October 23, 2009 2:28:00 PM
Everyone who has followed current events even slightly over the past five years knows that football hero and soldier Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan, and that the military had trouble telling the truth about his death from rifle fire by his own platoon. Tillman had a remarkable life for one who died at age 27, and in “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman” (Doubleday), Jon Krakauer has provided the biography that Tillman deserves, vivid and compelling.
As good as the biography is, however, it isn’t Krakauer’s main story, which concentrates on the political and moral crimes committed by the Bush administration and the Army as they tried to convince Americans (and Tillman’s family) that Tillman had heroically died shot by Taliban soldiers instead of sadly, futilely dying from friendly fire.
Krakauer has drawn his title from Homer, and within the book uses also an epigram by Aeschylus; this is not exaggeration. For one thing, Tillman, in addition to countless other interests, was compelled to study the Greek classics. More importantly, this is a brilliantly-told story of a genuine dramatic tragedy, because readers know how it is going to turn out, and watch as Tillman, compelled by his own sense of duty and self-challenge, is doomed by the fates and the powers that be.
Tillman was an extraordinary character. Krakauer, in his detailed portrait, has taken care to show that for all his heroism and other admirable traits, he had his share of flaws. Before he went to college, he had served time in a juvenile jail because after his friend was beat up, Tillman savagely beat up another teen he mistakenly thought was responsible.
This almost made him lose his football scholarship, which would have changed his life entirely. He had enormous physical skill at anything he tried, and this included stupid challenges he would set himself like jumping from cliffs onto trees. He spent part of a vacation in Paris getting drunk and throwing up with his pals. Marie, the woman he lived with and eventually married before he went overseas, was a needed civilizing influence, and by the time Tillman was recruited to the National Football League, he was decidedly different from his fellow players. He drove a Jeep, a car that had no flash, and he kept cats, not dogs.
He was an ardent advocate for the rights of homosexuals, and he always had a book handy so that no time was wasted. He had brains, something that football players are not celebrated for, but more importantly, he was introspective and self-critical, constantly writing in his journal about any defects he saw in himself and what he would do to overcome them. (One of the most attractive parts of Krakauer’s book is its generous quoting from the journals.) He once explained, “If you’re kind of comfortable all the time — it’s like if you’re skiing and you’re not falling, you’re not trying. I kind of want to push myself. A lot.” When asked why he put himself deliberately into situations where he could get hurt, he said he simply needed to stay sharp by challenging himself constantly, physically and mentally.
It certainly worked for him. He was a standout as safety for the Arizona Cardinals, earning a fine reputation for playing a smart and aggressive game even though the Cardinals weren’t much of a team otherwise. He had a bright future with the team, or the next team lucky enough to hire him, but played his last game four months after the 9/11 attacks. He knew everyone was angry about the attacks, and that his teammates declared their support for war and for murdering Osama bin Laden, but he simply felt that talk was not enough.
He had a $3.6 million dollar contract coming up, and walked away from it to sign on for the Army for three years. He thought about joining the officer corps, but wanted to be in the immediate action.
His family was greatly displeased, except for his brother who enlisted with him. He married shortly before enlisting; his wife was not happy but always knew he had a keen sense of duty and how he had to push himself. He himself had doubts at times; after three weeks of basic, he wrote, “Who does this? Who takes a perfectly perfect life and ruins it? A perfectly happy wife and marriage and jeopardizes it?”
The Bush administration saw the propaganda value of this young man so devoted to serving his country, but Tillman would not cooperate. He refused interviews and media appearances; he had his job and he wanted just to do it, and he faded into Army obscurity. This does not mean that he was not good at his job; he entered the elite ranks of the Army’s rangers. He had concern about the war in Iraq, which he thought was an illegal act of “imperial whim”, but that was his first assignment. He was there for the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch in March 2003, which Krakauer goes into in detail because it foreshadowed the lies that would be applied to Tillman’s death. Lynch was captured by Iraqi forces, and the Bush loyalist Jim Wilkerson concocted a story that she blew away terrorists with her rifle until she had no more ammunition, whereupon she was shot, captured, raped and tortured. The bogus story stoked war fever and made more of an impression than the real one, that she never fired a shot but was captured and treated sympathetically in an Iraqi hospital. The Lynch lies hid the real story: in the fight in which Lynch was taken, 17 marines were killed by friendly fire.
When Tillman was reassigned to Afghanistan, it was not long before he was in the mission that resulted in his death. The mistakes that happened, compounded errors and misjudgments, might be excused as mere manifestations of the fog of war. What is inexcusable is how, after Tillman was shot three times in the head by an American machine gunner, the Army quickly sprang into action to cover up the friendly fire incident. Krakauer writes, “When Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan his Ranger regiment responded with a chorus of prevarication and disavowal. A cynical cover-up sanctioned at the highest levels of the government, followed by a series of inept official investigations, cast a cloud of bewilderment and shame over the tragedy, compounding the tragedy of Tillman’s death.”
Krakauer makes plain that basic Army rules were flouted from the beginning — Tillman’s clothing and notebooks were burned, for instance, and fraudulent documents were forwarded to get him a fast-track posthumous Silver Star. Members of his unit were ordered to say nothing about the incident. A particularly bitter point is that Tillman was an agnostic, if not an atheist. He wanted no religious participation in his funeral, and had specifically asked that there be no military participation. After all, he would not play the public relations game when he enlisted, and as he told a friend about the possibility of his death, “I don’t want them to parade me through the streets.”
At the funeral, however, an officer was there to remind those present of Tillman’s heroic death and telling the story of his leading troops uphill to fight the enemy, and sacrificing his life for others. An Army officer later made comments to the media about the refusal to have a chaplain present, and speculated that the reason the family was so unable to let the incident go was not that they were disgusted by being lied to repeatedly, but because they were atheists and didn’t believe Tillman could have gotten to a better life.
The military realized that it was going to have a problem keeping up the falsified version of Tillman’s death, because his brother was in the same firefight at a different locale, and their buddies in the platoon knew the truth, and eventually at some point they would, even against orders, spill it. Tillman’s mother pushed the issue, and got one after another official investigation, each of which lied in different degrees. Krakauer shows that the White House was eager to peddle the story of
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.