Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Missing the "Walter Cronkite Moment"

One of the most eloquent indictments of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, memorializing both acclaimed sacrifice of privilege and anonymous suffering of privation, came from an unexpected source -- Sports Illustrated. SI columnist Rick Reilly wrote in the magazine's May 3, 2004 issue:
The Hero and the Unknown Soldier

All day, in San Jose, the parents of late NFL star Pat Tillman were seeing their son get the kind of attention he would've hated: his face on CNN, teddy bear memorials, a tribute from the White House.

All day, in Bellaire, Ohio, the grandmother of former high school football star Todd Bates was living with a solitary ache she can barely describe: The boy she raised as her own came back from Iraq in a box, and nobody broke into a newscast to announce his death to the nation.

Since 9/11, all Arizona Cardinals strong safety Pat Tillman wanted was to fight for his country. He took a potential $1,182,000 annual pay cut to jump from the NFL to the Army Rangers in 2002, and he refused all attempts to glorify his decision. He told friends that he wanted to be treated as no more special than the guy on the cot next to him. ("He viewed his decision as no more patriotic than that of his less fortunate, less renowned countrymen," Arizona senator John McCain said.) Tillman even forbade his family and friends from talking to the press about him. News crews begged for photos, mere shots of him signing his induction papers or piling out of a truck at Fort Benning, Ga., or getting his first haircut -- anything. They got nothing.

Since he was a kid, all Bellaire High linebacker Todd Bates wanted was "to be somebody," his football team chaplain, Pastor Don Cordery, told the Associated Press. When you grow up poor and without your parents around, you get hungry to make your mark. He wasn't a good enough player to get a scholarship, yet he desperately wanted to go to college. So in 2002 he took the only road available to him -- he left home and joined the Ohio Army National Guard. Nobody wanted to take a picture of him getting his haircut.

Tillman, 5'11" and 200 pounds, joined the only team tougher than the NFL -- the 75th Ranger Regiment. He served a tour of duty in Iraq, then went to Afghanistan. He was killed last Thursday in an ambush in the remote eastern Afghan province of Khost. His younger brother Kevin, also a Ranger, escorted his body home.

Bates, 6 feet and 250 pounds, walked eight miles a day with a 50-pound backpack to lose enough weight to join the Army, recalls his grandmother Shirley Bates, who raised him from a baby. He made it to Baghdad and was on a boat patrolling the Tigris River when his squad leader lost his balance and fell overboard. Without a life jacket Bates dived in to rescue him. Both men drowned. It took 13 days to find Bates's body, on Dec. 23, one month before his unit returned home.

Tillman's death shook the country like no other in this war. Makeshift memorials sprang up at his alma mater, Arizona State, and at the Cardinals' offices in Tempe. The club announced that the plaza around its new stadium will be named Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza. At the NFL draft in New York, commissioner Paul Tagliabue wore a black ribbon with Tillman's name on it. Some people talked about retiring his number, 40, league-wide.

Only friends and family grieved for Bates, but deeply. It so tormented Shirley's companion, 61-year-old Charles Jones -- the man who helped her raise Todd -- that he refused to go to the funeral. "If I don't go, then Toddie can't be dead," he kept saying. He refused to leave the house. He refused to talk much. He refused to eat. Four weeks later he dropped over dead without a word. "He died of a broken heart," says Shirley. She buried them in the cemetery up the hill from her home, side by side.

Tillman died a hero and a patriot. But his death is a wake-up call to the nation that every day -- more than 500 times since President Bush declared "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended," more than 800 times since the invasion of Afghanistan -- a family must drive to the airport to greet their dead child. The only difference this time is that the whole country knew this child.

In the little house in Bellaire, any patriotism was swallowed up by sorrow. "There was no reason for my boy to die," says Shirley. "There is no reason for this war. There were no weapons found. All we have now is a Vietnam. My Toddie's life was wasted over there. All this war is a waste. Look at all these boys going home in coffins. What's the good in it?"

Athletes are soldiers and soldiers are athletes. Uniformed, fit and trained, they fight for one cause, one team. They take ground and they defend it. Both are carried off on their teammates' shoulders, athletes when they win and soldiers when they die.

Pat Tillman and Todd Bates were athletes and soldiers. Tillman wanted to be anonymous and became the face of this war. Bates wanted to be somebody and died faceless to most of the nation.

Both did their duty for their country, but I wonder if their country did its duty for them. Tillman died in Afghanistan, a war with no end in sight and not enough troops to finish the job. Bates died in Iraq, a war that began with no just cause and continues with no just reason.

Be proud that sports produce men like this.

But I, for one, am furious that these wars keep taking them. (Reilly, Sports Illustrated, May 3, 2004)
Jonathan Tasini called reading the Reilly essay a "Walter Cronkite moment":
I experienced a Walter Cronkite moment last week that signaled to me that something is in the air about what people feel about the Iraq war. . . . My moment came after reading Rick Reilly's column in Sports Illustrated. Yes, SI, magazine to the sports-obsessed (to which I proudly belong).

What's important here is that Reilly's audience is not the typical Nation reader. He speaks to the so-called NASCAR dads, the Sunday golfers, the Monday-morning quarterbacks and the couch-potato referees. He speaks, SI estimates, to 31 million people (3.1 million subscribe to the magazine, 21 million adults read the magazine as it is passed around the family and 10 million more see the column on SI's website). It's a sizable audience -- of Cronkite-like size -- which can fairly be described as generally mainstream, and, on the whole, slightly more conservative than the average America. . . .

The response to Reilly's column has been overwhelming -- both pro and con, he says. Reilly usually gets a couple hundred responses to his columns; so far, he's received more than 2,000 -- most of them messages of agreement. It may be an overstatement, today, to say Reilly's column had the same impact as Cronkite's national commentary more than 36 years ago. But, as Reilly told me, sports is a tightly woven part of the fabric of our lives, an activity through which we can converse and reach huge swaths of the public. Who knows who Reilly touched? ("A Cronkite Moment?" TomPaine.com, May 7, 2004)
I wish that the delegates at the Green Party's national convention had all read Reilly's column and considered the public opinion reflected in it. Never before in the history of US wars have the conditions for giving an electoral expression to an anti-war movement through a third party been more promising, as far as public sentiments are concerned. Alas, the Green Party appears to have missed the "Walter Cronkite moment." By choosing David Cobb over Ralph Nader by a slim majority and handing the swing states to John Kerry on a silver platter, the Green Party essentially elected to divorce itself from Americans who wish to vote against the pro-war candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties.


Apparently, the Green Party is in worse shape than I thought. The Green Party vice presidential candidate Pat LaMarche announced to the press that "she would not commit to voting for herself and her running mate, Texas lawyer David Cobb" ("The Green Party's Political Suicide," June 30, 2004).


Anonymous said...

I think it's a bit odd to criticize the Green Party for not nominating Ralph Nader when in fact Nader very clearly stated he didn't wish to run as a Green and then tried to usurp the nomination at the Green convention by a tacky parliamentary move worthy off Dubya and Jim Baker's Supreme Court shenanigans in 2000. David Cobb was nominated by the Greens because he had the most delegates coming into the convention -- a clear majority, even after Ralph reversed himself by putting a Green on the lower half of his imaginary ticket to beef up his own Green Party delegate count. And Cobb is antiwar too just so we're clear -- he still represents an alternative to the War Party.

I love Ralph and I even campaigned for him last time, which I say without regrets. But he isn't entitled to Green Party support as a matter of fiat, and I think there is evidence to suggest that his ego is causing him to make tactical and political blunders that are in danger of tarnishing his reputation. Certainly telling the Greens he wanted to run without them in 2004 was not the surest way to gain the nomination of their party. I'm personally relieved he lost it on the convention floor. - Ray in Los Angeles

Yoshie said...

Cobb's opposition to the US occupation of Iraq comes with one crucial exception, on which I commented in an entry titled "Peter Camejo vs. David Cobb: S/RES/1546" (June 25, 2004).

Nader's inability to receive the Green Party nomination is in large part his own fault.

However, Greens who wished to run a Green Party 2004 presidential campaign in such a way as to help the party grow as much as possible this year while building a strong foundation to challenge John Kerry, the likely next POTUS, in 2008 should have chosen the Nader/Camejo campaign rather than the Cobb/LaMarche candidacy, despite Nader's shortcomings, because the Cobb/LaMarche team are likely to diminish the Green Party's strength in California without even accomplishing their own dubious goal of ceding the swing states to Kerry. I explain why in a new entry "Green Strategy 2004-2008" (July 1, 2004).