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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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His other entries are eerily wise: Of Jessica Lynch, whose staged rescue he and his brother provided support for on their first tour of duty, he wrote, "As awful as I feel for the fear she must face, and admire the courage I'm sure she is showing, I do believe this to be a big Public Relations stunt..." He had faced an essential truth about the Lynch incident that it would take months for the American media to sort out. Of his brother Kevin in Iraq, he said "If anything happens to Kevin, and my fears of our intent in this country prove true, I will never forgive the world." Of course, the inverse ended up being true, with Kevin the surviving, disillusioned sibling. On his own account, Tillman confided in a friend his fear that if he were killed the army would parade him in the streets.

This ended up being the most prescient of all. After being sent to Afghanistan, Tillman was shot in the head by a machine-gunner from his own unit, which had been split up to make time. His shooter thought he was the enemy and his unit sprayed bullets wildly across the slope where Tillman was perched (one of his comrades recalls him yelling I'm "Pat fucking Tillman!" shortly before his death). His uniform and most tragically his notebook, where Krakauer tells us he'd scribbled thoughts on gender in Afghanistan, were put into a trash bag and burned, a blatant violation of protocol. And that was only the beginning of the secrecy. Even the book's less enthusiastic critics agree that with the evidence Krakauer's amassed and compiled, there's no way to deny the most horrible aspects of the cover-up, including orders to Tillman's comrades telling them to lie to his family at the funeral and another official cruelly explaining away the family's pursuit of the truth as a folly attributable to their atheism. Krakauer demonstrates that the willful deception went all the way up to the White House, when an email from an army official exhorted President Bush not to mention the manner of Tillman's death, lest it prove "embarassing" should the incident prove to be friendly fire (something the official already knew). This deceit, Krakauer notes, led one Tillman friend to leave the army and another to go AWOL, losing their faith in the institution they'd signed up for.

It may remain puzzling that someone with the streak of wisdom that Tillman clearly possessed chose to chance death anyway, even after a painful family intervention begging him not to enlist. But Krakauer gets it, as a kindred spirit who followed in Tillman's footsteps, like he has done for all his risk-taking subjects. (Tillman in turn was a fan of Krakauer's work, which is why Marie gave him access to the diaries). Krakauer spent months embedded with the Army in Afghanistan, resulting in an epilogue that paints a grim picture of our current situation there. Until Pakistan stops harboring insurgents, "it will be impossible for the United States and its allies to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban by military force," he writes. He adds that pulling out is an equally "no-win" prospect.

Krakauer is a good person to have on your side. He doggedly pursues the bigger picture, and weaves human stories and investigations together in such a way as to create the kind of gripping, stay-up all night narratives of which most novelists can only dream. Some critics in traditional print media miss Krakauer's straight adventure tales and find his political and skeptical muckraking less than convincing. But like Tillman, Krakauer's an iconoclast, distrustful of authorities or false ideals, and thus the perfect person to tell this story.

 
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