Pat Tillman: Dying Like a Real Man

Note: I recently read an article that raised my hackles over at It concerned the life and death of Pat Tillman. I was upset by it enough that I fired up an angry email to them about it. To my surprise, I got a cordial response back, inviting my opinion to be posted as a blog on their website.

I have to say I think the site leaves some things to be desired, primarily in what I see as the editorial assumption that it is more important to invest in making men “better” than they already are, rather than focusing on the very real problems they face in misandric culture. But the response from them about my concerns seemed genuine enough that I submitted this piece.

We seldom find common ground in this arena of sexual politics, so I don’t want to pass up any opportunities that might help that. PE

In going through the recent tribute here to Pat Tillman, the former NFL star that gave up a lucrative career in football to serve his country, I found myself nodding my head a lot. I also experienced a kind of sick feeling. There were many references to his bravery and sacrifice as indicators of quintessential masculinity.

In an age where men struggle to find the increasingly elusive meaning of manhood, the Tillman story should prove helpful, but only in discerning a path to avoid.

I proceed with caution here. Pat Tillman was clearly a man of integrity and commitment to his own ideals. He sacrificed much, ultimately everything, to follow his convictions. Those that loved and needed him paid a crushing price as well.

But when we look past the fanfare and accolades, and the understandable desire to lend meaning to his death, there are unsettling truths here that insist on our attention. His life was just another one of thousands of blood payments in an ill conceived war, fought for all the wrong reasons. Worse yet, the army in which he faithfully served sought to deceive the public about how he was killed in order to turn his death into good PR for the war effort. In short, they sought to capitalize on one of their fallen, and didn’t mind lying about it to get the job done.

This isn’t anything new. The blood of men like Tillman has stained the pages of history since they started writing it on papyrus; men and boys routinely sacrificed for the sake of greed and/or misguided nationalism – then touted as a heroes, men‘s men, to be idealized and emulated (hopefully with enlistment contracts).

And that brings us to the first order of business if we want to legitimately resolve the issue of men’s place in the modern world. The insane reverence for cannon fodder has to stop, and, in the bigger picture, the view of men as expendable.

And that is precisely where we run in to a lot of problems. Understanding that requires some unabashed candor, not just about gender roles, but about gender politics.

There is a lot of talk these days about making men good fathers, husbands and citizens. Much of this, of course, is predicated on the egregious myth that men are none of these things to begin with, and that their lives do not need or deserve compassionate attention simply for the sake of improving their lot in life. Everything we want men to be is somehow meant for the benefit of others. However well intended (and sometimes not), these efforts are doing little more than regarding men as human appliances.

And aside from the sexist entitlement inherent in these ideas, none of it makes any real sense when you look at what has happened in western culture over the past half century.

We embarked on a sexual revolution unlike anything seen before. Women, who were largely sequestered into the arguably limiting aspects of their gender roles, broke free like thoroughbred‘s at the starting gate. They have demolished barriers, entering all realms of employment, education and entrepreneurship. They have done so well, in fact, that they now make a solid majority on our college campuses and outnumber men in the workforce.

All of this hinged on the idea that women no longer could or should be confined to kitchens, housework and child rearing. I personally agree with this, but even if you are more traditionally minded the fact is that our culture has embraced it, and there certainly appears to be no squeezing that toothpaste back into the tube.

However, with the celebrated transcendence of women from their old school roles into supposedly more self actualizing lives, we also turned our attention to men, examined their gender role and concluded: well, we concluded that we wouldn’t conclude anything if it got in the way of getting men to provide whatever service we needed or wanted.

For men, there would be no liberation from their role. Rather we would just keep them trapped in it and start adding on the things we used to expect of women.

Put down that remote pick up a mop. Unless, of course, we need you to carry a rifle.

These recently added notions of real manhood, mostly about housework and enhanced chivalry, seem to define our only real interest in changing men. After all, sacrifice and death, as they apply to the male role, are pretty severe forms of limitation themselves. But that fact, inconvenient to a society that lauds phony equality, goes largely ignored. So while we gave women suffrage, we just gave men more suffering.

The natural result of the liberation of women from the mandates of their sexual role should have been to do the same for men. And that alone would have brought women commensurate responsibilities and burdens with their increased rights. It would have, most unfortunately, brought them the increased death and suffering men have long endured. As we can plainly see, that did not happen, and it removes all credibility from the cause that purported to establish a more equal society.

To help muddy things even more, we have, while valorizing men’s ability to kill, and willingness to die, peppered them with shame and ridicule about their tendency to be violent. We have come to insist, with a familiar dishonesty, that the “new masculinity” is to be characterized by gentleness and sensitivity, while we treat them as though they are deserving of neither.

This doesn’t just apply to the battlefield.

Men, for all our supposed efforts to produce a gender neutral society, remain 98% of all combat deaths, 93% of all workplace deaths and 79% of all suicides. And this reveals what we are so loathe to acknowledge about the lives of men. We see them as powerful and privileged, as the undeserving heirs to more than their share. And worse, as oppressive tyrants who take what they want from the weak in their midst.

This is true for less than one percent of men and always has been. For the rest, including the Pat Tillman’s of this world, their lives are about servitude and death. To maintain that as the status quo we habitually see them all as belonging to that fractional minority. We mistake what is most common, male powerlessness, for male power; male disposability for male dominance. And we hail them in their finest hour only as we lower them into the ground.

And we have blinded ourselves to a reality we will have to wake up to if we are going to actually shape men into what we claim to want.

If we want to teach men to quit killing, we must first teach them to quit dying. And to do that, we first have to go where no one really wants to. We have to teach men to reject the pressures put on them to be protectors and providers first, self valuing human beings a distant second. No women’s studies professor, nor attempts to mold men into socially convenient automatons, is going to get us out of that one.

The answers to this are not easy, simple or likely to be realized any time soon. But getting off on the right foot is as simple as recognizing that men like Pat Tillman have a lot more to offer the world if they are still alive.

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