Monday, March 08, 2010

Where Men Win Glory

My Review of Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer

(Warning: There are a few spoilers)

First of all, I must confess that the only reason I chose to read this book was because I love Jon Krakauer’s work. As I pointed out last week I think he is an excellent investigative reporter. Even when the events he’s reporting on are partially concealed by the Alaskan back-country, the deadly slopes of the highest mountain in the world, secretive polygamist societies or in this case by the chaos and fog of war. I had made up my mind about Pat Tillman and was not really interested in devoting my reading time to this poster-boy of the war effort in Iraq. It was only my history with Krakauer’s work that made me reconsider my prejudices. And my preconceptions about Tillman couldn’t have been more wrong.
Since I don’t understand football I didn’t have any clue who Pat Tillman was before the Bush administration chose to make him the poster boy for the war effort when he turned his back on a $3,000,000 contract to join the Rangers and do his part to help out in the war in Afghanistan. I don’t think that football players are a special class of people so I saw his sacrifice as just the same as any other person who chose to put their life in danger to protect my rights. And I got a particular bee in my bonnet after his death when the right wing media tried to spin his death as meaning more than any other soldier’s death. Tillman put himself in harm’s way to protect my liberties. He literally gave his all. Yet so did thousands of other soldiers. Their future earning potential is irrelevant. They gave their lives for this country.
So I had pigeon-holed Pat Tillman, without any research on my part, as a mindless jock who just jumped behind the war effort because he’d heard Toby Keith’s song and wanted to go act it out. Indeed that is the way much of the talk show noise spun his enlistment. If you still believe this distortion of who Pat really was you will be very disappointed when you read the book.
Pat was probably one of the more literate people to ever wear an NFL jersey. When the other players on his team were buying the fanciest cars they could and just partying, Pat was being teased about driving his used Volvo to practice and spending most of his spare time completing his Master’s degree. Pat was a voracious reader. Among his favorite authors was Emerson, Thoreau, Homer and Noam Chomsky. The title of the book is a quote from the Odyssey, which Tillman particularly like and had a copy of it with him in Afghanistan.
Pat kept meticulous journals. Much of the book is quotes taken straight from these journals. At a couple points Krakauer used phrases that I thought were unnecessarily partisan. I thought that he was just putting his own opinions into the book which wouldn’t have been appropriate for an investigative report like this. Then I stepped back and realized that these weren’t Krakauer’s opinions, they were Tillman’s taken straight from his journals. With my preconception of Pat I just hadn’t expected him to make statements like, “the neo-conservative brain-trust in The White House” and “that cowboy at the helm”. Those were some of the nicer things that Pat said about his Commander-in-Chief. You see Pat really didn’t fit the mold. He didn’t think we had any business in Iraq at all. He and his brother, Kevin, had enlisted to assist in the war in Afghanistan. They were both very vocal and upset and felt tricked into fighting in a war they didn’t agree with.
Krakauer departed strictly from Tillman’s story for a little bit to give a history of U. S. friendly fire accidents. Although the press didn’t dwell on it too much the first confirmed deaths of the Iraq war were friendly-fire accidents. This short history of accidental fratricide in the military was necessary to show the predisposition of the military to covering up the facts. In a friendly fire death the investigative agency is the military itself. There is no other agency involved like there is with other accidents. In a plane crash the airline doesn’t investigate themselves. That task falls to the NTSB in order to avoid a conflict of interest. So with the military there is a serious conflict of interest and tendency to push the blame as far down the chain of command as possible. This section seemed hauntingly familiar and I kept thinking about Zimbardo’s work on situational evil.
The descriptions of war in this book are quite graphic and not for the squeamish. The day I finished the book I was so emotionally jarred by it that when I came home and saw my son taking joy in a war video game I just couldn’t stay quiet. He deserved to be criticized for his behavior, but I was definitely responding more to my feeling about this book than I was to his behavior.
“When the military is confronted with the fratricidal carnage that predictably results, denial and dissembling are its time honored responses of first resort.”
After Tillman’s death the extent to which the military and the government took to spin and cover up the specifics was particularly unnerving. The members of Pat’s unit were sworn to secrecy about the incident even from Pat’s brother, Kevin who was in the same unit. The doctor who performed Pat’s autopsy was denied the details of his death and ultimately refused to sign the official report because his investigation had been so hindered that he knew his autopsy was incomplete. Pat’s brain was never actually recovered. Pat’s uniform, body armor and personal effects were removed and burned in open defiance of military protocol. Along with the uniform was a notebook that Pat had been keeping his journal on while they were deployed. Of the two letters written for Pat’s posthumous Silver Star one was edited so much in the final edition that the author didn’t even recognize it and the other was unsigned and the alleged author did not remember even writing it.
I’m glad I read this book. It put a face on the men and women who are dying in our country's wars. I’m glad I got to know Tillman better. I still think it’s a shame that there isn’t a similar book written about every single soldier killed in action. The Bush administration unashamedly tried to spin Tillman’s story into a ideal of post 9-11 patriotism. Instead Tillman’s story became a story of unnecessary sacrifice, inept leadership and cover-up. But Pat’s legacy is stronger than that. Thanks his mother, brother, wife and this book Pat still refuses to be reduced to a stereotype and lives on in the lives of those he inspired.


  1. I'm not reading this whole post because a friend gave me this for the holidays and I haven't gotten to it yet. But I'm with you, I'll read it if John J. wrote it!

    I think I'll try to get my book group to read it...

  2. Sorry about that. I've added a spoiler alert.
    Let me know what you thought once you're finished.

  3. Thanks for the link so I could finally see what you had to say as well. I think Tillman would agree with your bee bonnet about treating his death as special.

    As for the video game thing, there was a Frontline about our digital age and it showed recruiters using war video games to get kids to want to sign up! Ahhhh!