There was a time—ever so briefly—when Pat Tillman dominated the news cycle. Actually, there were two times: one, when the football semi-star joined the military and become a posterboy for patriotism and self-sacrifice, and another when he died via friendly fire, becoming yet another It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World story in a long string of nonsensical happenings on the other side of the world.
I can’t honestly say that I picked up Where Men Win Glory because of Pat Tillman; football, like most sports, is a cipher to me, and I’d read enough from news reports to understand the gist of the story: an NFL star joins the Army out of sheer, unadulterated love for America and is accidentally shot to death by his own side in Afghanistan. On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much to the story except that our side managed to fuck up, and fuck up with someone that the viewing public will recognize.
My real reason for reading Where Men Win Glory is that I’m a fan of Jon Krakauer: previously, I’ve read Under the Banner of Heaven, Into the Wild, and Into Thin Air, all of which I enjoyed (especially the first). This latest work is in some ways a bit of a different beast for Krakauer—it’s his first real biography since his debut Into the Wild, but it’s classic Krakauer territory: find a person whose decisions appear to defy our cultural common sense, and whose life ultimately ends in tragedy. Pat Tillman fits this bill precisely.
The character of Pat Tillman is in some ways archetypical, and in some ways odd and confounding. Krakauer begins at the beginning, so to speak, illustrating Tillman with vignettes of his formative years. The interesting bits begin in his high school years, most notably his run-in with the law when he got involved in a brawl outside a pizza pub, which for a time threatened his football scholarship to Arizona State University. Tillman’s college and early pro years comprise the second-largest portion of the book, short of his time in the army, and it’s fodder for football fans: Krakauer even devotes a chapter to a blow-by-blow of the Rose Bowl game that Tillman’s team just barely lost. Reader who don’t care for sports—such as me—may find some of this enthusiasm for athletics rather dull, but Krakauer does a fairly good job of making everything that happens to Tillman, whether within a football game or in his private life, somehow illustrative of his character, which is the author’s ultimate goal, anyway.
The book opens with a detailed account of the debacle that lead to Tillman’s death: it is, therefore, not a surprise to readers, nor should it be. Tillman’s death by friendly fire was big news, and it’s a foregone conclusion to anyone reading the book. By the time Tillman is a professional player for the Arizona Cardinals, and witnesses the events of 9/11 (which will eventually prompt his enlistment in the Army Rangers), we’ve almost forgotten that he is already dead—for better or worse, we are well-acquainted with him. To Krakauer’s credit, the picture of Tillman that he paints is so atypical of the usual fawning biography that I’m almost taken aback: Tillman isn’t a stock character: he is something of an oddity, with likable qualities, idiosyncrasies, and damnably strange behaviors.
This, of course, presents the question that burns in everyone’s mind: what the hell was Tillman thinking? More accurately, do we consider Tillman brave or stupid? We may laud and applaud the man to the skies for his self-sacrifice, but as Krakauer takes care to point out, Tillman left behind a grieving family and young wife, never mind the flourishing career. There are more parties to consider in such a sacrifice, after all; Tillman’s sacrifice, therefore, asked all of them to sacrifice, whether or not they wanted to. His formative experiences inculcated in the long-haired footballer an intense sense of justice, the application of which can be both commendable and foolhardy: great umbrage, once taken, can lead to reckless behavior, whether justified or not.
The most interesting part of the book to me was the tale that Krakauer told in parallel to that of Tillman, namely the history of Afghanistan, and the long string of feuding warlords that fought for control of the country—the origins of the Taliban, and of Al Qaeda, and why the country has become the war-torn hellhole that it is. Since all we ever hear about today is Iraq, Afghanistan remains something of a black box to modern readers. Even I, who consider myself relatively well-informed, learned a considerable amount about Afghanistan.
Tillman kept a journal beginning in his college years, and as the book progresses, Krakauer relies more and more on long, block-level quotes directly from the journal. There is nothing, of course, more illustrative of a man’s innermost thoughts than his own journal, but I find this reliance a little cheap on Krakauer’s part: the reason we read Krakauer is for his ability to synthesize his sources into a compelling story, not so we can regurgitate his sources verbatim. In fact, the most of the book lacks Krakauer’s usual editorializing; whereas Into the Wild baldly asked and then attempted to answer the question “Why in the hell would Chris McCandless ever do what he did?” I found Where Men Win Glory seemed to shy away from questioning Tillman himself, perhaps out of fear that it would make Krakauer sound crass and unpatriotic. When the author does eventually venture into the editorial, it was focused entirely on the actions of the army and government in the period following Tillman’s death from friendly fire. Whether conspiracy or idiocy or knee-jerk self-preservation, any one of a number of parties committed errors and possibly crimes in covering up the accidental nature of Tillman’s death, destroying evidence in stark disobedience of military procedure. At this point, unfortunately, Krakauer starts to sound a little like Greg Palast, and it becomes obvious that he dislikes the Bush administration and everything associated with it. It’s not that I don’t necessarily agree with him, but the mudslinging seems peripheral to the story, and ultimately distracting.
By the end, the reader feels disgusting with the whole government and military complex, and there’s been a potent sense of cynicism engendered in us that stands in stark contrast to the bright-eyed patriotism that sent Tillman into the Army in the first place. Can Tillman’s death by his own side serve as an extended metaphor for the armed conflict’s self-destructive nature…. how war eventually consumes the fervor that fuels it? Maybe. Kraukauer’s message is somewhat mixed by the end, as though he lost the thread a bit.
Krakauer could have written a whole book about the history of Afghanistan: this, I think, was the strongest part of the book, and this doesn’t surprise me; just like I preferred Under the Banner of Heaven to Into the Wild, so I prefer his history of Afghanistan to his chronicling of Pat Tillman. This, I realize, is largely a product of my own bias and less a matter of Krakauer’s writing ability. I feel that his journalistic talent tends to be wasted when he spends time acting as an apologist for people doing strange things (especially strange things that ultimately hurt everyone they love). Where Men Win Glory is, therefore, a representative mix of what the best and worst of Krakauer’s Å“uvre. Depending on your own reactions to Krakauer’s subjects, you may like the book less or more. While I would recommend Under the Banner of Heaven before I recommend Where Men Win Glory, it’s still a worthwhile piece of work.