There are a million stories in the mire and dust of the wars begun in the wake of September 11, 2001. And most of them are interconnected. In his anger-fueled examination of Pat Tillman’s fratricidal death in Afghanistan in 2004, Jon Krakauer tries to unravel several garments to make sense of his subject. What is the history of the Cold War proxy action the United States supported in Afghanistan in the 1980s? How did Osama bin Laden change from a wealthy sheik to a military leader to a superterrorist? How did the Bush administration use the destruction of the World Trade Center to justify a war in Iraq? What propaganda strategies shaped the response to the Jessica Lynch rescue in 2003 and the Tillman incident in 2004? And of course, why did this promising NFL star join the Army and wind up decapitated by a Humvee-mounted gun?
Of course, many of those stories have already been told in more detail than Krakauer could possibly shoehorn into his Tillman-centered narrative. So the early stretches of Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey Of Pat Tillman contain lengthy quotes from other books: Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Towers, Peter Marsden’s The Taliban, Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars. They form an inconsistent patchwork surrounding Krakauer’s original reporting on Tillman’s early life, college career, and professional rise. Yet even that central story doesn’t flow smoothly; Krakauer can’t decide whether his job is to write a hagiography or humanize a saint. Readers should have no trouble believing that Pat Tillman was extraordinary—well-read, inquisitive, faithful to his high-school sweetheart (whom he married just before deployment), a fierce competitor, an independent thinker. But given where Krakauer is going, he can’t avoid elevating the man into a demigod whose presence healed everyone around him. Only if Tillman is the kind of hero who deserves epic poetry can Krakauer be justified in broadcasting his family’s outrage over the tragic snafu that lead to his death.
And there’s no doubt that it was a tragedy. Tillman’s unit was split in two because of some higher-up’s insistence on reaching a meaningless destination by sundown. His convoy came under fire in a narrow pass, and when Tillman and a comrade headed up the hillside to clear out the ambush, the Rangers below mistook them for Taliban and smothered them with overwhelming fire, ignoring their frantic signaling. Everyone in the unit knew that friendly fire killed Tillman, but the Defense Department allowed the family and the nation to believe that the Taliban was responsible. The paperwork awarding him a posthumous Silver Star appears to be riddled with fraud. Krakauer is probably justified in seeing this incident as emblematic of every infuriating, destructive clusterfuck initiated by the Bush White House. Yet he allows his anger to get the best of him, lashing out at targets from Antonin Scalia to Dick Cheney. Where Men Win Glory is a muddle of a book, but perhaps its confused motives and kitchen-sink narrative match the Global War On Terror for futility. As the last few years have shown, the United States is also the victim of friendly fire, and the need to assign blame continues to consume us.