Flagstaff, AZ – On April 22, 2004, former Arizona Cardinal, Patrick Tillman, was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. In his latest book, Where Men Win Glory, The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, Jon Krakauer examines the murky circumstances of Tillman's death. Ann Cummins has this review.
Jon Krakauer has a reputation for writing page-turners. In Under the Banner of Heaven, he delivered a compelling true story of faith and murder in rural Utah. Into Thin Air recounts his own breathtaking climb up Mount Everest and the catastrophic disaster that occurred there. Where Men Win Glory doesn't quite achieve those heights. At times, the pacing's off. The early years drag on, news stories get too detailed.
When Patrick Tillman was seventeen years old, he fell into a blind rage and kicked a young man's teeth in. Jon Krakauer pinpoints this moment as the seed of Tillman's evolution into a modern tragic hero. Tillman was appalled by the monster he'd seen in himself, driven to succeed but mindful of his own capacity for evil, Tillman cultivated idealism. He learned to question himself, to hold himself to the highest standards. After 9/11, football seemed frivolous. He wrote in his journal: "My job is challenging, enjoyable and strokes my vanity enough to fool me into thinking it's important But it's not enough."
Jon Krakauer has a dramatist's talent for staging a story. He highlights key moments in Tillman's career as a Sun Devil and an Arizona Cardinal. Football fans can relive some classy plays, like Tillman's brilliant recovery against Nebraska's Cornhuskers in a move that helped send ASU to the Rose Bowl, and his intercepted pass against the Oakland Raiders, which won him a place in the Cardinal's starting line-up.
Tillman broke stereotypes. He spent as much time studying as he did training. He read Homer and Chomsky and graduated from ASU summa cum laude. To keep himself mentally and physically sharp during the Cardinal off-season, he'd head to Slide Rock, where he leapt canyons in heart-stopping broad jumps.
Like a skilled crime writer, Krakauer builds a suspenseful and horrific account of Tillman's death by friendly fire in Afghanistan. He culls from news reports, government documents, and interviews, to recreate the scene where green recruits, inept leaders and poor communication set the stage for disaster. He chronicles events immediately following the shooting, when the military and Bush administration suppressed the truth. Krakauer believed the Bush administration, squirming under ugly stories about Abu Ghraib, needed a diversion. Pat Tillman's heroic death in battle was a useful one. Death by friendly fire was not. In his journal, Tillman confessed a fear that his fame could be used in such a way. He was disillusioned by the military where he had found barracks full of immature kids. He was constantly annoyed by a chain of command that fettered talent. But he stood by his commitment. Weeks before he died, he had a chance to get out early and get back to football. He turned it down.
This book is a good book, an important book, but I sense weariness behind some of the writing. I guess it's one thing to write about individual capacity for greatness and great folly. Patrick Tillman certainly fit the bill. But unlike key players in Krakauer's previous books, he was not a direct victim of his own stupidity. He was a victim of others' stupidity. It's hard not to be dispirited by that.