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Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by John Krakauer

December 26, 2013

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I had just started Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, a novel about an Army company being honored at the halftime of a Dallas Cowboys football game, when I stopped to read this book first. I knew both books dealt with some of the same themes—heroism, honor, media, propaganda, and what it means to be American (both stories coincidentally, are also about war and football). I wanted to read the non-fiction book first, so I jumped into Where Men Win Glory.

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When the planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Pat Tillman was a successful safety for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. At the end of that football season, he turned down a $3.6 million contract and enlisted in the U.S. Army along with his brother, Kevin.

Even beyond his rising football stardom, Tillman was an unlikely candidate for the military. A rugged individualist who questioned the status quo, Tillman had an anti-authoritarian streak in him. Usually pensive and thoughtful, he could also be a bit of a hothead, known to mouth off and act impulsively. But he was fiercely loyal (he once turned down a $9 million contract with the Rams out of loyalty to the Cardinals). He loved his country and wanted to do his part, multi-million-dollar NFL contract or not.

Pat Tillman was the ideal poster child for the modern soldier. He represented the purest motive. It wasn’t money. It wasn’t glory or fame. He had a better chance at all those things in the NFL. His motivation was pure duty and love of country. But when the Bush administration came calling and when the media reached out, Tillman declined all interviews. He refused to be the poster boy. He wasn’t going to be used. Instead, he and Kevin did everything they could to avoid the spotlight. Although the media did make quite a bit out of Tillman’s story, he went about his training and his deployment as just another soldier fighting the war.

Pat and Kevin were unimpressed with the soldiers they initially met in the Army. The other enlistees struck the Tillmans as immature, un-motivated and generally clueless. But Pat and Kevin eventually earned a spot with the 2nd Ranger Battalion, and there they felt at home among the like-minded, elite soldiers.

The Tillmans did a tour of duty in Iraq before they were redeployed to Afghanistan. There, on the evening of April 22, 2004, in the mountainous Khost province, Tillman’s platoon was divided into two parts and strung out along a narrow valley when the rear portion began to take enemy fire. Tillman, in the forward part of the platoon, ran back to assist his fellow soldiers. He headed up a hillside that overlooked the rear half of his platoon. When his fellow soldiers saw Tillman on the hill, they opened fire.

Russell Baer had followed Pat, and the two were pinned down behind a small berm, making themselves as small as possible as their own platoon unloaded hundreds of rounds in what was later described by soldiers as “panicked…shooting everywhere.” The barrage was so intense and erratic that Baer actually considered firing back at his fellow soldiers. “They just wouldn’t stop shooting. I came so close to shooting back at those guys. I knew I would be able to kill every one of them with my SAW [high-powered machine gun]. It didn’t seem like anything else was gonna stop them.”

When the shooting finally ended, Tillman was dead. He’d taken three rounds to the head and died instantly.

This book is part biography of Tillman—his heroic life and tragic death. But, unfortunately, there’s much more to Tillman’s story. His death was the result of panicked, reckless action by other soldiers. But that error was followed by a concerted effort by the  Army and Defense Department’s to cover up the fact that Tillman’s death was fratricide. Evidence was destroyed, reports were fabricated and blatant lies were told by military and government officials, at least as high as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Although emails showed that the Defense Department knew the truth of Pat’s death within 24 hours, the official line at his memorial service on May 3 was still that he’d been killed by Taliban forces. In fact, soldiers at the service had been told by the Army that they were not permitted to reveal that Pat had been shot by Ranger comrades.

The motive for covering up the Tillman friendly-fire incident is clear. The great American hero being killed in battle was bad enough for a Defense Department desperate to maintain public support for the war. But having the hero shot by our own elite forces was a morale killer. As we’ve seen often in wartime, the tide of public opinion can turn on the strength of a singular image or story. And like all foreign conflicts, the administration needed public opinion on their side.

In the end, three different investigations were conducted because the first two were so fraught with incompetence, irregularities and outright fabrications. Some believe that the entire case would have been swept under the rug had Pat’s brother not been in the same platoon. Although Kevin hadn’t witnessed the actual shooting, the other platoon members couldn’t continue to lie to his face. That they’d ever been asked to is a disgrace.

What’s more, the cover-up isn’t an unusual event. Selling war at home is as important as actually fighting the war overseas. Thus, the Defense Department is always on the lookout for hero stories to turn into pro-war propaganda. And when the ugly stuff happens—specifically the unsettlingly common deaths by friendly fire—the propaganda machine kicks into high gear to manage the spin. Krakauer gives another example in the book as a precedent for the Tillman case. It also involved friendly fire, and centered around a now-infamous story of heroism: the case of Jessica Lynch.

While the Tillman’s were in Iraq, they were tangentially involved in the operation to rescue Private Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital. It was one of the great stories to come out of the Iraq War—caught in an ambush in Nasiriyah, Lynch heroically fought off enemy soldiers until she ran out of ammo and was overrun. She was beaten, abused, raped, tortured. And then the action-movie-ready rescue—more incredible acts of bravery from America’s finest. The only thing was, most of it wasn’t true. Lynch was knocked unconscious when her Humvee wrecked. She was captured, but was treated for her injuries and treated fairly well at an Iraqi hospital. That is, until the full force of the American Military walked in the front door and retrieved her. Why then had the Lynch story been blown so out of proportion? To cover up the true story of Lynch’s convoy in Nasiriyah, where U.S. A-10 Warthogs had mistakenly but repeatedly bombed vehicles in Lynch’s convoy, killing 17 Marines.

While Tillman was an interesting guy and a heroic role model, the bigger story here is how low the military and government will sink to sell a war. The irony, of course, is that Tillman represented the best of what America has to offer. He was everything we desire in our heroes, military or otherwise. And when his platoon wound through the canyon with its advanced weaponry, the snake turned and bit its own tail—our best weapons were turned on our best symbol of ourselves. And then that tragedy was made worse when it was buried in a swath of lies by panicked, incompetent and unscrupulous Army and Defense Department officials desperate to salvage the myth of Pat Tillman. Because to them, the myth was much more valuable than the truth.

At times, Krakauer allows his personal bias toward the administration to infiltrate the narrative. This diminishes but doesn’t completely undercut the otherwise top-notch reporting and captivating storytelling. This is an important book in throwing some light on how little we should trust our government in wartime.

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