America loves looking at itself: books, movies, TV mini-series, songs, poems, magazine articles, surveys, polls, and much more. At first, Worth Fighting For—the story of a former Army Ranger walking across America to raise funds for the Pat Tillman Foundation—seems to offer another look at America in all its glory and contradictions, its natural splendor and tired, rundown towns. But that is not this book.
Instead, Worth Fighting For has two major themes running through it: Fanning’s personal pilgrimage out of the military as he questions American foreign policy, and the struggles of everyday people living in America. Throughout, the author includes several historical asides that add context and perspective to his trek. Each chapter is marked by a town name and distance travelled. Dates for each chapter would have been nice.
Fanning shares many stories of the generous spirit that defines the American people: small donations from those least able to afford it, numerous offers of free meals and lodging, people revealing what is important about themselves and their lives. There is also the occasional suspicion or mistreatment by strangers. The author shows the difficulties of ordinary Americans dealing with life, such as Elijah Mendez, who needed special medical treatment that insurance wouldn’t cover, or Tomeka at a gas station who worked two jobs, attended night school, and raised three children by herself.
Woven throughout his hike across America is the author’s insights into the military and why he left the service. Fanning raises many questions and doubts about the United States’s overall foreign policy and the author’s role in that policy. (Generally, the author has a liberal point of view.) To his credit, Fanning decides he can no longer in good conscience comply with his role in the military. The author paints a very unflattering picture of the military that should make the brass at the Pentagon question their training methods and attitude. For example, Fanning’s treatment during his second deployment to Afghanistan (after announcing his desire to leave the military) is an indictment: he was an outcast; given menial, meaningless tasks; and forced to sleep outside in the cold and mud while the rest of the unit slept indoors. It’s a disturbing and distant reality from the glamorized military advertised during football games.
That said, the book could have been much more than it is. The author should have gone deeper, providing more detail, more background, and more research. In the end, Worth Fighting For is unsatisfying and leaves the reader frustrated and disappointed. It would have been an improvement to see more questions about the contradictions Fanning encounters every day. The reader gets glimpses—vignettes really—of America and its people, but the author fails to really explore how it affected him. The retelling of his experiences feels cursory and superficial. Worth Fighting For could have offered a more expansive look at America and its contradictions, its generous people, its hopes and fears, its gap between the ideal and the reality, but it does not do so.
November 2014, Haymarket Books
$16.95, paperback, 220 pages
—Reviewed by Stephen Isaacs