What makes a man?
This is a question that plagued my journals during my teenage years. One that I struggled with for years. One that I thought I knew when I left the Army. It is a question that maybe influenced me to join the Army. I was sure I was beyond it. But after finally reading Jon Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory,” I am certain I don’t know anything.
“Where Men Win Glory” follows the life of Pat Tillman, an NFL football player turned Army Ranger who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. Without opening the book, Tillman’s story seems to follow a typical martyr trope: a young man who leaves money and fame behind for a greater purpose – a patriotic purpose. But this is not the case. Tillman’s purpose was far higher than nationalism, according to Krakauer (although military authorities and elected officials tried to ensure Americans otherwise).
Tillman was real, in the truest sense. He never pretended to be something he wasn’t, or to believe in something that was false. He was intelligent and an avid scholar, constantly seeking new knowledge and perspectives, even if he didn’t agree with them. He was also a physical powerhouse, whether he was blocking tackles as a linebacker with the Arizona Cardinals, or running marathons and climbing rocks with friends. He was strong both physically and emotionally. He was compassionate, empathetic, self-critical, and often sensitive. Certainly complex.
And Tillman’s complexity is what makes him such a unique, yet relatable, character.
In the aftermath of 9/11, he enlisted in the Army, leaving behind an NFL contract to become an infantryman. His family pleaded him to reconsider, but it was already in him. His reason for joining seems convoluted and even contradictory, but it’s one that I understand on a very basic level.
When people ask “why did you join?” the answer isn’t always simple. We often use excuses about college, family traditions, travel, etc. But it’s not always the truth. I’ve learned this about Tillman, as well as myself, after reading Krakauer’s book. Enlisting is something you do for yourself. Considering the nature of the military, is that a little bit naive? Yes. Does it make us victims of war propaganda? Maybe. Whatever it is, I’m always at a loss to describe it completely. It feels like an innate and indescribable desire. Something that drives you mad.
As much as I look up to Tillman, as a Ranger and fellow veteran, I also feel a strong connection to him. We joined because there was no other choice for us. To not join was to avoid that desire and that madness. I can’t imagine not enlisting. The idea seems like such a cop-out. It doesn’t matter what other people want for us, or what the best option is. As the saying goes: “You gotta do what you gotta do.”
During college, I stopped thinking about why I joined. I stopped telling people about it because I didn’t feel like I owed an explanation to anyone. I began to disassociate myself with most veterans and the military identity. (I always felt some slight distance to begin with.) But Krakauer’s book resurfaced very personal questions about my motivations for enlisting. This comes at a time when the U.S. military’s engagement in the Middle East is decelerating and the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are returning home, many distraught, disaffected, and confused about their supposed accomplishments and future goals.
I see a similar threads in the narratives of many of these service members. Some, like Tillman, attracted national press. Bowe Bergdahl, is one such soldier. The Rolling Stone depicted Bergdahl as a young adventurer desperately seeking to make a difference in the world but who was instead labeled a misfit, a deserter, and ultimately became a prisoner-of-war. There’s also Chelsea Manning, who enlisted under the illusion that she would become part of something larger than herself. Yet Manning may as well have been an enemy combatant, after she released highly secretive documents about immoral and illegal U.S. operations around the world to the whistleblower website Wikileaks.
More of the same from the everyday soldiers I worked with during my three-and-a-half years; often talented, energetic, intelligent souls who found themselves wearing the uniform, standing in formation each morning, for whatever reason.
Fortunately, most of us made it back, though sometimes in pieces. Tillman, however, is among 6,845 U.S. service members who did not. Yet, his saga, however short, has challenged me to look forward. Instead of questioning why I enlisted, I have to question what it means now.
This question is not exclusive to veterans or military members. Whether you chose to enlist or not, you chose something. It’s our duty as a generation to move forward with our experiences. This isn’t about solving the various issues that plague the planet. It’s about living a life with the utmost spirit. Something Tillman did very well. This concerns a generation who wants more in life than what has been suggested by our families, the media and other institutions. It begs us to ask the question: what makes a man? Or a woman for that matter.
There is no combination of words to answer such a deep question. But Krakauer offers a potential path forward in the final pages of “Where Men Win Glory.” Quoting Frederick Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathrusta,” Krakauer captures Tillman’s character with a description of the modern world’s “Übermensch,” or superman.
This character is the essence of the Futurist mantra. A free thinking, quickly moving, determined citizen, capable of toppling mountains and unwilling to bow for anyone.
“The Übermensch is virtuous, loyal, ambitious and outspoken, disdainful of religious dogma and suspicious of received wisdom, intensely engaged in the hurly-burly of the real world. Above all he is passionate – a connoisseur of both “the higher joys” and “the deepest sorrows.” He believes in the moral imperative to defend (with his life, if necessary) ideals such as truth, beauty, honor, and justice. He is self-assured. He is a risk taker. He regards suffering as salutary, and scorns the path of least resistance.”
But Tillman is not the only one who embodies the Übermensch.
These characters appear again and again in popular culture and in our everyday lives. They are true leaders, whether they are our parents, the restaurant owner down the street, your gym partner, the scholar in the library. They are balanced between masculine and feminine, confidence and humility, the physical world and the imagined one. They are recognizable, almost instantly. Whether living or dead, their image stands out among a culture shrouded in noise and saturated in fear. They remind us that the world is ours for the taking; that yesterday’s mistake is today’s lesson; that we must sometimes listen to our heart and not our mind; that there is more to this. That we can do better.
On March 19, 2003, the night before the invasion of Iraq, Tillman was in a philosophical daze, according to Krakauer. He had read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self Reliance” and was filled with ideas.
Krakauer quotes Tillman’s diary passage that night:
“I want to set the world on fire and make it right. My honor will not allow me to create a life of beauty and peace but sends me off to order and conformity. My life becomes everything I’m not…” he continues, “My direction is selfish, my telos destructive… Sometimes my need to love hurts – myself, my family, my cause. Is there a cure? Of course. But I refuse. Refuse to stop loving, to stop caring. To avoid those tears, that pain. To err on the side passion is human and right and the only way I’ll live.”
Pat Tillman was killed on April 22, 2004, in Afghanistan. His death was the result of friendly fire during a chaotic ambush. His death, which was originally publicized as heroic, was revealed by Krakauer to be the result of incompetence by Army brass.
I implore you to read his story.