Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Two reviews of Krakauer's new Pat Tillman book

So now that I've positively recommended a book that I haven't read, it's time to share with you some reviews of another new book I haven't read, one that sounds like it might not be that great: Jon Krakauer's Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.

Everyone knows the story of Tillman by now: the NFL player who left a multimillion dollar contract to join the Army, killed in Afghanistan, lauded as a hero and recommended for a Silver Star... only for it to later be revealed that the Army had cooked the story, that the medal was a fraud, and that the man who had become a symbol of patriotism and broad public support for the "Global War on Terror" had been mistakenly killed by his own comrades. Sounds like it has the makings of a great book, right?

Jon Krakauer is a talented writer, and I really enjoyed Into Thin Air, the story of a disastrous 1996 expedition to summit Everest. (Incidentally, I read that book after learning about it from my mom, a nurse, who cared for one of the climbers during his recovery from surgery related to injuries he suffered as a member of the ill-fated party.) But from the sounds of these two reviews, he didn't really do justice to the Tillman story.

First we've got Andrew Exum's "He Didn't Come Home," from Sunday's Washington Post. Ex's criticisms are mostly related to the way that Krakauer approaches the Tillman drama as a political story, an exemplar for the failures and dishonesty of the Bush administration.

If Krakauer had committed himself to telling Tillman's story, "Where Men Win Glory" might have been the latest in an unbroken string of superb books. But his book falls flat -- not least because he is more eager to launch an inquisition into the crimes of the Bush administration than to explore this single extraordinary life.

War takes place at four levels -- the political, the strategic, the operational and the tactical. The Bush administration deserves the lion's share of the blame for the political and strategic blunders of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For too many years, U.S. troops were spread too thin to accomplish mission-essential tasks in either country. But the errors that led to Tillman's death were all operational and tactical -- and the responsibility for these mistakes must be placed on the men making decisions under stress. Why or how an army was sent into combat is often irrelevant to the men on the ground. Their lives are, for the most part, in the hands of the enemy and their fellow warriors.

I am no fan of many of the Bush administration's decisions. I did not vote for the former president in either 2000 or 2004 and was so cynical about the U.S. invasion of Iraq that my platoon went so far as to engrave my judgment of the war -- "This is (expletive, gerund) ( expletive, noun)" -- on my going-away plaque. All of this would surprise Krakauer, who, among other things, labors under the misimpression that U.S. military officers are mainly political conservatives better at following orders than thinking critically. In reality, the men and women who serve in the U.S. military are as diverse as the people they defend.

Blaming the Bush administration for all that has befallen the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan unfairly excuses the military itself for the many errors it made.

The real story, Ex suggests, is more about the military messing up, not the politicos covering up:
An Air Force officer I know likes to say that whenever one seeks to understand an epic failure of our nation's military, one must first draw a line on a sheet of paper and write "conspiracy" at one end and "buffoonery" on the other. Those who have spent time in the military and have seen it struggle not just with war but with everyday barracks life tend to err on the side of incompetence, while those who never have -- such as Krakauer -- tend to suspect conspiracy.
Dexter Filkins -- the outstanding war correspondent for the New York Times and author of what I believe to be probably the best book to come out of America's post-9/11 military adventures, The Forever War -- takes a different approach. In his review, Filkins is critical primarily of Krakauer's decisions on the structure of the book (not to mention factual errors).

The biggest problem with “Where Men Win Glory” is that nearly all the drama and
import — Tillman’s death and the cover-up — are saved for the last hundred pages. The first two-thirds covers Tillman’s early life, his ascent into the National Football League and his decision to quit and enlist. Tillman doesn’t arrive in Afghanistan until Page 230.

It’s not that his life was dull — he emerges as a man of exceptional character, who lived according to a set of principles he had developed from deep thinking and reading. Still, that life, as described here, is not large enough to carry the reader to the momentous events that we already know are on the way.

Krakauer skillfully sketches Tillman’s singular personality, laying the groundwork to present his remarkable decision to take the Army over the N.F.L. Tillman was very much his own man: he wore his hair to his shoulders, rode his bicycle to training camp each morning and “never went anywhere without a book.”

But after the 9/11 attacks, Tillman found his professional life suddenly hollow. "Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful,” he wrote in May 2002. “However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I’ve come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is. . . . It’s no longer important.”

So Tillman said goodbye to the N.F.L., to stardom and to the three-year, $3.6 million contract the Cardinals had offered him to stay. In deciding to enlist, he moved hard
against the grain of contemporary wartime America, which demands extraordinary
sacrifice from a few while asking almost nothing of everyone else.

Unfortunately, too many of the details of Tillman’s life recounted here are mostly banal and inconsequential. Do we really need to be told, at extended length, how Tillman — or “Pat,” as Krakauer cloyingly refers to him — jumped off a granite ledge in Sedona, Ariz.? How he got drunk and threw up with his pals in Paris? How he beat up a guy at the pizza parlor in high school? It feels like padding, and so do Krakauer’s long digressions about Afghanistan and Iraq and the Bush administration, most of which are only tangentially related to his subject’s life (and some of which are inaccurate: Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, was not a major mujahedeen commander during the war against the Soviets; Ismail Khan is not a leader of the Hazaras). This would have been a better book had it been a hundred pages shorter.

Filkins does commend Krakauer for assembling in one place the many already-revealed details of the Tillman drama, particularly those related to the cover-up. He has more patience than Exum with Krakauer's decision to focus on the political or propagandistic elements of the story, but similarly seems to come away from the book disappointed at what might have been.

Considering the negative reviews from two people whose opinions I respect, I'm unlikely to pick the book up. Read the reviews and see what you think.


  1. "to understand an epic failure of our nation's military, one must first draw a line on a sheet of paper and write "conspiracy" at one end and "buffoonery" on the other..."

    ...and a coverup, guaranteed to cover both ends, is indicative of nothing but human nature.

  2. I just finished the book and I would agree more with Filkins than Exum. There are several anecdotes about Tillman that I didn't think added much to the narrative, and could have been excluded. That said, I've read pretty extensively on the Tillman story and Krakauer's reconstruction of the incident was the best I've ever read.

    I was a little annoyed at Exum's review--the Army's handling of Tillman's death far exceeds everyday, normal Army "buffoonery". It hovers closer to "criminal negligence." Exum comes across as an Army apologist in his review.

    Also, he tries, and maybe fails, to connect Tillman's death to other friendly fire incidents. Probably understandably, the Army has not wanted to properly investigate friendly fire.

    I would recommend the book to anyone not really familiar to Tillman, but for people familiar with the issue, go to the book store and read the last 100 pages. I promise you'll leave angry.

  3. Filkins' review lost me from almost the get-go.

    "The story did not end there: Tillman’s commanders and POSSIBLY officials in the Bush administration suppressed that he had been killed accidentally by his own comrades."

    Possibly? What planet does Filkins live on? If he can't bring himself to believe that the Bush administration covered their asses, he has no place reviewing the book.

    From CBS News:

    "The White House and Defense Department have turned over nearly 10,000 pages of papers — mostly press clippings — but the White House cited "executive branch confidentiality interests" in refusing to provide other documents."

    Yeah, they didn't cover anything up to suit their needs. And Jessica Lynch fought until her last bullet. Until she testified in Congress that she hadn't.

    I recommend you read the book. Some of the details just make you cringe. And the thoughts of some of Tillman's fellow soldiers on his life and the cover-up are worth the entire read alone.


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