BOOK: Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer (2009)

I’ve had this book on my to-read pile for at least a year now and just wasn’t sure I wanted to read it.  Though I’m a huge fan of Krakauer’s work, the story I knew about Pat Tillman was depressing enough already — did I really want to know more?  Ultimately, my curiosity got the best of me, though; if there was more to know, I found myself wanting to know it.  Because while in many ways, I felt I understood why things went down the way they did, the events of the years since the incident left growing doubts in my mind about the various justifications I’d taken for granted at the time.

As it turns out, those doubts were spot-on.  The things I learned from this book, especially about the Army and Bush administration-led cover-up, are pretty horrifying, insulting, and unforgivable.  (Surprise, surprise.)

For those who don’t know or don’t remember, Pat Tillman was an NFL player who gave up a multi-million dollar contract after 9/11 to enlist in the Army and fight the Taliban.  Excerpts from his journals, included in the book, as well as interviews with those who knew and served with him reveal Tillman to have been a highly intelligent, gentle man with a strong sense of loyalty and patriotism.

When Tillman was sent to Iraq instead of Afghanistan, he was pretty unhappy — he believed the Iraq war was a fraud and he’d enlisted to fight those responsible for 9/11, not these other guys.  He was also constantly frustrated by the immaturity of many of the soldiers around him, most of whom were only 19 or 20 years old, and frequently complained about what he perceived as a lack of solid leadership from the officers above him.

Having survived his Iraq tour, Tillman was offered numerous chances to get out of his Army contract and return to football, something he was desperate to do.  But he turned every offer down, believing it was his duty to serve all three of the years he’d signed up for, and before long, he was sent to war again, this time to Afghanistan.  In his platoon with him was his younger brother, Kevin, and the two were very, very close.  (This relationship played a bit of a role in his death, in fact, and I’ve wondered since reading this book if having brothers serve so closely together is maybe not a great idea.)

One day, the Tillman brothers set out on a mission that consisted of several soldiers in several Humvees.  This was the mission during which Pat was killed, and it was later revealed he’d been shot by his own platoon-mates accidentally.  I’ll leave the story of what happened for you to discover, but the short version is that bad leadership, stupid decisions made by higher-ups who weren’t on the scene and weren’t listening to the objections of those who were, and too many anxious, scared kids with automatic weapons were to blame.

Initially, I believed that the “cover-up” was understandable for morale reasons, and also because the Army was investigating the incident and trying to be thorough before releasing details.  But, man, how naive I was.  The real problem was that Tillman had, since enlisting, become Bush’s poster child for patriotism (something Pat himself resented, which is why he never gave a single interview about his decision to enlist).  Your poster child killed by friendly fire?  Damn, talk about a PR nightmare!  And so began a years-long, massively complex conspiracy to keep the truth both from the public and from the Tillman family themselves.  Dozens of rules were broken, terrible lies were told, and when the full story finally came out, only one man ended up being formally and seriously sanctioned by the Army — a guy who’d long since retired from service and whose sanction would, in that case, have no real impact on his life whatsoever.

This book, excellently and accessibly written, as Krakauer’s work always is, tells three stories — the story of the incident, the story of the cover-up, and, perhaps most fascinating, the story of Pat Tillman himself, a man I confess I mostly thought of as a dumb jock until I read this book, and who I now respect immeasurably.

This is definitely a must-read for anyone interested in the Bush wars, war-time politics, or heroes.  Gripping, thought-provoking, infuriating, and tragic, this is one of the most affecting non-fiction books I’ve read in a while.  Very likely to show up on my Top Ten list for 2011.  Recommended!


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