Where Men Win Glory – the Odyssey Of Pat Tillman, by Jon Krakauer
This is a book that abounds in irony, but I’ll be back to that later in this post. Krakauer has researched the story well, from Tillman’s childhood in California to his unlikely football career at Arizona State University, to an even more unlikely career in pro football, to his still-stunning walk away from the money and adulation of football to a short-lived career as an Army Ranger.
Tillman’s family was, by the sound of it, more close-knit than many in these United States. He was extremely close to his mother, Dannie, to his brother, Kevin, who joined the army with Pat and ended up in the same ill-fated platoon in Afghanistan, and to another brother, Richard. Pat’s circle of friends remained tight throughout his life, and loyalty reigned among them to a degree rarely seen in modern American life.
Krakauer describes Tillman at book’s end as the quintessential alpha male, and there’s evidence for that – to defend a high school pal, seventeen year-old Pat beat another, larger boy nearly to death. But by my reading, his drive was based in a sense of security in family and friends and by an almost naïve sense of idealism. He was sufficiently moved by the events of 9-11 to forsake the football career he fought so hard to establish and “do what’s right” as a citizen of a terrorism-threatened country.
Once in the army, he was appalled by the mental and emotional weaknesses displayed by fellow recruits. But in Krakauer’s account, he went out of his way to befriend them in any way he could. An intelligent, well-read man, Tillman was equally appalled by the Bush Administration’s adventurism into Iraq, but again he held his tongue and tried to make the most of his Army enlistment.
Had Krakauer remained on this wavelength, the book would still have been an important one – the story of an above average, well-informed pro football player who allowed his life to take a fated turn. But Krakauer clearly wanted to say more. His story’s documentation runs to almost twenty pages of acknowledgements and notes, and I’ve yet to hear of any quibbles with his version of the story. At this point, the irony begins:
· In Iraq, Tillman’s crew rescued Private Jessica Lynch, who was captured by Iraqi soldiers after the convoy of which Lynch was a part fumbled their way into enemy territory. This was nearly another cover-up of NCOs and officers acting incompetently, and it presaged Tillman’s death.
· The firefight in which Tillman was killed displayed a My Lai-like cover-your-ass tale of officers, first making poor tactical decisions regarding Tillman’s platoon, then moving immediately to a cover-up of his friendly-fire death (or fratricide as it is clinically termed).
· The tale began with the breakdown of a version of the Humvee favored by the Rangers. These breakdowns were apparently common, a constant albatross about the Rangers’ necks and frequently impeding their effectiveness as a fighting force.
· The highly trained platoon ignored a complete absence of men in an Afghani village they passed through, and thus were surprised by a withering Taliban attack.
· From Krakauer’s telling, the platoon had been split to move in different directions by a senior officer, which diminished their effectiveness in the firefight. As a result, communication between the platoon members broke down.
· Some platoon members began an undisciplined firing – something their training should have prevented. Even after the Taliban had quit the fight, the men shot wantonly at their team members, ignoring Tillman’s signals that they were firing at their own comrades.
· Tillman was so convinced that he could successfully communicate with the others that he exposed himself to the fire that killed him.
· The ones who had been firing knew immediately that they had killed Pat and an Afghani soldier, had wounded the platoon lieutenant and one other soldier. However Kevin, Pat’s brother, didn’t know the nature of Pat’s death until months later.
There are more bon mots of irony throughout the story, but these should be enough to convince any reader that Tillman’s death was more than a personal, but a national tragedy.
Krakauer began this non-fiction account by braiding Tillman’s coming of age with the development of the U.S./Soviet proxy war in Afghanistan, which resulted in the creation of the Taliban as a fighting force – complete with a large arsenal of U.S. Stinger missiles that are still being used against Allied helicopters.
But as the story morphed into the now-infamous cover-up, with Krakauer apparently intent on presenting his vast supply of documentation, the prose became clunky, its grammar occasionally difficult to decipher. Still, the facts as the author presents them are compelling enough to stand as a solitary witness to this latest American war tragedy.
My rating: 3-1/2 of 5 stars.
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