Pat Tillman had bigger plans. And if you wonder how big, I’d like to share with you some quotes I came across recently, the first of which was written shortly before this soldier had his first real taste of combat along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
“I have faith in my star–that I am intended to do something in this world,” he writes. “If I am mistaken–what does it matter? My life has been a pleasant one and though I should regret to leave it, it would be a regret that perhaps I should never know.”
The author of that quote is not Pat Tillman. The soldier who wrote those words (to his mother) was Sir Winston Churchill, arguably the greatest statesman of the 20th century.
It was about a month ago that I at last picked up and decided to tackle a book that is approximately the size and mass of a package of Gold Medal flour. The tome, “Churchill: A Life”, by Martin Gilbert, had been taunting me for nearly a year. I’d bought it with the best of intentions–to learn more about the widely quoted Brit-wit–but at 980 pages it was just so daunting. And there were always so many more easily digested distractions. Deadspin, for example.
Thankfully, last month I found myself unemployed and in the midst of a 12-hour train ride. It was now or never. The early chapters, Churchill’s childhood, was perfunctory reading at best. But once Winston turned twenty? The next five years of his life were as thrilling as any Indiana Jones film. Seriously. And as I read the words, culled from letters and books that Churchill had written about his combat experiences in what is now Pakistan, the Sudan and South Africa, a recurrring thought abided: this is Pat Tillman.
Winston Churchill was a fairly privileged young man (his father had been a member of the House of Commons) who never had to leave Great Britain. He would have been prosperous and influential, anyway, a member of Parliament in what was at that time the world’s superpower nation.
Instead, Churchill begged his widowed mother to prevail upon her influential friends to get him to the front–and England in the 1890s was fighting battles on many fronts. In 1897 Churchill, then 22, wrote his mother while on a 2,000-mile rail trek from Bangalore (in southern India) to what is now the Peshawar region of Pakistan. “I have considered everything and I feel that the fact of having seen service with British troops while still a young man must give me more weight politically– must add to my claims to be listened to, and may perhaps improve my prospects of gaining popularity with the country.”
The future Prime Minister of Great Britain did not experience battle from the comfort of a tea garden. “So close and critical did affairs become,” Churchill wrote his grandmother following his first day in action, “I was forced to fire my revolver nine times in self-defense….I think I hit four men. At any rate, they fell.”
That was in Peshawar. In the Sudan, fighting the Dervishes, Churchill led two cavalry charges against men armed with spears and rifles. In one chaotic account, Churchill recalled one enemy fighter who “wounded several times, staggered towards me raising his spear. I shot him at less than a yard. He fell on the sand and lay there dead.”
The most incredible accounts, however, were to come from South Africa. Churchill journeyed to the front of the Boer War not as a soldier, but having retired from the military, as a war correspondent. Didn’t matter. He was taken prisoner and likely would have been shot dead first had he not lost his gun while helping to save a platoon of men. He spent his 25th birthday in a prison camp. Tillman, meanwhile, spent his 25th birthday reeling from a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles and preparing for the next Sunday’s loss to the New York Giants.
Churchill truly burnished his legend, though, when he escaped from camp solo and journeyed solo 300 miles through enemy territory–in Africa, mind you–to safety. Less than a month later he was back at the front and once again in the midst of life-and-death adventure. According to Gilbert:
“McNeil (the British commanding officer) ordered his men back. At that very moment the Boers opened fire with their rifles. Churchill, who had dismounted, put his foot in the stirrup. The horse, terrified at the firing, plunged wildly. He broke away and galloped madly off.
Churchill was alone, dismounted, within close range of the Boers, and a mile at least from cover of any kind…He turned and ran for his life on foot from the Boer marksmen. As he ran he thought to himself, ‘Here at last I take it’.”
Churchill, incredibly, was spared. A fellow Brit heroically risked his own life and galloped back into the fray to rescue him. As I read these accounts, my stock image of the middle-aged and pudgy world leader, bundled in an overcoat and huddling with the likes of FDR and Stalin in the last days of World War II, vanished. Suddenly Churchill was just another young soldier risking his life and, like Tillman, taking chances that his good fortune did not require him to take.
“I have had some dangerous hours,” wrote Churchill. “I had to play for high stakes and have been lucky to win. (But) I am so conceited I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.”
As I read on about a pale, slightly-built officer in the 19th century, my thoughts turned to a chiseled-jawed, muscular officer of the 21st century. Both Churchill and Tillman found themselves fighting Afghan rebels– “Civilization is face to face with militant Mohammedanism,” Churchill wrote some 107 years before Tillman’s untimely death, and probably wrote those words within a hundred miles of where Tillman died. But what really struck me was this recollection of Churchill’s from his final day in the mountains of Peshawar: “I was nearer killed– by a subaltern who forgot his pistol was loaded–than at any other time. It would have been an irony of fate.”
“You know, Pat was working on his masters in history at the time of his death,” Kadi Tierney told me. Last week I phoned Tierney, the pleasant and accommodating media contact for the Pat Tillman Foundation, and asked her about this connection I’d made between Tillman and Churchill. I knew, as you do, that Tillman was a student of history and the classics. But I wondered if he’d had more than a casual relationship with the biography of Sir Winston Churchill. I wondered if the events of Churchill’s life had been a prime inspiration for Tillman to detour from the wealth and fame of the NFL to become a U.S. Army Ranger.
It was only two days before Pat’s Run, the annual 4.2 mile (after the number, now retired, that Tillman wore as a Sun Devil) celebration of Tillman’s life that this year would draw 21,000 runners. Tierney was obviously busy. Still, she promised to speak to Pat’s brother, Kevin, as well as to his widow, Marie.
Yesterday, Tuesday, Tierney got back to me. “You were on the right track,” she said. “Pat was an avid reader of biographies of Churchill. He was someone whose life, in the course of getting his masters degree, that Pat studied extensively. Pat was a great admirer of his.”
When Tierney asked Marie Tillman about the connection between the two men, she replied, “Pat would have been incredibly flattered by the comparison.”
Who knows how differently World War II might have played out had Churchill met his demise in the rugged Peshawar region, or in the sand dunes of northern Africa, or while running for his life in the Transvaal? It is worth noting that both Churchill and Tillman had one brother who served in the military at the same time. And while Churchill strode through fire recklessly, like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, he never suffered so much as a scratch from a bullet in two continents. His younger brother Jack was wounded in the leg, while taking appropriate cover, in his very first battle.
It might seem blasphemous to compare the life that Pat Tillman would have gone on to live with the historic achievements of Churchill. Then again, Tillman probably accomplished more before the age of 25 than Churchill did. Tillman did not necessarily need to become a soldier to achieve great things, for himself and for others, in the subsequent chapters of his life. On the other hand, he may have been following a role model of his own:
“Nothing, not even the certain knowledge of approaching destruction, would make me turn back now, even if I could with honour, “Churchill, then 23, wrote on the eve of a battle in the African desert. “But I shall come back afterwards the stronger and the wiser for my gamble. And then we will think of other and wider spheres of action.”
Pat Tillman died five years ago today. He died in part because he subscribed to a maxim made famous by Churchill in his later years: “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities… because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”
I hope, no matter what your politics, that you pay tribute to Tillman today. Take a moment to remember him. Or better yet, commit yourself to being courageous–you don’t need to be a soldier to do that. After all, who knows when your time will come. I’ll leave you with one last quote from Sir Winston, written after he left Peshawar:
“One has only to look at Nature and see how very little store she sets by life. Its sanctity is entirely a human idea. You may think of a butterfly—12 million feathers on his wing, 16,000 lenses in his eye–as beautiful. A bird thinks of it as a mouthful. Let us laugh at fate. It might please her.”