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In Memory of Pat Tillman: A Sense of Duty
by Aaron Goldstein
27 April 2004

Pat Tillman's death makes us ask ourselves: what duty do we owe to the country in which we live, and what sacrifices are we prepared to make in fulfillment of that duty. 

Pat Tillman did not seek to be treated any differently than any other U.S. soldier serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Indeed, his death while serving this country in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger is just as tragic as the death of any other soldier killed in the line of duty.    
Yet Pat Tillman was extraordinary.  He turned down a three-year, $3.6 million contract extension to play safety with the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League to join the U.S. Army days after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  The fact that he enlisted in the Army in of itself was not extraordinary.  What is extraordinary is the fact that no other professional athlete or entertainer was willing to make such a sacrifice.

If one turns back the clock a little more than half a century ago it was not at all unusual for the most prominent names in athletics and entertainment to serve this country in times of military conflict.  Major League Baseball legends Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg all served in World War II.  Willie Mays served in Korea.  Ted Williams served in both WWII and Korea.    Each of these men missed several seasons as a result of their service and often in the prime of their careers.  Yet at that time setting homerun or strikeout records was secondary to liberating Europe from Hitler or Korea from the scourge of Communism.    The same sentiment was true in Hollywood.  Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda were among the Hollywood stars who did not make movies for several years so they too could serve their country.  But here again making movies seemed a secondary consideration to avenging the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.    

Yet this was what was expected of men in this country in times of war, whether they were Joe Smith or Joe DiMaggio, Clark Jones or Clark Gable.  There existed a sense of duty. How so much has changed -- and not for the better.

Today, Hollywood entertainers are far more likely to be protesting wars than participating in them in service to our country.  Sure there are entertainers who are supportive of our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq but they are a distinct minority.  Of course, there have always been politics in Hollywood.  But years back it was possible for Jimmy Stewart, a lifelong Republican, and Henry Fonda, a liberal Democrat, to not only be best of friends but on the same side in matters of life and death as well as G-d and country.    Such a consensus seems all but impossible in this day and age.    Can anyone imagine Alec Baldwin and Tom Selleck agreeing on the weather much less the state of the world?

Professional athletes are, by and large, a more conservative lot.    They also tend to be more vocal in their support of our troops.    Mike Timlin, a relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, wears military fatigues under his uniform in honor of the troops; a routine that has brought him trouble from the Commissioner’s office.    Some athletes do have a lot personally vested.   Last season, Todd Greene, a journeyman player who was with the Texas Rangers, garnered attention not for his playing but the fact that one of his cousins was taken prisoner of war in Iraq.

Yet in this day and age, a professional athlete is set for life with multi-million dollar contracts plus endorsements.  Back in the days of Greenberg, Williams and Mays, players did not have big contracts and worked regular jobs in the off season. They had to scrap for a living like most people.

Today, we live in an age where we are automatically skeptical of government and the military.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of skepticism.  However, there is a fine line between constructive criticism and putting our government on the same level with Saddam or al Qaeda.  Those of us born after 1965 have grown up being told by our teachers and our TVs that the United States is the villain or at the very least something not worth putting our lives on the line.

To be fair, government expects less of us.  The Draft is long gone.  We are not expected to ration food and other goods.  We are not expected to buy War Bonds because the government does not issue them. We are not expected to give up the things we “need” such as our DVDs, the Internet and our SUVs.  We are not expected to sacrifice for the greater good.

So what made Pat Tillman different from the other people we see on the gridiron or in our theaters?  For that matter what made him different from most of us?  He grew up in a family where for generations there was an expectation that one would serve one’s country in the military.   Indeed, when deciding to enlist, he declared that “he had not done a damn thing” to carry on his family name and for his country.   

I am fully aware that Tillman is increasingly an exception to the rule and that does not bode well in a conflict where the enemy is determined to destroy us by any means necessary.  Yet I am also aware that we cannot turn the clock back to 1944.  But we should also not turn the clock back to 1969 and pretend that Iraq and Afghanistan are Vietnams in a desert in a vain effort to relive misspent youth.  We can only be aware of the present and look to the future recognizing that this is a unique time in our history that will offer its own lessons.  Whether we decide to learn from them is up to us.  If we choose to learn from them one of the lessons will be to ask ourselves what duty we have to the country in which we live, and what sacrifices we are prepared to make in fulfillment of that duty.   

Pat Tillman and many thousands of young men and women in this country have asked themselves that question.  If millions more do the same then this country has a fighting chance.  R.I.P.

Aaron Goldstein, a former member of the socialist New Democratic Party, writes poetry and has a chapbook titled Oysters and the Newborn Child: Melancholy and Dead Musicians. His poetry can be viewed on www.poetsforthewar.org.

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