Friday, August 12, 2011

Where Men Win Glory

Where Men Win Glory
By Jon Krakauer

Jon Krakauer has always had an innate ability to dive headlong into a topic and deliver a nuanced look into subjects that are poorly understood by the general public. Mountain-climbing. Mormon fundamentalism. Survivalism. Like him or hate him, Krakauer brings the details. All of them. Where Men Win Glory is no exception.

So it seemed logical that Krakauer would tackle (no pun intended) the story of Pat Tillman, the former strong safety for the Arizona Cardinals who walked away from his multi-million dollar NFL contract to enlist in the American Army following America's invasion of Afghanistan in 2002. A vast majority of us would have a hard time understanding the logic behind that decision. Krakauer does his best to explain it while setting up his broader narrative for its collision course with tragedy.

Like in his prior books, Krakauer weaves a broad history of the narrative setting around a focused microcosm in an all encompassing storyline that leaves readers literally swimming in facts and quotes about complicated people in complicated situations.

Krakauer pushes beyond the stereotypes of the football player-turned-Army Ranger and exposes a far more subtle account of Pat Tillman, the man rather than Pat Tillman the manufactured legend. A man that was far more than the sum of his parts. Like he did with Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild, Krakauer digs deeper into Tillman's personality to reveal an atypical American jock, a far cry from the theatrical beer-swilling, date-raping Gridiron stereotype. Tillman was a thoughtful, moralistic and complicated character and I thought Krakauer handled him deftly. Krakauer presents Tillman and his family as sympathetic (albeit flawed) people with strong familial bonds. But he is careful to honor Tillman's legacy without mythologizing him. By the end of the novel, the reader really feels as if they know Pat Tillman and understand him, regardless of politics or religion. While some might be put off by his heavy-handed approach, I think it was necessary to understand the full extent of who Pat Tillman was and why he did what he did. It helps understand the tragedy that unfolded in 2004.

Pat Tillman fell in battle during an ambush in on the Afghan-Pakistan border region. He was shot in the head and died instantly. He was a true American patriot cut down by Taliban forces. He was a man who turned away from riches to serve his country and make the ultimate sacrifice. An unbelievable tragedy.

Unbelievable, of course, because it never actually happened. As most already know, Tillman's death was a result of "friendly fire" (a term I am very uncomfortable with. What fire is ever friendly?) and the events immediately following his death were shrouded in mystery and inconsistencies.

It's not an issue of "friendly fire" so much. Casualties by friendly fire are common. Much more common than most are lead to believe. It happens. Often. It's called the fog of war and no technology has ever been produced to alleviate this problem. The issue was: why did the Army cover up the true cause of death for so long? Especially when it was obvious almost immediately after Tillman's death that it was fratricide. This becomes the crux of the second half of the book.

As backdrop, Krakauer spends a large portion of this book chronicling the way in which Osama Bin Laden orchestrated the American invasion of Afghanistan via terrorist activity (culminating in the attacks of September 11th). He wanted to lure the Americans into an unwinnable quagmire where America would be somehow exposed. From their, Krakauer details the manner in which the Bush government steered American opinion toward war in Iraq and, once there, how they continued to massage and spin the truth in order to maintain the popularity of the war on the home front.

There is an excellent side story detailing the saga of Jessica Lynch, the soldier taken captive in Iraq in the first days of the war. What was fed to the public ("She went down fighting to the death") compared to the truth ("She was on a maintenance team, her vehicle was involved in a serious accident, she suffered serious injuries, was transported by Iraqis to an Iraqi hospital where she received compassionate care and never once discharged her gun) is startlingly unscrupulous. It's ironic that Pat Tillman was one of the 1000 Rangers deployed in the Jessica Lynch "rescue mission."

So it comes as no surprise that Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan was used and abused in the same manner. When Tillman died in 2004, Bush was up for re-election and a series of embarrassing setbacks was promising to do real harm to his chances at a second term. The Tillman cover-up was done in order to dilute the negative publicity generated by the disaster unfolding in Fallujah and Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Lauding the sacrifice of Pat Tillman, easily America's most famous soldier, became a political toy to lessen the damage of other stories. Death by "friendly fire" simply didn't fit the hero narrative.

Once Krakauer begins to unravel the complicated web of lies, deceits and half-truths told by the army and the Bush Administration is becomes hard to stomach. Literally. There were moments during the latter half of this book where I felt physically ill about the way in which someone's legacy could be so misrepresented and trodden on so completely.

Where Men Win Glory is a difficult book to finish. It's sickening look as the way in which out leaders use and abuse us in order to maintain power and further their own agendas. The fact that Tillman's death was used as propaganda to muscle through a particularly difficult news cycle. If you weren't disenchanted with your leaders before reading this, you most certainly will be when you finish.


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