Monday, January 4, 2010

Book Review - Jon Krakauer's Pat Tillman bio

Jon Krakauer. Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. New York: Doubleday, 2009.



Early on in the West's latest intervention in Afghanistan as part of the "War on Terror" (a term that has gone out of vogue somewhat of late) came the inspiring and tragic story of the life and death of Pat Tillman. Tillman was a star in the National Football League who left a contract of over three million dollars to enlist as a grunt in the US Army, only to be killed in a friendly fire incident in April, 2004. Tillman's story has been told by Jon Krakauer, with great sympathy for his subject and an almost incandescent anger for the US administration and military that, he claims, caused the death of Tillman and then covered it up.

For a journalist unfamiliar with the military, Krakauer (he is sports and adventure writer as I understand it) has clearly done his homework. His recreation of the incidents leading to the death of Tillman is meticulously detailed. Briefly, the small unit of US Army Rangers that Tillman was part of was divided, and the detached sub-component was attempted to rejoin the unit when it was ambushed in a nightmarish series of canyons that made identification of enemy forces highly difficult. In the subsequent confusion, American soldiers exchanged fire on each other and Tillman was killed. At first the story was that Tillman had been killed by Taliban forces, and only later the truth came out that this was what militaries call a "blue on blue" or friendly fire incident.

Pat Tillman was apparently a bright and thoughtful person who had extraordinary gifts of athletic ability and charisma. Football fans will enjoy Krakauer's account of his rise through high school and college play to the NFL, even if it is, somewhat annoyingly, counterpointed with "meanwhile, in Afghanistan ..." sections. Joining the military was the farthest thing from his mind until the 9/11 attacks, after which, like many Americans, he felt a desire to serve and protect his country.

Tillman's decision to enlist was not an impulsive one. Following his lifelong practice of journaling, he sat down in April 2002 and wrote a document called "Decision" in which he gave his reasons for leaving football to join the military. It is a more thoughtful document than one might expect from the stereotypical jock (Tillman was gifted academically as well as physically) and it speaks well for his character. "Somewhere inside, we hear a voice, and intuitively know the answer to any problem or situation we encounter. Our voice leads us in the direction of the person we wish to become, but it is up to us whether or not to follow. More times than not we pointed in a predictable, straightforward, and seemingly positive direction. However, occasionally we are directed down a different path entirely. Not necessarily a bad path, but a more difficult one. In my case, a path that many will disagree with, and more significantly, one that may cause a great deal of inconvenience to those I love. ... Despite this, however, I am equally positive that this new direction will, in the end, make our lives fuller, richer, and more meaningful" (pp. 137-38).

Tillman and his younger brother, who enlisted with him, endured the rigorous training that allowed them to become part of the elite US Army Rangers. This was a significant achievement for a man older than most recruits, even a pro athlete, as it required mental as well as physical endurance to get over the hurdles of initiation into Ranger culture, which according to one comrade of Tillman's was "cocky and arrogant and muscle bound" (225). After his first tour in Iraq Tillman refused overtures from the NFL to secure him a discharge and a return to pro ball, even though he was now having doubts about the war and had made some efforts to start a dialogue with prominent dissenter Noam Chomsky. Even with his misgivings, Tillman willingly went with his Ranger unit to Afghanistan in 2004.

The counterpoint for Krakauer's admiration for Tillman is his anger at the war and its military and civilian masters. In setting up this story, Krakauer quotes the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus that ""In war, truth is the first casualty", and this becomes the central theme of his book. Both in the book and in a radio interview on NPR I heard last September, (here the interview here and read a transcript here) Krakauer is angry with the Bush administration for its handling of the response to 9/11 and its decision to invade Iraq. Several incidents from the 2003 decision become for Krakauer templates for the administration's mendacity. One is the capture of several US soldiers in March of 2003, including Jessica Lynch, "which threatened to contradict the assurances made by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfield and others that Americans would be 'greeted with sweets and flowers' and victory would be achieved quickly" (183). Following the capture of Lynch and her unit of lost and poorly armed supply and maintenance troops, the US Marines become involved in a firefight in Nasiriyah and seventeen Marines were killed by friendly fire. Analyzing this incident, Krakauer says that"Chaos is indeed the normal state of affairs on the battleground", which is fair enough, but in the face of fratricidal casualties that inevitably result from this chaos, "denial and dissembling are [the military's] time-honored responses of first resort" (202).

A quick search of the internet (salon.com, Wikipedia) will reveal varying numbers of US friendly fire casualties at Nasiriyah, but for Krakauer the incident and the subsequent board of inquiry, which he claims was a whitewash, showed how the US military and administration would "misrepresent the truth to bolster public support for the war of the moment" (204). The coverup of this casualties and the subsequent portrayal of Jessica Lynch as a courageous heroine (Krakauer calls it a "hoax") would be the playbook the US military and PR machine would follow thirteen months later when Tillman was killed.

At the end of April 2004, when Tillman's body returned to the US, the story of abuses in the US-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was beginning to break in the news, while George Bush was preparing for his second election campaign. Thus, according to Krakauer, "White House perception managers saw an opportunity not unlike the one provided by the Jessica Lynch debacle thirteen months earlier" (295). Tillman was recommended by his unit for a posthumous Silver Star, a decoration for valour, and nothing was said at the time about his death from fratricide, though the chain of command, including General Stanley McChrystal, now directing the war in Afghanistan, were warning the Bush administration as early as April 22 that an ongoing investigation would likely return a friendly fire verdict. This was precisely the verdict returned on 4 May, the day after Tillman's memorial service; the report cited "gross negligence" and failures of leadership as a cause for Tillman's death. However, on 8 May, a second investigation was ordered, and returned the same finding on 16 May, but it was not until 24 May that the Tillman family, beginning with Pat's brother and comrade Kevin, was told of the finding. Tillman's mother learned about it from a journalist and the official military announcement that Tillman was "probably" killed by friendly fire was made on a Saturday morning, in hopes that the story would "diminish over the weekend" (308).

Krakauer believes that the Tillman family was badly served by the military after Pat's death. If you think about the timeline here, Tillman was shot on 22 April, and his body and his brother both came home to Delaware Air Force Base on 26 April. His memorial service was 3 May, so more than one week passed between his death and funeral, during which Tillman's family and friends heard how their son had died heroically in action. During that period, should they have been told about the concerns within the chain of command about the circumstances of Pat's death? That question seems to me to be debateable. The investigation was still underway during this week, and the circumstances of Pat's death were far more unclear than were the deaths of four Canadian soldiers killed by US aircraft in Afghanistan in 2004, deaths that were immediately understood as being fratricidal. The first report, called a 15-6 investigation, was not passed up the chain of command for approval until 4 May.

What isn't debateable is that the second 15-6 investigation, completed on 16 May, confirmed the results of the first but was then "kept under extremely tight wraps, treated as if it were a grave threat to national security" (305). More than a week passed after that before the Tillmans learned the truth via a poorly managed process. Clearly the family was poorly served. Given that the military was being shaken by the Abu Ghraib story at this time, and doubtless was concerned about further damage to its image, I conclude with Krakauer that the withholding of the truth from Tillman's family for so long was an ethical lapse.

What isn't so clear to me, and here I think Krakauer's anger is misplaced, is his account of some of the secondary issues that disturbed the family. As a chaplain, I'm interested in Krakauer's account of the memorial service that was held in theatre by members of Pat's unit. Pat's brother Kevin had told his commander, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, through his sergeant, that his brother did not want prayers or a chaplain. Kauzlarich told the sergeant that ""you can tell Specialist [Kevin] Tillman that his ceremony ain't about him, it is about everybody in the Joint Task Force bidding farewell to his brother, so there will be a chaplain and there will be prayers" (314). According to Krakauer, Pat had made it clear on his military record that he did not want a chaplain, minister or prayers involved in his funeral, and left the details of his memorial to his wife. This was in keeping with the Tillman family's values (Krakauer in an NPR radio calls them "freethinkers"). Kauzlarich's refusal to honour the family's requests, and a subsequent press interview where he attributed the family's anger to their being "atheists" lacking any way to make Pat's death meaningful, becomes for Krakauer another instance of the military running roughshod over the Tillman family and utterly failing to understand their feelings.

If you read David Finkel's book The Good Soldiers, about US soldiers in Iraq, memorial services are routinely held by military units for their fallen comrades, and they typically involve a chaplain and prayers for the deceased. These services are as much for the surviving comrades as they are for the fallen. They help a unit acknowledge its loss and to regain its resolve and stability. Here I think Krakauer confuses a memorial service in theatre with what happens at a funeral after a fallen soldier is repatriated to the US, when the family is in control of the service. Kauzlarich, who is the central character in Finkel's book (the events of which happened two years after Tillman's death) had many such memorial services in his unit in Baghdad. While he may have refused Kevin Tillman's request in more sensitive terms, Kauzlarich as a CO was within his rights to do the memorial service in theatre according to military custom. Also, while Krakauer calls Kauzlarich an "evangelical Christian" (314), a term which suggests a protestant fundamentalist, Kauzlarich is according to Finkel, who was with him in Baghdad for six months, a Roman Catholic. It is a small objection, but it leads me to doubt Krakauer's comprehension and handling of the religious aspect of the story. There are villains in this story, to be sure, but Kauzlarich, who emerges in Finkel's book as a competent and caring CO, should not one of them. Kauzlarich and the Tillmans were at different spiritual places, but the Lt. Col's 15-6 did confirm the circumstances of Pat's death.

At the end of the book, I feel that Krakauer wanted someone in authority to step forward and own up to the truth of Pat Tillman's death. He has learned enough about combat and war to understand that some friendly fire deaths are not preventable, and are part and parcel of the chaos of conflict. What angers Krakauer is that the idealism of a man like Pat Tillman, who accepted all the risks of conflict just as he accepted his responsibilities as a citizen, was the victim that used his life and death "in order to further careers or advance a political agenda" (343). However, in his last pages I feel Krakauer's anger gets him onto a sticky wicket. While he praises his subject's "robust masculinity" idealism, he deplores the fact that this idealism was willingly offered to a deceitful regime prosecuting "a reckless blunder", and so Pat Tillman's idealism becomes not a tragic flaw but "a tragic virtue". I can't help but conclude that after 340 pages, Krakauer veers perilously close to calling his subject a dupe, even if he doesn't intend to. Pat Tillman was an extraordinary soldier. Countries like the US and Canada need men - and women - possessed of such virtues. There is nothing tragic or simplistic in these virtues. They are a precious resource, and deserve better stewardship than Tillman's received. Perhaps, if Krakauer's anger were more tightly focused, this point would be made more clearly.

2 comments:

jgoreham said...

Sounds interesting. I didn't know about Pat Tillman before reading this blog post. I'll have to check this book out. Wonder if I can convince the librarian here at Shearwater to order it in? :)

styler said...

Tillman's last mission was ill-conceived, and in the weeks following his death his family (and truth) were poorly served. But rather than giving honor to the man for his sense of duty, the deceased Tillman was drafted into service in our political battlefield. Our loss is that Pat Tillman is no longer around to tell us his story.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.

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