Jon Krakauer uses 416 pages to make the audacious claim that he has found the Nietzschen Uebermensch in “Pat Tillman”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_Tillman — and thus feeds the roaring literary fire of condemnation for the Bush administration in particular and religious conservatives in general. In a facile and sloppy argument that makes liberal use of argument by anecdote, he goes out of his way to package and sell his vision of the ideal man. This provides the opportunity for contrast against his straw-man of the modern religious conservative who is (here we go again) an unenlightened coward, motivated only by power and control of the weak. Here is Pat Tillman as the literary device — constructed and packaged to advance the consummate liberal ideal: an Emerson reading gay rights advocate who used his prodigious strength and pugnacity only to defend the weak, all while scorning any faith that claims it knows anything with certainty.
Krakauer restricts his moral influences to enlightenment skeptics or pre-christian classical writers and with his moral canon thus defined, he uses ample references to the likes of the Iliad and Nietzsche to supply a ready alternative basis of morality. Beyond presenting a system of morality unadulterated by conservative principles, he goes out of his way to denigrate the integrity of conservatives. It didn’t take long to think I was reading Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris while I really was just interested in nothing more than the subtitle: “The legacy of Pat Tillman”. It is clear why his chose his actual title as a direct lift from the Iliad. His point? Men win glory when they transcend conservative values. Thus a story which initially appears to be about a man’s story becomes an apologetic for one of the most important agendas of modern liberalism: defining a sense of morality apart from religion and tradition.
So every page is then devoted to either exalting our postmodern hero, Pat, or casting aspersions on conservatives. Mr Tillman is presented as a modern man who combines love of life, strength, wisdom, sensitivity, morality, liberal use of the F-bomb, all surrounded by an acerbic scorn for religion and political conservatives. And thus we have the central irony of this book: while Jon Krakauer’s claim is that conservatives used Pat as a pawn to seize greater power and control, Pat is yet used once again — this time he is an the icon of liberalism. Jon Krakauer in expositing Tillman has repeated the path of prior liberals such as Adolf Harnack who tried to redefine Christ as similar to themselves. Father George Tyrell (a Catholic modernist) described this interaction well: “The Christ that what Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.”
So now we have Jon Krakauer/Pat Tillman fused into the ideal of a modern man unencumbered by conservatism and belief. And with this icon, Jon Krakauer tells a captivating story. On one level it is brilliant to use someone who was the symbol of strength and sacrifice (virtues conservatives have unjustly claimed as unique to them) to pillory conservatives. That Jon Krakauer is a master storyteller is beyond dispute. He has crafted a story involving a set of elements perfectly tuned to sell to the reading masses: elite athleticism, culture wars, the Iliad, Nietzsche, heroism, all with generous potshots against George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. So Krakauer becomes another who rides the zeitgeist and ends up defining a component of it by offering Pat Tillman as the consummate example of liberal ethics. Clearly, this book will sell, but I’ll speculate that Krakauer’s ambitions are much higher than profit here. For he has written a philosophy book, not a biography. Seen through this lens, I would recommend this book to others who wish to understand the chorus of new atheists: goodness without God is not just possible, but even better than goodness adulterated by the varieties of organized religion.
With his claim understood, how strong is his case? Like William Gladstone, Krakauer is attracted to the morality of the Iliad, which preaches that moderation in all things is the most important component of morality. Nietzsche as well presents an appeal to strength, and along with Ayn Rand — touches something deep within me, that calls me to be braver and stronger — by MYSELF. But here is where personal experience comes into the picture, and I get to present some anecdotes of my own. Trying to succeed on my own strength only leaves me more bitter and selfish. Perhaps Krakauer can claim this is because I’m internally weak, or perhaps weakened by my faith. But personal strength and courage for me have only been the direct result of my knowledge of my weakness and depending on an external source for strength. Thus I present a different ideal of the greatest man: one who lays down his life for his friends — who spends his time not making himself a better human, but emptying themselves for the sake of others — and doing so not for some vague sense of justice, but for tangible reward in heaven and the joy of thankful worship.
Beyond advancing his philosophy with Pat Tillman as a prop, Krakauer went out of his way to provide talking points for the Democratic party establishment. It almost felt like contrived product placements seen in movies. For example, John Krakauer went out of his way to spend several pages on the 2000 presidential election, with the final claim that Bush, through the interference of conservatives on the Supreme Court, was unlawfully elected president. This all despite the findings of subsequent in-depth recounts. I bring this forward, because it is one thing to criticize an administration, but another to espouse the political talking points that come from either side of the aisle.
I also don’t share Krakauer’s cynicism that US leaders engage in wars simply to increase their own power. The little I know about how national security doctrine is put together in this country is that it’s a messy business. For better or worse, one or two individuals do not yield enough power to be responsible for the entire direction of the nation. The coterie of individuals considered responsible for everything that goes wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan is basically distilled down to the usual suspects. To me, this is such a tired, simplistic, message that somehow continues to sell books to an increasingly gullible American public who thinks their cynicism about the Bush administration is a panacea for their very Naivete.
Thus I found Krakauer’s argumentation style to be anecdotal and somewhat insulting. He makes tenuous connections like the fact that helicopter was not available on a particular day to be used as an argument that Iraq received too many resources to the detriment of operations in Afghanistan. Military operations planning and allocation of assets is a very complicated process that many factors can influence. Speculating on potential correlation and then building an argument for causation is the most freshmen of errors. (Can I also note that the B-1 is not a stealth bomber. Did he have anyone with Air Force knowledge fact check his book?)
If I set aside the plot to denigrate my faith and political beliefs, there is much I found intriguing about this book. Pat Tillman and I grew up at the same time in a similar culture. We both joined the military and perhaps have felt a similar scorn for its mediocrity. There is no doubt that he experienced the associated dissonance that comes from an ideal of a warrior as “guardian of Plato’s ideal state”:http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.8.vii.html contrasted with the modern reality of an all volunteer force — infected by financially motivated bottom feeders and the soul-stagnating bureaucracy of modern big government. So while Krakauer would cast me closer to the book’s arch villain, the evangelical LTC Ralph Kauzlarich, than his exalted Tillman, I think Pat and I might have had a good bit to talk about. This is perhaps why I have such strong feelings about this book: there is no doubt that Pat Tillman has once again been used.