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Inside Pat Tillman's Life, and the Bush Administration's Cover-Up of His Death

Journalist Jon Krakauer's striking new book on the story of the events surrounding Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan covers the emotional depths of war and government cover-up.
 
 
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Journalist Jon Krakauer is obsessed with people who make unfathomable choices, from a young man wandering in the wilderness in Into the Wild to climbers attempting Everest in Into Thin Air to polygamists hearing a call to violence in Under the Banner of Heaven . The subject of Krakauer's new book Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman is one of these. As we all know,  Pat Tillman left the NFL in 2002 to enlist in the army, inspired to do his part in the service of a president he distrusted and later, a war he doubted. When Tillman was killed by friendly fire, the army and government engaged in a cover-up to turn him into a martyred hero. In this book, Krakauer exposes each step of the deception with persistent detail.

If Where Men Win Glory is less immediately gripping, less fluid and tense, than Krakauer's previous books, this is partly because the story he's telling is known, and painful. But the theme of our government's failure colliding with a young man's sense of duty has a relevance and moral immediacy that's hard to shake off.

Ultimately, Where Men Win Glory leaves you, as does Into the Wild, with a sense of futility and anger over the death of a young man that you knew was coming all along. While Krakauer levels his most scathing insults at the Bush administration and portrays the army chain of command as a bureaucratic, cover-your-ass nightmare, in this book the fog of war is the real culprit. As Krakauer told the Wall Street Journal, "There is nothing glamorous or romantic about war. It's mostly about random pointless death and misery. And that's what [Tillman's] death tells us. It reminds me that the good aren't rewarded, there's no such thing as karma." War, Krakauer writes, creates a climate that leads panicked men to gun down their brothers in cold blood at a staggeringly high rate in all recorded conflicts, and a climate that obscures mistakes and misdeeds (as is the case not just with friendly fire, but with crimes like sexual assault and the death of LaVena Johnson. It's a climate that leads commanders to make decisions from behind desks (as happened on the day Tillman died) that those on the ground deem unsafe but are powerless to disobey.

Krakauer begins with an account of that day. It begins with Tillman's lieutenant, David Uthlaut, begging his superiors not to split up his unit or have them travel in the daytime--both huge risks--but being denied both requests in order to conform to a pre-ordained timetable. Timetables, Krakauer notes disdainfully, were a particular obsession of Donald Rumsfields', enabling him to check off boxes on his war on terror.

After the first chapter, Where Men Win Glory backtracks, alternating the story of Tillman's early life and NFL career with the history of Afghanistan and the conflicts it has endured, creating a sense of dread as readers know what will happen when the two threads converge. Tillman's personality, enigmatic though it was, becomes clearer here: a young man who struggled to channel his existential angst and occasional aggression into constant self-improvement, who was never content being comfortable and continually pushed himself, running marathons and triathlons in the football off-season, taking death-defying cliff-dives, reading and discussing philosophy over drinks, and writing diary entries after bad football games exhorting himself to do better. Consumed with notions of honor, risk and service, this larger-than-life man was also a family rock and a devoted husband to his young wife Marie, the bright-burning center of an extremely close-knit group of friends and relatives. Even the picture of Tillman on the book's back jacket--long haired, intense with a slightly mischievous look in his eyes--is worth a look, so different is it from the military portrait of Tillman used by the press.

At the same time as he illuminates this character, Krakauer sets the political stage for Tillman's death and its cover-up, describing the brutal Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the role of the CIA and the mujahideen, the forming and re-forming alliances that led to the Taliban giving Osama Bin Laden safe haven. On our side, he mentions the disastrous Florida recount, getting in a jab at Scalia and Bush v. Gore, urgent memos about Bin Laden ignored by the Bush administration, and the "selling" and spinning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many readers will be aware of this history, but juxtaposing it with a life that will be ended by its trajectory creates a fresh sense of urgency and disbelief.

Perhaps the most incredible aspect of the book is its extensive excerpting from Tillman's diaries, granted to Krakauer by his widow Marie, and stories about his time deployed overseas, where he read The Odyssey and "Self-Reliance," and was shocked by the youth and immaturity of his co-enlistees. Tillman expresses his doubt about the Iraq War from its onset: "It may be very soon that Nub [his brother Kevin] & I will be called upon to take part in something I see no clear purpose for... I believe we have little or no justification other than our imperial whim," he wrote. On another occasion, he calls Bush a "cowboy."

 
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