Monday, February 09, 2015


I was alternately moved and fascinated throughout the first few hundred pages of 2009's WHERE MEN WIN GLORY, Jon Krakauer's account of former NFL player-turned-solider Pat Tillman's bright life and sad death, but it was the description of his friendly-fire killing itself that combined those two feelings into a sick kind of weight. Not only was Tillman instantly shot dead by multiple rounds of close fire by his own fellow men, but his brain was literally ejected from his crumpled cranium, leaving the rest of his face looking like a withered ballon. To read a passage like that, after examining, in detail, the life of an actual person who held fast to his own brand of honour, made me actuely realize once again that life plays no favourites in the rewards it hands out. The book is simultaneously a biography of the man and a chronicle of the American military involvement in two wars of dubious choice and we see through these pages the means by which the most personal aspects of one's character can combine with the indifferent goals of larger states than ourselves.

Pat Tillman gave up a lucrative career in the National Football League to sign away three years of his life as an Army Ranger, and the book examines not only the arc of his life, but also parallels his upbringing with the American army's multiple escapades in Afghanistan and Iraq. Narratively, such an alternating style of approach adds a gathering sense of impending doom, each non-descript example of a California boy's suburban upbringing quickly counterbalanced by an examination of Soviet and C.I.A. policy in dusty Middle Eastern backwaters. Even as we see his personal and professional success, we also know what darkness with come.

Tillman was a fireplug of a kid who learned life-lessons early on, serving a short period of jail-time for beating up a fellow high-schooler soon before graduation. He ended up playing football in university, despite his small frame, and earned a place on the Arizona Cardinals professional NFL team, drafted in the low-rounds. A few years later, when his talent had increased, his playmaking skills fortified, he received an offer from another team for over nine million dollars, but Tillman turned down such a lucrative contract, remaining loyal to the team that had chosen him when he was an unknown, even though his salary would be little more than five hundred grand. As an observer points out, no professional athlete has ever turned down such a shitload of coin out of his own sense of loyalty. Such uncommon adherence to principals was a harbinger of the kind of integrity that would lead him to quit professional football to join the military soon after 9-11.

That the book charts his familial and professional life contemporaneously with American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq is a quiet masterstroke of storytelling, letting us as readers witness how real-world political events inevitably coincide with the humans they affect from afar. Such a technique also allows us to see the political terrian that Tillman grew up in, the archetypal Americana atmosphere of bravado and pride that enabled him through the crucible of sports to concoct his own kind of morality that would eventually do himself in.

Despite his voluntary decision to enter the army, Tillman was not some blind patriot, and his own journals, retrieved after his death, let the reader know almost every step of the way his personal struggle to reconicle his chosen miltary path. Quoting Emerson and Thoreau and Homer, Tillman seeks to assure himself that he's done the right thing, that his individuality is justified and upheld. Upon joining the military, he's rather disheartened to discover that his fellow soldiers are mostly nienteen year-old fuck ups. It's not what he thought it was supposed to be. After war is declared in Iraq, he wonders just what the hell he's doing there, what their occuption of that country is truly all about. We see a man who has made a decision, who sticks with it, who still believes in a kind of martial honour that enables him to act patriotically -- but we also read, through his own words, his critiques of the miliatry, its pettiness and pointlessness. Ultimately serving in Afghanistan, which is a little more palatable to his sense of justice, he eventually emerges as someone who is glad he has served, but boy does he want to get home for good.

Which he doesn't. Killed by friendly fire, the book does a remarkable job of showing how, for over two months after his death, the American military brass did everything in its power to prop him up in death as a national martyr, lying to his family and the country about how he truly met his end. We can see a military-industrial complex that does not practice what it preaches, that does not honour its own codes, that is willing to forgo common decency for the sake of wartime p.r. The final fifty pages of the book plainly demonstrate the ultimate irony of Tillman's death -- that this patriot who grew up believing in the values embedded in him by his family and country, who refused all media interviews when joing the army, who struggled to do the right thing in a cause he did not precisely believe in, was ultimately used as a pawn by the very forces he so longed to uphold. The indignities his physical and spiritual self suffered after death are both banal and disgusting in their bureucratic contempt.

One doesn't have to believe in Tillman's (or his country's) cause to gain a feel for the man, and a sense of  regret for the pointlessness of his death. The book gives us the detailed upbringing of an American boy who strove to uphold the (supposed) virtues of his country, only to have the institutions that he fought for and died for twist those ideals into slick propoganda.

Near the end of the book, Krakaeur quotes a fellow soldier who helped carry Tillman's corpse in a bodybag from his death-site in the mountains of Afghanistan. At one point, the body sort of falls completely in half, its upper and lower parts diassembling, making the whole thing pretty hard to carry as one. Something like that, anyways. The details have left me. I almost had to put the book down right there. Such a physically descriptive detail tends to stick in one's craw. Only pages before, I was reading one actual man's own private words about his increasing urge to escape the squabble of combat and make the long way back to his wife, and now I learn that the body behind those longings kind of squished in on itself and basically oozed apart. This book's overarching themes -- namely, for me, the grand ambitions of war, and the fiercely (or bored) nationalistic soldiers who pursue moral worth in its name -- came tangibly clear to me in that scene, and kudos to Krakauer for including such awful and actual examples of what can come to pass in this life.  

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