Extravagant Color in Impaired Light
Written for the Libertarian journal “Strike the Root”: in 2004, this essay remains a personal favorite of mine and serves here as my contribution to a thoughtful Memorial Day.
He had burned several times to enlist. Tales of great movements shook the land. They might not be distinctly Homeric, but there seemed to be much glory in them. He had read of marches, sieges, conflicts, and he had longed to see it all. His busy mind had drawn for him large pictures extravagant in color, lurid with breathless deeds.” ~ Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
Stephen Crane never saw combat in the Civil War. Born in 1871, six years after the last shot was fired in the bloody conflict between the states, Crane relied on his imagination to supply the horrific details of war for The Red Badge of Courage.
When the lean and tawny-haired writer finally did witness ‘the red animal’ as a war correspondent in the Spanish-Cuban-American War (1895-98), it is said that he staggered to his feet on the battlefield, bullets flying everywhere, and exclaimed: “This is exactly like I said it was!”
When he arrived at the scene of armed conflict, Crane was “hungry for color, form, action,” wrote friend and contemporary Willa Cather. Like Crane, Pat Tillman probably entertained glorious visions of what the inside of the belly of the beast looked like. When the former NFL player fell in the line of duty on April 22, 2004 , he was instantly hailed as a hero.
The slain Army Ranger was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, and the official word from the U.S. military was that Tillman died ‘under enemy fire’ while “engaging the well-armed enemy” in Afghanistan.
When Tillman’s platoon came under mortar and small arms fire in the Spera district of Khost province near the Pakistani border, the former gridiron star ordered his troops to return fire.
“Through the firing, Tillman’s voice was heard issuing fire commands to take the fight to the enemy on the dominating high ground,” the award announcement for Tillman said.
Lieutenant General Philip R. Kensinger Jr. of the Army Special Operations Command said the firefight that took Tillman’s young life went down in “very severe and constricted terrain in impaired light.”
Indeed. Severe and constricted enough for another truth to emerge once the smoke and haze of battle has settled.
“It does seem pretty clear that he was killed by friendly fire,” Representative Trent Franks, R-Arizona, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told the Arizona Republic this week.
Lt. Gen. Kensinger echoed Franks’ comments with this statement to the Associated Press:
“While there was no one specific finding of fault, the investigation results indicate that Corporal Tillman probably died as a result of friendly fire while his unit engaged in combat with enemy forces.”
One Afghan military official told the Associated Press that the firefight and Tillman’s ensuing death was the result of “a misunderstanding.” In summary, according to the official, Tillman’s platoon had been split into two sections.
“Suddenly the sound of a mine explosion was heard somewhere between the two groups,” the AP reports, “and the Americans in one group started firing. Nobody knew what it was–a mine, a remote-controlled bomb–or what was going on, or if enemy forces were firing. The situation was very confusing.”
There was no enemy fire whatsoever, the AP source says, just a land mine misinterpreted as hostile fire.
Tillman’s voice, the Army reported, was heard ordering his men to “bring the fight to the enemy.”
So it appears, sadly, that Tillman’s own hasty reaction in the heat of battle, trigger finger nervously twitching in the housing of his rifle, his hunger for Crane’s “color, form, and action,” may have brought about his own demise.
“The youth had been taught that a man became another thing in battle,” Crane wrote in The Red Badge of Courage.
Like so many fallen soldiers before him, Tillman, if the reports are to be believed–and all evidence indicates that they should be–became a frightened human being in battle, literally shooting at dimly-lined shadows and phantoms.
War was not “extravagant in color,” Tillman learned, or “lurid with breathless deeds.” It is a scary, bloody, heart-arresting, dirty enterprise and it is fortunate–perhaps providential–that Tillman’s overreaction at the sound of an explosion took only his own life and not the lives of his fellow Army Rangers and Afghan soldiers.
In the days ahead some will suggest that Tillman’s actions make him a coward, that the Silver Star was awarded hastily before all the facts are in. I say no. Tillman was an idealist, clearly, a man who shrugged off a lucrative $3.6 million contract to enlist in the U.S. military after the attacks of September 11, 2001. He was some sort of hero, some sort of patriot, whether or not you agree with the chest-thumping, flag-waving politics that took him into battle on foreign soil.
In the end, like many a man, there were probably countless moments when young Tillman wished he was somewhere else, somewhere away from this madness, this “blood-swollen god” called war.
As Henry, Crane’s young soldier in The Red Badge of Courage, marches with his regiment away from battle, Crane turned a phrase that might well serve as an epitaph for Tillman and all who will follow him into the abyss, emerging on the other side–a brighter side–with a renewed sense of what it means to be a human being:
“He (turns) now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks–an existence of soft and eternal peace.”
Extravagant Color in Impaired Light