Nonfiction review: ‘Where Men Win Glory’

Jon Krakauer in 2006 with Commander Ghulam Khalil of the Afghan Special Forces.

“Where Men Win Glory,” Jon Krakauer’s narrative of pro football player Pat Tillman’s “odyssey,” as he calls it, from the playing field to the battlefield, is nuanced, thorough and chilling. The outline of Tillman’s story is well-known, but the details Krakauer tallies, based on reporting trips to Afghanistan and interviews with many of the soldiers who participated in the fratricidal firefight that killed Tillman, give this story the weight it deserves.

Though we know before we even begin reading that Tillman will die, Krakauer’s sympathetic account of Tillman’s journey conveys a character so compelling that we dread arriving at that inevitable moment when we will read about his death. Because Tillman refused to let the Army requisition his enlistment for propaganda purposes, the real story of his sacrifice to join the Army, followed by the travesty of his death and its cover-up, acquires an almost legendary power. Tillman was a living refutation of the knee-jerk patriot and gung-ho warrior portrayed in the official version of his death, allegedly in a Taliban ambush. Krakauer is up to the task of telling this brave man’s story.

I thought at first that Krakauer’s invocation of Homer’s epic in his subtitle was a cliche, but in the end I think the arc of Tillman’s life, as Krakauer has constructed it, echoes the trajectory of a classical hero’s tale, with its tragic outcome. Tillman deserved to be memorialized, but not in the insulting fairy-tale version concocted by the architects of George W. Bush’s war on terror.

The sinister exploitation of Tillman’s death for political ends started within minutes of his killing and continued during Bush’s second presidential campaign and throughout his second term, despite the efforts of Tillman’s family, led by his mother, and of sympathetic officials, such as Rep. Henry Waxman, to compel the Pentagon to come clean.

Tillman’s brother, Kevin, like Pat a volunteer Ranger serving in the same unit, desperately sought to learn how his brother had died, and was lied to, stonewalled and manipulated at every turn. The Navy Seal who delivered a eulogy at Tillman’s funeral was devastated, according to Krakauer, when he learned that the battlefield heroics he described, as related to him by military officials, were a complete fabrication. Members of Tillman’s unit were compelled to fabricate accounts of the “battle” in which Tillman died in order to support his commendation for a Silver Star.

Krakauer quotes at length from Kevin Tillman’s testimony before a congressional hearing, where every word pounded forth with the force of a jeremiad being etched in stone. “Pat and these other soldiers volunteered to put their lives on the line for this country,” he testified. “Anything less than the truth is a betrayal of those values that all soldiers who have fought for this nation have sought to uphold.”

And yet not a single officer standing in the chain of command above Pat Tillman honored his sacrifice by pledging allegiance to the values he died for. Instead, they sought to confiscate his valor.

Krakauer’s tone is somber and judicious as he reports this ludicrous hijacking of the truth and its shameful cover-up, but the anger behind it charges every word.

The regime that brought us the war on terror and enhanced interrogation techniques in violation of every principle held dear by free people smeared itself in shame when it failed to honor the sacrifice of Pat Tillman. Krakauer has made sure that this disgraceful episode will not fade into obscurity, and that Pat Tillman will be remembered for the man he truly was — and not as the faux symbol of a failed policy.

Jon Krakauer
$27.95, 416 pages

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