Monday, November 16, 2009

Book Review - "Where Men Win Glory" by Jon Krakauer

I recently finished reading “Where Men Win Glory” by Jon Krakauer and found it to be pretty powerful. The book is on former NFL standout and Army Ranger killed in Afghanistan, Pat Tillman and features much of the same great writing that Krakauer provided in two prior books of his I’ve read… “Into Thin Air” and “Into the Wild”.

Krakauer had access to Tillman’s diary and conducted numerous interviews with people tied to him. One of those was his mother, Mary Tillman, who authored the book “Boots on the Ground by Dusk”. There’s a lot of ground covered in the Krakauer book, but I think it could all be boiled down to two basic concepts… Tillman the man and Tillman the used object.

Tillman the man

There’s an interesting section at the end of the book where Krakauer writes of the archetype known as the “alpha male”… the strong character unafraid of danger who seeks out challenges. What’s interesting is that Tillman really seems to have had both this type of makeup (in spades) along with an introspective side who really wanted to do what he felt was the right thing.

Evidence of this was of course his decision to forgo NFL millions to join the Army after 9-11, but other signs also point to this sense of internal judgment leading his decisions. While with the Arizona Cardinals, Tillman turned down a qualifying off from the St Louis Rams that would have paid him $2.6M guaranteed… and took $512K instead.

Additionally, it comes out in the Krakauer book that Tillman could have left the military (and a war in Iraq he didn’t believe in) after a year and a half, but instead stayed in to finish his three year commitment… to what is now known as tragic consequences.

Tillman the used object

The story of Tillman and what he represented would by itself have made for a compelling narrative (and I’m sure there are other books out there devoted entirely to Tillman the man), but the Krakauer book also gets heavily into the other side of the story… the usage and manipulation of the Tillman story by his government.

Tillman was initially reported to have been killed by enemy combatants, but was known immediately at multiple levels of the military that Tillman’s death was caused by friendly fire… almost certainly at the hands of Ranger gunner Trevor Alders. The actual announcement of friendly fire was released later in a manner that would mitigate the amount of press coverage and couched in terms that it “possibly” could have been friendly fire.

This preceded the events of his actual death which involved what’s described as an unnecessarily risky splitting of the platoon… for the purpose of reaching an arbitrary goal set by military planners. Then immediately after his death, Tillman’s uniform, diary and notebook were all burned against Army regulations.

After this, Tillman was almost immediately awarded posthumous medals for his actions on the fateful night, with the witness statements for those medals leaving out any mention of how the actual events transpired. Then results of the mandatory investigation into the cause of death were disregarded, presumably because the outcome of it was negligence by Army personally eventually resulting in death by friendly fire. In fact, there would then be a second investigation with the results set aside… finally with a 3rd leading to still unsatisfactory information for the Tillman family.

Testifying before Congress, Pat’s brother (and fellow Army Ranger) Kevin Tillman said…

“The fact that the Army, and what appears to be others, attempted to hijack his virtue and his legacy is simply horrific. The least this country can do for him in return is to uncover who is responsible for his death, who lied and who covered it up, and who instigated those lies and benefited from them. Then ensure that justice is meted out to the culpable. Pat and these soldiers volunteered to put their lives on the line for this country. Anything less than the truth is a betrayal of those values that all soldiers who have fought for this nation have sought to uphold.”

All of this is fairly sickening stuff about the internal response to the event of Pat Tillman’s death, but to the point of Tillman the man… it’s important to investigate the usage of his legacy, but also remember the legacy itself. Since his death, the Pat Tillman Foundation was formed and Leadership through Action scholarship program instituted at Pat’s alma matter of Arizona State University.

Really compelling stuff and short of reading the Krakauer book (or book by Tillman’s mother), this ESPN feature article also delves into the life and death of Pat Tillman.