Why Tillman Resonates
I was thinking about this on the way into the office today. Initially I was surprised that the response to the death of Pat Tillman had so much resonance around the country. I had more or less assumed that it would get some attention nationally, but that it would be mostly a local story. Obviously that has not been the case, and I've figured out why.
America needs real heroes again.
For most of our country's history, heroes have been idolized and lionized. In books and films they were trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent--the Boy Scout grown up. Think of the Golden Age Batman--the lantern jaw, the ready quip, the unquestionable honesty.
But in the late 1960s, the anti-hero arose. Suddenly it was acceptable if the hero was not always courteous or kind or reverent, as long as he was fighting on the right side. Of course, the definition of the right side became a little fuzzy as well. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were on the right side in Easy Rider
--the side that smoked pot, dropped acid and smuggled cocaine or heroin into the country (in the film's opening sequence). Anti-war protestor Jon Voight was on the right side in Coming Home
Conversely, the old heroes became the villains. Suddenly John Wayne was unhip, and unhip meant you were one of the bad guys. These changes started in books and film, but they eventually filtered throughout pop culture. By the 1980s, Frank Miller's Return of the Dark Knight
presented Batman as a brooding and bitter alcoholic. Indeed, of the Boy Scout qualities named above, about the only one that remained was "brave".
The trend continued throughout the 1990s. Two of my favorite shows of that decade were The Simpsons and Married With Children. Both presented extremely disfunctional families with unloving fathers and bratty kids as the "heroes".
All that changed on 9-11, at least for some of us. I found myself almost overwhelmed with grief and sadness in the first few days afterwards, especially during the services on the Saturday after, and began to get concerned for my own mental health. So on Sunday, I decided to shift my focus from the victims of 9-11 to the heroes. I spent that day learning everything I could about the passengers of Flight 93, the heroes who fought back and prevented the fourth plane from crashing into yet another building on the ground. And almost immediately, reading about Glick and Burnett and Nacke and Bingham and Beamer my depression started to lift.
It is similar with the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and Tillman. Day after day we are bombarded with negative news--10 Iraqi civilians killed in a car bombing, four American contractors killed and desecrated in Fallujah. Seven marines slain by a mine on the road. Captain Ed had a great post
on his blog the other day, which linked to an article
by Captain Roger Lee Crossland containing this observation:
In earlier times, the American public could recite names such as Boatswain's Mate Reuben James, Lieutenant William Cushing, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, Sergeant Alvin York, Mess Attendant Dorie Miller, and Sergeant Audie Murphy as easily as they could their own home addresses. The individual heroes of the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, generally are unknown. Deluged by lengthy, detailed stories of the extreme efforts taken by terrorists, we have heard little of the extreme efforts taken by members of the U.S. armed forces.
Exactly! During the early days of the war, when the reporters were embedded with the troops, we did get a little of this type of reporting (anybody remember the classic "Where do they get these guys," comment?). But lately, it's all negative, all the time. Chamberlain's emphasis is on the soldier as victim rather than hero, and in that sense, Tillman still fits the pattern. But there is a difference between the reporting on Tillman and the reporting on, say, Jessica Lynch. In Tillman's case the focus is on what happened before his death; in Lynch's it was on her capture and rescue.
And reading the articles about Tillman, it is not hard to hear the Boy Scout virtues creeping back into the reporting. Loyal? He turned down more money from the Rams to stick with the team that gave him a chance. Friendly and courteous? I've already read two stories that talk about him writing thank you notes to reporters who covered him. Thrifty? The anecdote about him showing up for training camp on a bicycle covers that. Brave? No question.