TBCWL So Far: 3 pounds, 1 ounce
I know people who hate war but love football, and I don’t even want to think about the kind of cognitive dissonance that has to happen inside their heads to make that weird contradiction make sense. As far as I’m concerned, football exists for one primary reason: to habituate young men to violence. Its secondary purpose – to accustom an entire population to a dualistic, us-versus-them mentality that can easily be oriented toward an enemy nation at the flick of a switch – is perhaps even more nefarious. Ben Fountain’s recent novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk does an outstanding job of placing the United States’ football-industrial complex side by side with its military. In Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory, the pieces of the puzzle are all there, but Krakauer misses an excellent opportunity to really develop a connection between the way athletes are cultivated and manipulated and packaged by the NFL and the way the military and its ever-present media liaisons perform a similar magic act on the realities of combat. Krakauer’s primary purpose in this book, of course, is to profile NFL player-turned-Army Ranger Pat Tillman and to expose certain hypocrisies of the Bush White House and the Rumsfeld Pentagon – and he accomplishes these goals reasonably well but in rather troubling ways, without critiquing some on the assumptions behind the Tillman family’s actions and, ultimately, without much lasting narrative power.
I came to this book expecting it to be as good as Into the Wild – a book that I fell in love with years and years ago and have taught for many years in a unit on Transcendentalism and self-determination. In that book, Krakauer blends his own investigative reporting into the life of Chris McCandless and the mystery surrounding his death with stories of his own youthful adventures in wilderness survival. Pat Tillman was a highly admirable young man – by all accounts he was a person of great courage, energy, generosity, curiosity, compassion, intellect, and moral strength – but, unlike McCandless, there is nothing truly unusual or exceptional about him. He played football – OK, he played football REALLY, REALLY WELL – and then he went to war. That’s all well and good, but he is nowhere near as complex and fascinating as McCandless. Not only that, but Krakauer’s politics end up taking over this book, which begins as a biography and ends as a polemic.
But maybe I should back up a bit.
Pat Tillman was born in 1976 (the same year I was born – which is not really important in the scheme of things, although I did spend time as I was reading thinking of Tillman’s life as a parallel to my own) in a small town outside of San Jose, California. The oldest of three brothers, he grew up in constant action and was an exceptional athlete. I won’t say much about his middle and high school careers except that a series of circumstances funneled him toward football even though his body didn’t make him seem a natural for that sport. Early on, he showed a tendency toward great loyalty, remaining intensely close to his family, friends, and girlfriend.
The first half of this book is really quite good. As Krakauer narrates Tillman’s boyhood, he shifts his perspective back and forth between the suburban athletic fields of northern California and the mountains of Afghanistan, constantly reminding his readers of what was going on in that country during the years that Pat Tillman was hiking with his family, training himself into an excellent athlete, and getting into scuffles with his friends at the local pizza joint. Krakauer walks his readers through the Soviet Union’s backing of Marxist-leaning Afghan President Mohammad Daoud Khan’s 1973 return to power after his ten-year exile, followed by the U.S. decision to provide money, training, and weapons to the mujahideen who launched a rebellion against Daoud’s Westernized, Communist (and increasingly oppressive) regime. Jimmy Carter’s decision to arm the mujahideen was predicated on the assumption that if the Soviets were goaded into a full-scale military invasion of Afghanistan, they would be bogged down in that complex, mountainous country for years and weakened just as the Americans were weakened by their war in Vietnam. Carter’s reasoning – misguided though history may have proved his actions to be – was essentially correct. Krakauer credits the American funding of the mujahideen for the Soviet Union’s eventual fall in 1989.
I have read all of this history before, but I appreciated the review. Krakauer’s emphasis is clearly on the way self-interest motivated U.S. actions in Afghanistan in the late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s, and his point is well made. Equally effective is the way he alternates between his narration of Tillman’s high school and college years with the history of the funding of the mujahideen, of Osama bin Laden’s early years fighting in Afghanistan, of the United States’ abandonment of Afghanistan after the fall of the Soviet Union, of the civil war that followed, of the rise of the Taliban, of bin Laden’s return to Afghanistan and his 1998 fatwa against the United States, which was issued concurrently with the bombing of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania. While these attacks – which between them killed 224 people and wounded 4,585 – were taking place, Pat Tillman, who had recently graduated from Arizona State University after a stellar career as both a student and as an athlete, was preparing for his first regular-season game in the NFL as a recently-drafted safety for the Arizona Cardinals.
An aside: I remember those attacks well. In that first week of August, 1998, I was on an island off of Venice, Italy, where I had traveled for the second summer in a row with a family I babysat for back in New Hampshire. On August 7, I proclaimed that I was not going to speak English at all for 24 hours. My employer’s family’s first language was French, and I was always lambasting myself for not pushing myself to speak it more. I was leaving for grad school in just a week or two and thought I would make one last-ditch attempt to become fully bilingual. I made it as far as the hour before dinner, when CNN ran the footage of the embassy attacks. The older children in the family were pretty politically aware, and over dinner they rolled their eyes as I stumbled through a discussion of the embassy attacks, constantly falling back on stupid adjectives and asking for help with the words I needed. “Can’t we please just speak English?” they finally asked. “This is boring.” And it’s true – life moves at a staggeringly boring pace when I try to speak French.
Two weeks later, I was back in the United States, starting grad school in Arkansas and teaching my first classes. I didn’t have a TV that year and was wrapped up in my writing, my teaching, my classes, and my new friends. I don’t remember anything about the American bombing of a cave complex in Afghanistan called Zawar Kili that was known to be one of bin Laden’s headquarters, and I don’t remember bin Laden’s bold public taunting of the American military or his announcement that Clinton had only attacked Zawar Kili in order to divert the media’s attention away from the Monica Lewinsky scandal (which I also remember talking about in French). For a couple of years I became deeply solipsistic. I remember almost no world events between the beginning of my grad program in the fall of 1998 and the contested 2000 presidential election.
By the time al-Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, Tillman was beginning his fourth season playing for the Arizona Cardinals and I was beginning my fourth and final year of grad school. Initially viewed as an underdog, Tillman was beginning to be recognized by sports analysts and journalists as one of the most efficient, effective players in the league, consistently able to extract more performance per pound of body weight from his relatively small frame than any of the players he competed against. After his second year in the NFL, he was offered a $9.6 million contract to play for the St. Louis Rams, an offer that he declined because he was loyal to the coaches of the Cardinals and liked his (relatively) low-key life with his wife and friends in Arizona. By the time his fourth season with the Cardinals ended, Pat and his brother Kevin – a professional baseball player – had already spent serious time discussing the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and had made the decision to join the Army, opting to join the Rangers as enlisted men.
To summarize and reflect a little: Pat Tillman was a man of virtue who repeatedly showed his willingness to sacrifice comfort, luxury, and safety in order to defend the ideals he believed in. He excelled in the conventional realms of academics and athletics, but he did not view this success in conventional terms, nor did he see his successes as ends in themselves. This is all good – Tillman deserves our admiration. But he doesn’t deserve quite the extensive accolades that Krakauer showers upon him. The comparisons to Achilles are too much, in my opinion. If he hadn’t walked away from his lucrative NFL contract, he would have been no more and no less than the thousands of other soldiers who die in combat. Krakauer’s determination to make something more of Tillman does little more than indicate how much he too – like so many Americans – is taken in by the lure of money and the corrosive, debased value that most American place on professional sports.
OK. This review is already getting long, so I’m going to try to cover a lot of ground in this next paragraph. Pat Tillman’s first overseas assignment was in Iraq during the first days of the 2003 invasion. Remember the battle of Nasiriyah? That was the nasty, bloody battle in March of 2003 that resulted in the brief celebrity of injured “hostage” Jessica Lynch. I remember watching CNN during the week of this conflict, listening to the shock in the voices of the anchors as they reported that the battle was not going well (since, after all, American military invasions are always supposed to go well). Tillman did not participate directly in the fighting at Nasiriyah, but he did participate in the mission to rescue Jessica Lynch – a mission that encountered no resistance. Krakauer spends considerable time covering this battle in his book for a couple of reasons. He sees Nasiriyah – a disaster comprised of, among other things, poor intelligence; typical American naivete about the battle-readiness of the enemy; the mistakes of dazed, inexperienced soldiers who, among other things, could not correctly operate their radios; the determination of the Bush Administration and the Pentagon to project a positive image of the war to the American public; and the aggression of both the American media and a few misinformed, trigger-happy Air Force bomber pilots – as a direct precursor of the events surrounding Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan thirteen months later.
Krakauer’s narration of the events at Nasiriyah is effective for a couple of reasons. I had forgotten a lot of the details of this battle: the fact that all but one of the American deaths were caused by friendly fire, first of all – but also the fact that Jessica Lynch was never taken prisoner but instead was treated with great care and kindness by Iraqi doctors in a civilian hospital and that her “rescuers” never encountered a moment of resistance when they bombarded their way into the hospital and then squirreled her away by helicopter. I absolutely do remember the storm of media coverage surrounding Lynch, and as I was reading this book I couldn’t stop thinking of the scene in David Mamet’s Wag the Dog where the president’s hired Hollywood director films a girl escaping from a burning village in the safety of a film studio. The second impression this scene made on me is that it is the best description I have ever read of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the full weight of modern American firepower: “Hundreds of bullets began to impact the earth at a fantastic rate, followed many seconds later by a weird screeching noise like a ‘badass blender,’ as one grunt described it; another Marine said the sound reminded him of a ‘buzz saw.’ Blindingly bright pyrophoric decoy flares drifted down from the sky in the wake of the bullets, fizzing and sputtering like Fourth of July fireworks… ‘I’d been strafed eight times during Operation Desert Storm by an A-10. I know exactly what they sound like,’ [said an officer]. The A-10 ‘Warthog’ is an American jet aircraft designed to destroy tanks” (193).
Krakauer’s primary purpose, however, in relating these events is to introduce the motifs of friendly fire, incompetence within the army’s chain of command, and dishonesty and corruption in the highest level of the military that are so crucial to Tillman’s story. Thirteen months after he helped to rescue Jessica Lynch in Iraq, Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan when his platoon leader obeyed an order under duress to split his platoon into two groups. The groups lost communication with one another, and one half of the platoon mistook the other half for the enemy, killing Pat Tillman and an Afghan officer. This is, of course, the very short version of the story – and the story is compelling and Krakauer tells it well. After the incident, the Army initially covered up the fact that friendly fire caused Tillman’s death, and – according to Krakauer, defied any number of its own regulations by destroying evidence and effectively preventing Tillman from receiving a proper autopsy. Once Tillman’s family learned that friendly fire had killed Pat, they began demanding further and further investigations into the incident. Eventually, the Army conducted seven different investigations into Tillman’s death, never fully satisfying his family.
The second half of this book bothered me, and for a while I had trouble putting my finger on it. At first I associated some of my squeamishness with Krakauer’s obvious bias against the Bush Administration and the higher echelons of the arms, but I knew that couldn’t be the only thing that was bothering me. I really don’t mind an honest, acknowledged bias – as Krakauer’s is – and as far as I can tell there are no places where his logic and his research fail to hold up. I have no doubt that corruption existed in the White House and the Pentagon during the Bush years and that it exists in these places today. I was also bothered by the endless demands that the Tillman family placed upon the Army in their quest for truth. Their feelings are understandable, but their demands for more and more investigations did nothing but tie up personnel who could have been involved in other matters. If the Army could have done anything to change the fact that Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire or to bring him back to life, they should have done it – but since it could do neither, the family had no right to insist that such endless attention be showered on their case. I think that part of my misgivings about this book lie in the fact that Krakauer seems wholly sympathetic to the family’s demands and never questions the worth of the endless questions.
(Please note: I am thoroughly sympathetic with this family’s LOSS. But while I understand the reasons behind their insistence on knowing the truth, I am not sympathetic with their ACTIONS, and I wish Krakauer had been more rigorous in critiquing their choices.)
One of the many examples Krakauer cites of Army ineptitude in the Tillman case is an officer who – while processing the paperwork required for Tillman’s funeral – declared that Tillman should receive a “Christian” funeral in spite of the fact that his advance directive had requested no religious references whatsoever in his funeral. This officer stated in writing (as part of one of the Tillman family’s many investigations) that Pat Tillman and his family “could not come to terms with death” because they were atheists.
Now – this is reprehensible. Of course Pat Tillman’s requests for a secular funeral should have been honored, and atheists should be treated no differently by Army authorities than religious people. However, while his actions were completely wrong, this officer was on to something when he perceived that the Tillman family “could not deal with death.” This is another element of what bothered me so much about this book. The entire Tillman family seemed not to understand that their son and brother and husband had gone to war, and that people who go to war do sometimes die – we hope they will die saving innocent civilians or in some other way that has a clear, measurable purpose, but we know (or we damn well should know) that sometimes they die for really stupid reasons, like friendly fire and training accidents and (not necessarily in recent conflicts but in previous wars) of gangrene and botched battlefield surgeries and snakebites and influenza caught in soggy French trenches. And – to follow this point a step further – not only do soldiers die, but everyone dies. Death is not an injustice; it is an inevitability.
We are – right now, today, all of us Americans – a nation that “cannot come to terms with death” – and this reality frightens the hell out of me. I don’t think that families in previous centuries loved their children any less than the Tillmans loved Pat, but I do think that something was bred in the bones of previous generations that enabled them more readily to accept death. That Krakauer reports on the Tillmans’ actions and feelings is fine; that’s his job. But it bothers me that he never comments directly on the fact that this family is symptomatic of a larger and highly disturbing trend: that it has become part of the American character to think we have a right to die on our own terms. And I don’t know when or where it will happen, but this assumption is going to come crashing down someday – with an unspeakable amount of drama and pain.
I wrote the first half of this review about two weeks ago, right after I finished the book. I was excited about it and had a lot to say, but I got stuck, because I still hadn’t figured out exactly what it was that bothered me so much about the second half of this book. I spent that weekend with a friend in Vermont, and while I was driving north many of the ideas in the last few paragraphs hit me. But then I realized one more thing, and only then was I satisfied that I had finally figured out why this book troubled me so much. Krakauer’s criticisms of the Army and the Bush Administration largely revolve around the fact that they used first Jessica Lynch and then Pat Tillman as tools to accomplish their own ends. The media played up the supposed heroism of Lynch’s story, and then when Tillman was killed he was lionized for his patriotism and sacrifice (namely in walking away from his NFL contract, that all-important NFL contract) in the suspicious absence of any mention of friendly fire or of the failures and miscommunications in the chain of command that contributed to his death. I don’t dispute these claims: I think the White House and the Pentagon probably did manipulate both of these stories to serve their own ends. But Krakauer never seems to mention what now seems to me – after a lot of thought – to be the central irony of this book: that Krakauer is also using Tillman’s story to further his own ends. In Krakauer’s case, of course, his aim is to critique the mismanagement of the Iraq War specifically and the Global War on Terror by the Bush Administration. I am not suggesting that his criticisms are not valid – in fact, I think that they probably are. But it seems clear to me that Krakauer’s aim was fundamentally political, and while he may have started by simply telling Tillman’s story (which is consistent with Krakauer’s reputation and experience as a documenter of extreme masculinity), at some point his aim became political, and at that time Tillman became just a tool to further that aim. Krakauer, in his own way, is no less manipulative than the press and the military authorities he derides in this book.
I’ve said a lot here, and this review is the longest I’ve ever written. I recommend this book halfheartedly. I did enjoy it, although the undiluted pleasure I experienced while reading about Tillman’s childhood and the history of U.S-Afghan relations during the first half of the book gave way to a much more uneasy, semi-nauseous form of intellectual pleasure during the second half of the book as I struggled to figure out what exactly it was about the Tillmans and about Krakauer that gave me such a case of the heebie-jeebies. Unfortunately, I think that the target audience of this book is people who already share Krakauer’s politics, and these people are not likely to learn much from it unless they are willing and able to step back from their own beliefs a little. I can imagine this book being an absolutely fascinating document for students of sociology or American history in a couple of centuries. I don’t know what will have changed in that span of time in terms of the American willingness or ability to contend with death. Maybe we will have largely vanquished the need for human beings to sometimes die young, as some utopian fiction suggest. I doubt it, though. If you have a copy of this book, put it in a plastic bag and keep it safe. Scholars of this weird era are going to need it someday.