There were no television cameras following Sergeant Pat Tillman in Afghanistan last week when his patrol was caught in an ambush and he was killed. If it had been one of the other men in his unit, the event would have barely made the news. One more soldier killed in a random little firefight in a place where soldiers have been dying for a long, long time. Since way before Kipling, who gave the place a kind of literary dignity that held up until Kipling–and soldiers, for that matter–lost status and the world became modern.
Tillman is the first American soldier to die in Afghanistan (or Iraq, for that matter, where he also served) whose name is known to everyone paying even minimal attention to what goes on in the world. There have been some 700 soldiers (or Marines or sailors or airmen) killed so far in the war on terror and Tillman is the first celebrity killed in action. Though from what one reads about the man, he would be the first to protest that this is a slight to all the others; that while the breed is special, he was not.
This isn’t quite right, of course. None of the others were professional athletes. None gave up that kind of gaudy life for the cold, stoic uncertainties of soldiering, especially the kind he volunteered to do. None took a pass on more than three million dollars for seven hundred a month plus jump pay and three hots and a cot. But once Tillman walked away from the National Football League and qualified for duty with the Army Rangers, all that other stuff stopped being important. He was a soldier in an elite unit where no man is special because every man is. He said “no” to all interview requests and to the television show that wanted to turn the cameras on and follow him through training. This was not “reality television.” It was reality. As real as reality gets. Tillman understood this. They did not and never would.
In the hours when Pat Tillman was preparing for his last patrol, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was considering the case of one Maurice Clarett, running back, formerly with Ohio State University. Clarett had sought legal redress when the National Football League declared him ineligible for its annual draft of college football players, which was held last Saturday. Clarett had been out of high school only two years, one less than the league’s rules require. Millions were at stake and not just for Clarett but also for lawyers and agents who had latched on to a meal ticket. There are all sorts of professions with minimum-age requirements. Airline pilots, for example.
Still, the case was treated as some sort of civil-rights battle. Clarett was given his day in court and a claim on the time and attention of one of the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court. He lost.
The draft went on without him and Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning was chosen as the first pick in the first round by the San Diego Chargers. Manning and his father, Archie–a former star quarterback in the NFL–had let it be known that he would not play for the Chargers if they drafted him. So after negotiations, Eli was duly traded to the New York Giants. If he succeeds there, the endorsement opportunities will be lavish and he will probably make even more money than his brother, Peyton, who is quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts.
The Clarett and Manning episodes would have cast a shadow over the draft in any year. But coming two days after the announcement that Tillman was KIA, the whole extravagant spectacle suddenly seemed as tawdry as one of those Las Vegas floorshows. The brief tribute to Tillman and the moment of silence at the beginning of the proceedings did nothing to clear the tarnish. It was a celebration of greed–vulgar and unwatchable.
One gathers that the show went on. Certainly the NFL season will go on next year; though without Maurice Clarett and without Eli Manning forced into indentured servitude in San Diego. Of course, the war will also go on and people like Pat Tillman will do genuinely brave things out on the Afghan plains in anonymity and obscurity. Some will die.
The Rangers and other elite military units get the men they need and we can be grateful for that. They do not need the Maurice Claretts and we can also be grateful for that. And, finally, our gratitude must extend to the example of Pat Tillman. May God comfort his family.
–Geoffrey Norman writes on sports for NRO and other publications.