been proud.
Like the guy in that Craig’s List movie, Fanning finds people going out of their way to help him as he very publicly walks across the country, doing interviews along the way, speaking at events, and chronicling his progress on a website (now gone). This does not, of course, prove that anyone without a public cause or celebrity label, or anyone of any race or sex or appearance, could safely and successfully find the same sort of selfless support from so many Americans. It is heartening and encouraging, nonetheless, to read. And these accounts come interspersed with descriptions and historical background on the places Fanning walks through that suggest he has a future as a travel writer if he wants it. Intermingled as well quite seamlessly is an account of how Fanning himself moved from being “a devout Christian to an atheist and from a conservative Republican to a socialist.” He later adds that he ceased opposing environmentalists and became one. As this world needs such transformations on a large scale, a smart account by someone who’s been through one has great value.
One aspect of Fanning’s own drama that sheds light on the notion that Tillman was “forced” to “support the troops” even while being one (that is, support a war he may have disagreed with), is the description of how hard it was for Fanning to turn against the military (a process that may perhaps remain incomplete for him even now). Fanning had joined after 9-11 for similar reasons to Tillman, believing it his duty. He then found he “did not have it in him” to kill. And he saw the injustice and absurdity of capturing people falsely ratted out by rivals to an ignorant foreign occupier eager to punish (and torture) anyone it could. He came to see himself as an imperialist pawn rather than a rescuer on a mission for humanity. When he refused to go along to get along, he was ostracized and abused by everyone around him except Pat Tillman and his brother Kevin Tillman. Despite his refusal to fight, Fanning was sent to Afghanistan again, made to do chores, labeled “bitch” by his commander, and forced to sleep outside alone in the snow. And Fanning supported his own abuse, attempting to make himself ill, afraid of the shame of his own behavior rather than wishing to expose the shame of the evil behavior of those around him.
Fanning recounts a conversation with a military chaplain. Fanning made the case that the whole war was unjust. The chaplain made the case that God wanted him to do it anyway. The loser in that contest was apparently Fanning’s use for the concept of “God.”
But Fanning’s struggle continued within himself even after getting home and getting out. “After I left the military,” he writes, “the hardest thing I had to do was look someone in the eyes. I was afraid I would be exposed for breaking my oath.” Not for having been part of an operation of mass-murder, but for having abandoned it. That’s how Fanning thought even after getting out, so one can imagine how Tillman thought while still in — and while in with a world telling him he was a god himself for being there. Fanning sees the contradiction. “I knew U.S. imperialism was destroying the planet,” he writes, “but I still felt guilty for leaving.”
Through Fanning’s walk he gives talks that avoid mentioning what he (and perhaps Tillman) actually thought, until — three-quarters of the way along — a boy asks him which branch of the military to join, and he answers “I don’t think you should join any of them.” He then gives the $100 from the sheriff to a homeless man under an overpass.