Book restores the late Pat Tillman's humanity
Pat Tillman walked away from a $3.6 million National Football League contract to join the U.S. Army after 9/11.
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Most of us are familiar with the tragic story of Pat Tillman, the strong safety for the Arizona Cardinals who walked away from a $3.6 million National Football League contract to join the U.S. Army after 9/11 because he felt morally obligated to defend his country against al-Qaeda.
When he was gunned down two years later on a desolate ridge in Afghanistan, he was essentially canonized by the Bush administration for his heroism. The military brass quickly mobilized to award the 27-year-old California native the Silver Star just 11 days after his death on April 22, 2004.
But all was not as it seemed, and we eventually learned that Tillman was the victim of not only friendly fire but also a government coverup aimed at deflecting the bad press erupting over the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison that happened to become public the week after he was killed.
In his meticulously researched new book, Jon Krakauer uses his straightforward-but-engaging storytelling to lay out the litany of missteps -- broken military protocol, misguided commands, botched communications, soldier bravado and almost comical idiocy -- that led to hundreds of rounds of ammo being fired at Tillman and his fellow Rangers from the other half of their platoon.
Like in his expose of the Morman fundamentalists in "Under the Banner of Heaven," and the Mount Everest disaster, "Into Thin Air," Krakauer has a knack for weaving in great detail while moving the story along.
With the cooperation of Tillman's widow, Marie, Krakauer drew on her husband's journals and letters as well as scores of candid interviews to stitch together the soldier's complex persona, depicting the highly motivated athlete who thrived on David vs. Goliath challenges.
Told he was too small to play football, he pushed forward anyway and nailed positions on Arizona State University and NFL teams. A maverick with shoulder-length hair who read Thoreau, Tillman was content to drive a beat-up Volvo while his NFL teammates cruised around in blinged-out Escalades.
He grew up in a tight family in the Silicon Valley, where canyon walls blocked TV reception and many days were spent outdoors with his two younger brothers, scrambling up ravines, preparing his body for the rigors of football as well as the rugged terrain in Afghanistan.
Krakauer traces Tillman's upbringing against the uprising of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. As Tillman was attending class at Leland High School on Feb. 26, 1993, a 1,500-pound bomb was detonated in a van parked beneath the north tower of the World Trade Center. On Oct. 12, 2000, four days after Tillman helped the Cardinals defeat the Cleveland Browns, suicide bombers in a fishing boat ignited a bomb that punched a jagged hole in the thick wall of the USS Cole and killed 17 sailors in Yemen.
And 13 months before Tillman's death, Krakauer reports for the first time, he took part in a rescue of another soldier, Jessica Lynch, whose story would be embellished by the Bush administration for its own gain and eerily foreshadow Tillman's own future.
More than anything, Tillman told a fellow soldier, he didn't want to become an inspirational emblem for the Global War and feared Bush's people would "make a big deal out of his death and parade him through the streets" if something were to happen to him.
"Where Men Win Glory" also provides a refresher course on developments in Afghanistan and Iraq, bin Laden's strategies and U.S. military involvement, all wrapped around Tillman's compelling tale. He was killed five years ago, but his story and its consequences are still relevant.
Krakauer reminds us that bin Laden kept attacking prominent American symbols not so much to create mayhem, but to bait the United States to invade Afghanistan, a move he believed would ensnarl us in an endless, unwinnable war.
Indeed, after what has become the deadliest month for American soldiers in Afghanistan since the war began, whether the U.S. should increase its troops there is the question that faces President Barack Obama today.
First Published November 1, 2009 12:00 am