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Where Men Win Glory

An exploration of the life and death of football star and US Army enlistee Pat Tillman.

(Page 2 of 2)

Krakauer reports that a US military leader in Afghanistan ordered Tillman’s uniform burned before it could be examined for forensic evidence, much to the chagrin of the coroner who conducted Tillman’s autopsy at Dover Air Force Base. Relentless prodding from Tillman’s mother led to multiple investigations of her son’s death. Those inquiries, as well as extensive interviews by the author, allow Krakauer to piece together what happened in Khost Province. If anything, the author delays his account of the friendly fire episode for too long, waiting until the end of the book to explain those events in detail. (To cite but one of many examples, a digression on the 2000 presidential election and subsequent court battle over Florida votes does little to further Tillman’s tale.)

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When Krakauer delves into the mission that led to Tillman’s death and the aftermath, it makes for gripping, heartbreaking reading. In between an opening sequence set in the moments before Tillman was shot and the denouement hundreds of pages later, Krakauer alternates between explorations of Tillman’s childhood and football career and the foreign policy entanglements of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It’s a hit-and-miss approach. Krakauer is helped by his own extensive legwork, including interviews with Tillman’s wife, fellow soldiers, college friends, and some of his coaches and former teammates. Krakauer also gained access to Tillman’s journals, a mixed blessing that provides crucial insight but sometimes leads to excessive detail and rumination. Accounts of the spin-doctoring attached to the rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq and political machinations in Afghanistan and Pakistan also could benefit from judicious editing. Tillman is an interesting character, a man who defies easy jock stereotypes. He’s bound by a relentless personal code of honor. Money doesn’t motivate him, and taking the easy way out is never a consideration.

Soon after Tillman finished his stint in Iraq, several NFL teams put out feelers through Tillman’s agent to help him secure an early discharge from the military and return to football. Tillman declined the offer. He deplored much about the culture of the military, as well as the political calculations behind the war in Iraq, yet insisted on fulfilling his enlistment.

Krakauer demonstrates determination of his own. Two trips to Afghanistan allowed the author to get a sense of the land and the battle on the ground, lending the descriptions of the people and the harrowing topography invaluable authenticity. At the same time, Krakauer seems to have faltered on a few key points in telling the history of the mujahideen, as Dexter Filkins, the ace New York Times war correspondent, recently pointed out in a review of the book.

On another occasion, in detailing Tillman’s college football career, Krakauer has him playing in the Rose Bowl in Anaheim. The Rose Bowl, as any college football fan knows, is in Pasadena.

Still, these are minor quibbles in a book that goes a long way toward explaining the fog of war in the trenches and beyond. It is a fitting tribute to Tillman, a voracious reader who questioned everything. The shame is that Tillman and Krakauer never met; if Tillman had lived, it would have been fascinating to hear him relate his experiences and opinions in collaboration with a writer like Krakauer or on his own.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.


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