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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."

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 tolie 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.

 

 

Sarah Seltzer is an RH Reality Check staff writer and resident pop culture expert. Sarah is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Bitch, Venus Zine, Womens eNews, and Publishers Weekly among other places. She formerly taught English in a Bronx public school.
 
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