Many Americans who watched the 9/11 attacks from afar insisted their lives would never be the same after that day, that they could never go back to the way things were before Al Qaeda killed 3,000 people at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Few, if any, lived up to that vow with the conviction of Pat Tillman.
An outstanding defensive back on a lousy NFL team, in 2002 Tillman chose enlistment in the US Army over a $3.6 million contract. He became an Army ranger with his brother, Kevin. They saw limited action in Iraq and later went to Afghanistan.
It was in remote Khost Province, near the Pakistani border, where Pat Tillman died in April 2004, the victim of friendly fire. Those details alone would make Tillman’s story ideal for Jon Krakauer, whose nonfiction bestsellers include “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air.” What happened after Tillman’s death, combined with a soldier’s story that is at once unique and universal, provides a perfect foundation for exploring the response of the United States to 9/11. Add Tillman’s rugged intellectual curiosity and independence, as well as his penchant for testing the outer limits of his physical endurance, and you have the perfect protagonist.
In Where Men Win Glory, Krakauer weaves Tillman’s story into the larger American war on terror, with predictable but no less disturbing conclusions. Krakauer reveals how political and military leaders let Tillman’s family – and the rest of the nation – believe his death came at the hands of the Taliban, not his own platoon. Tillman died just as the first reports on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal were breaking and as bloody fighting raged in Fallujah, where the burned corpses of four American contractors were dragged through the streets. Tillman’s death, Krakauer asserts, offered a handy diversion.
His argument is convincing in many respects. A year after Tillman’s death, Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) presided over a congressional hearing on the subsequent bungled military inquiries. He closed the hearing by saying, “What we have is a very clear, deliberate abuse intentionally done. Why is it so hard to find out who did it?”
Top military brass rushed through a Silver Star commendation for Tillman immediately after he died, part of a public-relations offensive aimed at making the former NFL player a poster child for the American military campaigns. It was an effort Tillman himself would have abhorred: He told a fellow soldier on an earlier occasion that he feared dying in action and being paraded through the streets as a justification for war.
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.)
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.
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.