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Acting on Selfish Stakes
by Joseph Kellard

May 10, 2004

When Americans learned that Pat Tillman was killed by al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan on April 23, they once again questioned the decision he had made after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Most of them asked why Tillman, a professional football player, turned down a three-year, $3.6 million contract with his team to join the US Army at $18,000 a year?

Since, with ironclad integrity, Tillman declined to speak publicly about his decision, his family, friends, teammates and the media offered instead various explanations or speculations, among which was his patriotism. While doing so, they recalled Tillman’s many great virtues -- leadership, determination, loyalty, bravery and heroism. But these virtues and his motive for wanting to go fight anti-American terrorists were undercut by what they unanimously regarded as his defining qualities: selflessness, duty, and sacrifice.

However, when evaluating Tillman’s values and achievements and the context in which he chose war over football, his basic virtue and motive was self-interest -- primarily his love for life and America -- not those alleged qualities that actually define the suicidal terrorists.

Tillman’s love for life is perhaps best exemplified by how he pursued his goals. What some commentators described as “overachievement” was his determination to overcome certain odds against him. A handsome man who stood 5-foot-11 at 195-pounds, Tillman was deemed too small to be a linebacker, but nonetheless excelled at that position at Arizona State University, earning the Pac-10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year honor in 1997. Considered too slow to play the safety position, Tillman set the single-season franchise record for tackles with his professional team, the Arizona Cardinals, in 2000. He was a seventh-round pick in the 1998 NFL draft, number 226 in a field of 241, which usually means a player taken that low rarely makes the team, let alone becomes a starter. In his rookie year with the Cardinals he started at strong safety. When Tillman enlisted in the military he aimed high, seeking out the ranks of the elite Army Rangers, from whose school only 35 percent of its candidates are accepted. Tillman made the grade with the unit’s 75th Regiment.

As Tillman’s youngest brother, Richard, said about him and their brother, Kevin, who joined the army with Pat, “[A]ny expectations that people think that they put on them, are nothing to what they put on themselves.”

Embodying both a strong body and mind, Tillman was known for his rugged play on the gridiron and for being a contemplative, philosophical man. He graduated summa cum laude from ASU with a 3.84 grade-point average in just three and a half years. He was also distinguished by his loyalty. After his record-setting year with the Cardinals in 2000, the Super Bowl-caliber St. Louis Rams offered him a five-year, $9 million contract. Tillman declined the offer to stay in Arizona with the team that gave him his chance in the NFL and to play the game he loved in the state he loved.

Tillman also obviously loved his country. When news came over a TV that terrorists had crashed planes into the Twin Towers, Tillman watched the screen for hours mesmerized as events unfolded that day three Septembers ago. He was so deeply affected by these atrocities that he would decide to take up arms himself against the terrorists. People close to Tillman said he made this decision out of “a sense of duty” toward and “to serve” his country. While Tillman apparently acted on these premises, that he was fundamentally motivated by self-interest is evidenced by the war in which he chose to fight.

Observe that many commentators correctly pointed out that Tillman’s decision seemed more appropriate to an earlier age, the “greatest generation” of World War II. (In fact, in an interview with NFL Films on September 12, 2001, Tillman said his grandfather was at Pearl Harbor, and indicated that compared to all the veterans in his family he hadn’t really “done a damn thing” and that playing football seemed “unimportant compared to everything that’s taken place.”) But what these commentators failed to identify is the main link between the war on totalitarianism and the war on terrorism. Instead, they claimed Tillman was unrepresentative of post-WWII generations, with their characteristic “selfishness” and “greed,” but of a time when men felt a “duty” to “sacrifice.” Yet for Americans, the basis of fighting in both wars was and is self-interest.

When the Japanese attacked Pear Harbor and Hitler threatened to conquer the Western world, America fought in self-defense for its self-preservation. The same is true in the war on terrorism, except that American-hating Muslims threaten to not merely conquer Americans, but to slaughter us wholesale if given the chance. Tillman understood, even if only implicitly, the selfish stakes involved in destroying the terrorists -- for him and the country he loved.

Observe that during the 1990s Tillman wasn’t motivated to leave his college career to enlist and put his life on the line by standing between tribal factions in former Yugoslavia. After all, America hadn’t been attacked by the Balkan states and her self-preservation wasn’t threatened -- that is, our national self-interest was absent in this war. If Tillman had joined that war and been killed, that would have been a sacrifice. Yet virtually everyone characterizes his decision to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq in defense of his values as a sacrifice.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue captured this characterization best when he released a statement that read, “[Pat Tillman] was an achiever and leader on many levels who always put his team, his community, and his country ahead of his personal interests. Like other men and women protecting our freedom around the world, Pat made the ultimate sacrifice and gave his life in the service of our country.”

One must ask: why is Tillman’s decision to fight anti-American terrorists to protect the freedoms and the country he loved not regarded as being in his personal interests? Why is his decision to put his life on the line in this war of self-defense considered “serving” his country’s but not his own interests?

The main personal interest Tillman “sacrificed” by joining the army, according to every commentator, was the multimillion-dollar football contract he turned down. But Tillman valued, above all, his life and America, and that is precisely what made this decision selfish, not sacrificial. A sacrifice is an act in which an individual gives up a value for a lesser value or non-value. Tillman understood at some level that fighting the terrorists was of supreme, life-sustaining importance; that all other values will no longer exist if the terrorists win the war; that there will be no more football for him to play or millions for him to earned if they end his and our lives. Tillman thus put his life on the line in the war on terrorism, not because doing so was “the supreme sacrifice,” but because he knew that life is the supreme value on which all lesser ones depend. He fought to preserve every rational value that was selfishly dear to him -- including all the achievements he attained -- and by extension his fellow Americans would benefit just the same.

Conversely, the Taliban once ruled the land where Tillman fought, where death for an alleged afterworld was worshiped over life on earth. It was a land where people were punished simply for laughing or playing music, where soccer stadiums were converted into venues to publicly execute them for such “crimes.” In Afghanistan, the Taliban harbored al Qaeda, a terrorists organization whose followers dutifully sacrificed their lives by crashing planes into skyscrapers, effecting a smaller-scale destruction and mass death that their leaders pray to perpetrate against a whole nation that dares to worship man’s life and upholds the selfish pursuit of his own happiness on earth.

As one Taliban official said, reflecting the terrorists’ basic view of existence, “The Americans are fighting so they can live and enjoy the material things in life. But we are fighting so we can die in the cause of God.”

Suicidal death-worshipers who give up their lives to initiate war on Americans are the embodiment of the so-called virtues of selflessness, duty and sacrifice. The Tillmans of America, on the other hand, fight in self-defense because they worship human life and all the rational values it gives rise to that men can selfishly pursue in the land of the free.

That Tillman left his football career to fight for the supreme value of his life doesn’t imply that we all should follow his lead and exchange gunfire with our would-be destroyers. Some of us are too old to do so, some too physically unable, and others may be perfectly willing and able, but cannot quite muster the bravery that the Tillmans of America possess. That is why we must honor such heroes as Tillman. But we should do so, first and foremost, because he fought to preserve his survival and freedom in the nation he love, a rational, life-affirming pursuit by which we all benefit, since we all share the same selfish values.

* Joseph Kellard is a journalist living in New York. To read more of Mr. Kellard’s writings, visit his website, The American Individualist, at

Copyright 2004: New York Heroes Society, Inc.