We have entered the ugly season of the political cycle, the time when election day looms close enough that politicians, parties and pundits are willing to utter just about any claim, any innuendo, and libel in order to sway a vote.
Reasonable Americans are understandably inclined to shut off the noise and presume that nothing more of importance can or will be said in the final weeks before the vote.
It is in precisely in such white-hot moments, however, that the statements that matter most are often made. And such is the case with a short article titled “After Pat’s Birthday,” which appeared Friday morning at the essential online magazine site Truthdig. Since then, the words of Kevin Tillman, the brother of perhaps the most famous casualty of the Bush administration’s military adventuring, have ricocheted around the internet faster than the speed of light – a proper rate, as what veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts has to say is far more illuminating than anything on offer from the current crop of candidates.
After September 11, 2001, Pat and Kevin Tillman signed up for the U.S. Army. It was an especially dramatic sacrifice for Pat, a player with the Arizona Cardinals football team who turned down a $3.6 million contract to play the next three years with the Cardinals in order to join the Army Rangers in Iraq and then Afghanistan.
Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, and received war-hero honors at a memorial service where U.S. Senator John McCain spoke. Supporters of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, endeavors that by the time of Tillman’s death were growing increasingly controversial, sought to spin the football star’s sacrifice as evidence of the nobility of the Bush administration’s military adventure. Sunshine patriot Sean Hannity swore his allegiance to Tillman on his television program, declaring: “I love him and admire him…” Ann Coulter oozed, “Tillman was an American original: virtuous, pure and masculine like only an American male can be.”
The propaganda push eventually fell apart, however, when it was learned that the Pentagon had delayed revealing to Tillman’s family the circumstances of his death — he was shot three times in the head by so-called “friendly fire” and U.S. troops then burned his body armor and uniform in an apparent cover-up attempt — until after the memorial service, with all its patriotic flourishes and media attention, was finished. Later still, it was revealed that Pat Tillman had during the course of his service become an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq and was in the months before his death urging fellow soldiers not to vote for President Bush’s reelection.
Kevin Tillman survived his deployments, and was discharged from the Army in 2005. Now, on the eve of the first national election after that discharge, with “After Pat’s Birthday,” he has made it clear that he shares his brother’s disenchantment with the armchair warriors of the Bush administration and its amen corner in the media.
In so doing, Kevin Tillman has made the most vital political statement of 2006:
It is Pat Tillman’s birthday November 6, and elections are the day after. It gets me thinking about a conversation I had with Pat before we joined the military. He spoke about the risks with signing the papers. How once we committed, we were at the mercy of the American leadership and the American people. How we could be thrown in a direction not of our volition. How fighting as a soldier would leave us without a voice…. until we get out.
Much has happened since we handed over our voice:
Somehow we were sent to invade a nation because it was a direct threat to the American people, or to the world, or harbored terrorists, or was involved in the September 11 attacks, or received weapons-grade uranium from Niger, or had mobile weapons labs, or WMD, or had a need to be liberated, or we needed to establish a democracy, or stop an insurgency, or stop a civil war we created that can’t be called a civil war even though it is. Something like that.
Somehow our elected leaders were subverting international law and humanity by setting up secret prisons around the world, secretly kidnapping people, secretly holding them indefinitely, secretly not charging them with anything, secretly torturing them. Somehow that overt policy of torture became the fault of a few “bad apples” in the military.
Somehow back at home, support for the soldiers meant having a five-year-old kindergartener scribble a picture with crayons and send it overseas, or slapping stickers on cars, or lobbying Congress for an extra pad in a helmet. It’s interesting that a soldier on his third or fourth tour should care about a drawing from a five-year-old; or a faded sticker on a car as his friends die around him; or an extra pad in a helmet, as if it will protect him when an IED throws his vehicle 50 feet into the air as his body comes apart and his skin melts to the seat.
Somehow the more soldiers who die, the more legitimate the illegal invasion becomes.
Somehow American leadership, whose only credit is lying to its people and illegally invading a nation, has been allowed to steal the courage, virtue and honor of its soldiers on the ground.
Somehow those afraid to fight an illegal invasion decades ago are allowed to send soldiers to die for an illegal invasion they started.
Somehow faking character, virtue and strength is tolerated.
Somehow profiting from tragedy and horror is tolerated.
Somehow the death of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people is tolerated.
Somehow subversion of the Bill of Rights and The Constitution is tolerated.
Somehow suspension of Habeas Corpus is supposed to keep this country safe.
Somehow torture is tolerated.
Somehow lying is tolerated.
Somehow reason is being discarded for faith, dogma, and nonsense.
Somehow American leadership managed to create a more dangerous world.
Somehow a narrative is more important than reality.
Somehow America has become a country that projects everything that it is not and condemns everything that it is.
Somehow the most reasonable, trusted and respected country in the world has become one of the most irrational, belligerent, feared, and distrusted countries in the world.
Somehow being politically informed, diligent, and skeptical has been replaced by apathy through active ignorance.
Somehow the same incompetent, narcissistic, virtueless, vacuous, malicious criminals are still in charge of this country.
Somehow this is tolerated.
Somehow nobody is accountable for this.
In a democracy, the policy of the leaders is the policy of the people. So don’t be shocked when our grandkids bury much of this generation as traitors to the nation, to the world and to humanity. Most likely, they will come to know that “somehow” was nurtured by fear, insecurity and indifference, leaving the country vulnerable to unchecked, unchallenged parasites.
Luckily this country is still a democracy. People still have a voice. People still can take action. It can start after Pat’s birthday.
Kevin Tillman’s election message — and, thankfully, with its references to November 7, there can be no question that this is an election message — is not particularly long. With a little trimming, it might make a compelling radio or television commercial. After all, this is the dose of truth that needs to be administered to voters who are still searching for perspective as they prepare to cast their ballots.
But Kevin Tillman’s message ought not be circulated by a campaign committee or a political party. It should be shared, citizen to citizen, first on the internet, but then in phone calls to family members and old friends, in conversations over coffee and along the sideline at the soccer field, in leaflets slipped under the doors of neighbors and handed to one another after church.
This is the message that, unvarnished and unpackaged, can touch the hearts and the minds of voters who — if they read seriously the words of the brother who made it back – will come to understand that they can and must redeem the American experiment on the day “After Pat’s Birthday.”
John Nichols’ new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. “With The Genius of Impeachment,” writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, “John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States.” Studs Terkel says: “Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: ‘Bugger off!’ So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so.” The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com