28 November 2019

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer

When I first met Ben he was much more into football than he was basketball. He used to follow the Oakland Raiders and the Arizona Cardinals. Of the two teams the only things that came to mind for me was the N.W.A. and Pat Tillman... and so I decided to get a copy of Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman so I could never be excluded when people talk football again... It has proven to be a good conversation starter with some sport fans, but Stefan and Ben still prattle on about football and Jon Krakauer's fifth book hasn't proven to be the in I wanted. STILL, I enjoyed reading this and here's what I thought...

Where Men Win Glory is the story of Pat Tillman, an NFL player who walked away from a hefty contract to join the army after September 11th. A few years into his service Tillman is killed by fratricide (friendly fire) and a lot of the book is dedicated to explaining all the ways the U.S. government tried to cover up the cause of his death. Krakauer relies on journal entries, interviews with Tillman's wife and family, as well as passages from Tillman's mother's book, and court documents. As Krakauer cites early on in the book from Aeschylus the Greek tragedian: "in war, truth is the first casualty."

Chaos is indeed the normal state of affairs on the battleground, and no army has figured out a way to plan effectively for, let alone alleviate, the so-called fog of war. When the military is confronted with the fratricidal carnage that predictably results,  denial and dissembling are its time-honored responses of first resort."

I have little-to-no interest in football (as mentioned above) and even less interest in American politics and their involvement in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. So you'd think that I would hate this book given that it spends its entire time split between the two subjects. But this is my third time reading a Krakauer book and I have yet to be disappointed. Even though my interest in his subject material ranges (I am borderline obsessed with Everest, but don't really care about Mormonism) I am ALWAYS impressed with his writing and research.

This was no different for his telling of Pat Tillman's story. Like all of his books (save for his depiction of Anatoli Boukreev imo) Krakauer paints a two-sided portrait of his subjects. Where Men Win Glory isn't about telling readers Tillman was a war hero or an American symbol of patriotism, it's about digging into his real story and figuring out who Tillman was and how this contrasted the way the American government exploited him.

The juxtaposition of Pat's vulnerability with his fearlessness and self-assurance is not an easy thing to wrap one's mind around, but it was an absolutely central aspect of his personality."

Pat Tillman
My only other knowledge of Tillman was when I listened to an episode of Chapo Trap House and they were discussing Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. I remember Chapo citing one political party member who said Tillman would be rolling over in his grave... and how they laughed at this comment believing Tillman probably would have been the first to kneel in solidarity with Kaepernick. As they went on to say, "Tillman sexted with Noam Chomsky."

You definitely get a sense of what Tillman was like as an individual and where he fell politically through Krakauer's research. For one, he was incredibly loyal. When the Rams showed interest in him and backed it up with a $9.6 million-dollar contract, Tillman turned it down to stay with the Cardinals for $500K. His manager was flabbergasted, but Tillman said he was committed to the team who initially gave him a chance and drafted him.

Even as he gradually grew more and more disgusted with the U.S.'s reasoning for fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, he told his wife he had to honour his contract. But his disgust was well documented, as he wrote about it often in his journal: 

...willingly allowed ourselves to be pawns in this game and will do our job whether we agree with it or not. All we ask is that it is duly noted we harbour no illusions of virtue."

Krakauer stresses Tillman's disgust with the war more and more as he leads up to the event that took Tillman's life. At first I found the book to be pretty emotionless, way more descriptive/objective than he is in Into Thin Air (naturally so, given his direct involvement). But Krakauer really lays out the situation that led to fratricide and the chaos and terror Tillman and his colleague must have felt. His surviving colleague mentions that as they were getting blasted by bullets he could hear Tillman screaming "What are you shooting at?! I'm Pat Tillman! I'm PAT FUCKING TILLMAN!"

Even more disturbing is the description of Tillman's body, which they describe as torn apart, with brain and skull spilling out onto the dirt ground:

I thought I'd be able to talk about this by now without being a big bitch about it ... But, um, I mean he wasn't just lying there like someone who's been shot in a John Wayne movie, where it looks like maybe he's only sleeping."

I love how Krakauer explains how the Bush administration manipulated the scenario to continue their  fabricated narrative Tillman always pushed back against. The majority of the book deals with how relentless Dannie Tillman (his mother) was when it came to uncovering the truth of Pat's death. Krakauer takes you through the multiple trials and investigations, until the truth is finally admitted. While you'd expect it to be fairly dry information, Krakauer delivers it in a compelling way and always brings it back to Tillman's family ... making sure to show how difficult it was on them and their thought processes during this time.

But death by so-called friendly fire, which is an inescapable aspect of armed combat in the modern era, doesn't conform to this mythic narrative. It strips away war's heroic veneer to reveal what lies beneath. It's an unsettling reminder that barbarism, senseless violence, and random death are commonplace even in the most "just" and "honourable" of wars."

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in any of this subject matter, whether it be modern warfare, football, or the Bush administration. I will say that I found it helpful that I had previously watched Adam McKay's Vice which covered a period of the Bush administration - specifically looking at Dick Cheney, but also covering a lot of Donald Rumsfeld. The latter is mentioned A LOT in Where Men Win Glory and I found having a little bit of background information on them to be really helpful.

I should also say I was VERY into the Rolling Stone profile of then-U.S. General Stanley McChrystal titled "The Runaway General" by Michael Hastings. Having read this a few years before hand (and revisiting it before reading Krakauer's book) was immensely helpful. It gives you a better idea of what McChrystal was like, and the cult-like following he had within the army. I would say Hastings does a better job at showing how loyal the troops were with McChrystal and how they would stop at nothing to protect the secret of Tillman's death when asked.

I'd recommend you take a look at either Vice or Hasting's article before reading Where Men Win Glory but it certainly isn't required. If you were even slightly informed about Tillman's story before picking up the book then you'll be fine. This book sort of cemented my commitment to Krakauer's writing. It doesn't have to be about Everest, his writing is strong regardless of his subject, and I'll definitely be going through his bibliography. Stay tuned for an author spotlight??

1 comment:

  1. This was a very good read, and I’m not a huge fan of modern American military stories. I can’t wait to hear what you think of Under the Banner of Heaven. It’s one of my favourites from Krakauer.