Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat TillmanIn 2004, right around the time it was becoming all too clear that our military adventure in Iraq was far from "Mission Accomplished", Pat Tillman died in Afghanistan, shot to death by soldiers from his own unit.  For some time, Tillman's death was portrayed by the Pentagon and the Bush Administration as a heroic sacrifice, demonstrating Tillman's honor, courage and patriotism.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

In Where Men Win Glory, author Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air, Under The Banner Of Heaven), comprehensively depicts Tillman's life and brief career in the Army Rangers, creating the full and contradictory picture of a genuine human being, instead of a media stereotype.  Macho, yet gentle, outgoing, smart, and surprisingly self-aware, Tillman felt compelled to give up a multi-million dollar contract to play pro football for the Arizona Cardinals after 9/11, enlisting as a private in the Army.

During the time he was training in the regular infantry, and then in the elite ranger school, Tillman (who was accompanied in enlistment by his brother Kevin) gave no interviews, and sought no media attention.  By all accounts, he joined up because he felt it was right for him to do so.  Even as he experienced a deployment to Iraq, and began to think that the war there was ill-advised and pointless, he continued to serve with distinction, because he simply wanted to be as good a soldier as possible.

His career ended on a hill in Afghanistan in 2004, under a hail of bullets fired by soldiers from his own unit.  The details of the many errors of judgement and failures to observe procedure that led to Tillman's death are interesting reading, but ultimately irrelevant.  "Friendly fire" deaths are a commonplace event in all armed conflicts - the details vary, but the results are always the same.

What matters more than the final truth about how Pat Tillman died is how that truth was evaluated, decided upon, and covered-up by Tillman's chain-of-command, all the way up to the Pentagon and the Bush Administration.   The story of Tillman's death was initially portrayed as a heroic stand against Afghan "terrorists", enjoying a media response very similar to the now-discredited stories of Private Jessica Lynch in Iraq (in whose "rescue" mission Tillman played a small part).

The media, at this time largely reduced to a kennel of eager lapdogs, jumped unquestioningly onto the bandwagon, as Tillman was fast-tracked by the Pentagon for a posthumous Silver Star.  His family, meanwhile, were told nothing about the actual circumstances of his death.  Only after the President himself planned to refer to Tillman's "heroic scrifice" on national television, did the Pentagon decide that it would be politically dangerous to maintain the cover-up.  There were simply too many witnesses, not least the soldiers who killed Tillman accidentally.

But actual details relased about the incident remained sketchy, as the Army brass sought to insulate the higher officers whose poor decisions contributed to the incident.  (The short version is that Tillman would probably not have been shot, if the Army had been willing to leave behind a heavily damaged Humvee.)  After three separate investigations (one of which was conducted by officers involved in the events), the Pentagon was left with a contradictory mess, and imposed virtually no punishment on officers above the level of Tillman's Lieutenant, who was essentially employed as a scapegoat for his superiors. 

Attempts by Tillman's family to get the unvarnished truth were countered with Army public relations and endless spin, the full story remaining cloudy until the debut of this excellently researched book.  The failed PR attempt to spin Tillman's enlistment, deployment, and tragic death for political benefit, is connected throughout the book to the many other public failures of the Bush Adminstration and the Pentagon in the prosecution of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

As always, Krakauer seamlessly blends revealing pictures of individuals (particularly Tillman) with strong, well-researched factual reporting on the shooting incident itself, and the embarassing path to the attempted cover-up.  The many tragic errors of the "War on Terror" have become common knowledge during the last few years:  WMD, no exit strategy, Abu Gharaib, etc, etc.  This is one more story, a very intimate and personal one, of the consequences of the Bush Administration's incompetence and hubris.

1 comment:

  1. Jay - I hope you continue your blog - it's great. Thanks for the reviews.
    I was led here while looking for Oryx and Crake & Year of the Flood info.
    BTW - love the image