It started with the busted tie-rods of a Humvee. It continued with the ill-advised order to split an Army Ranger platoon as the Afghan night was coming on. And it finished, on April 22, 2004, with the death by friendly fire of an exemplary young American. But there it did not really end, because of who this fine man happened to be — Pat Tillman, promising NFL star — and because a virtuosic author decided to write a political firecracker of a book about the “cynical cover-up sanctioned at the highest levels of government” that ensued after his death.
It may not seem possible to be shocked and awed much more than we already have been by any further revelations of the Bush administration’s craven wrongdoing, but Jon Krakauer, who excels at enlivening tales of personal and social catastrophe (in books such as Into Thin Air and Under the Banner of Heaven), marshals so much disquieting information the effect on the reader becomes visceral by the end. You want to throw up.
No mere recitation of even the gasp-inducing crimes of a small group at the heart of the U.S. government could make you feel like this, however. The Shakespearean force of the tragedy derives from a formidable dramatist’s use of these facts as the historic context in which vital individuals — the unique characters that are Pat Tillman, his wife, Marie, his brother Kevin who enlisted and served with him in the Rangers, his mother, Dannie — move and speak on the stage before us.
The precincts of professional football are not where one expects to find manifestations of a searching intellect or a sensitive heart, but in Pat Tillman there was much evidence of both. He favored Ralph Waldo Emerson, was fascinated by Noam Chomsky, and read the Homer that gives this book-length eulogy its sad title (“Since never before have I seen you in the fighting where men win glory, yet now you have come striding far out in front of all others in your great heart . . . ”). The enormous love he felt for Marie is the stuff of fiction — and of pain when we later read of it: at the start of a brief pass upon completing basic training, they flew to each other’s arms with such force it knocked them to the ground, where they continued their passionate greeting. Over all, he lived to challenge himself both physically and mentally, playing a brand of football one coach called “so smart and so aggressive,” then turning to the study of history in the off-season from the Arizona Cardinals. Only someone as uncommon as this would have “traded the bright lights and riches of the NFL for boot camp and a bad haircut.” Only someone as uncommon as this could have been caught in the multiple snares of feeling driven to serve a country that proved itself undeserving of the sacrifice both in life, turning him against his wishes into “a marketing bonanza for the so-called Global War on Terror,” and in death, when the predictable “denial and dissembling” about the facts of the incident were made into “a very calculated effort to deceive not just the Tillman family but also the American public — who of course was the real target of the misinformation campaign.”
In cinema, cross-cutting is a method for building tension through structural means. Krakauer has always been adept at using its literary counterpart, here moving between the political causes of war in the Mideast and the personal story (augmented with chunks from Tillman’s journal, which gives affecting immediacy to the revelation of his character) of this likable young man. In fact, one gets the sense that the author loves him deeply — as indeed it would seem impossible not to; try not to sob when, midway through, you chance to see the full-bleed portrait of Tillman in all his beautiful brilliance staring from the back jacket. Just try.
Tragedy is where the viewer sees it coming, but not the participants; the action conveys a restlessness, almost the sound of an unending but ever louder dirge. There is a master’s hand evident in this particular depiction of events in a life that will end too soon, meticulously built of pieces carefully chiseled from recent international history, political intrigue, first-hand reporting, thoughtful reading, and a feel for what is most human. The author, like his subject, purposefully strides out on his great battlefield too.
Then again, when you know what is coming, what precedes it wears a coat of bitter, retrospective irony. The story of Pat Tillman’s needless death in a foregone conclusion of a war (one that is being re-upped even now, and so forms Krakauer’s unspoken warning of future tragedy) is replete with ironies so baleful they make you flinch. One dates back to the 2000 presidential election. “And thus” — as a result of the Supreme Court sticking out its foot to trip the Florida vote recount — “did Bush become the forty-third president of the United States, a turn of events that would have no small impact on the life of Pat Tillman,” Krakauer writes, revisiting how, if this robbery of the executive office not by masked thugs but by black-robed justices had not occurred, the events that led to 9/11 and the consequent enlistment of this patriotic and ethical young man would not have occurred either. The author specializes in pointing a direct and unwavering finger at culprits who subsequently stopped at nothing to hide their guilt: Condoleezza Rice, memos to whom warning of an impending al-Qaeda attack “were met with apathy and annoyance”; Antonin Scalia, who years later callously dismissed a question about his role in the throwing of the election with this hard-hearted slap at those who lost their loved ones in Bush-induced terror attacks and counterattacks: “Get over it. It’s so old by now.”
Pat Tillman, contrary to the army’s most fundamental desires, thought for himself. And what he thought about the invasion of Iraq was, as he wrote in his journal, “that we have little or no justification other than our imperial whim.” No one since has said it better or in fewer words. Another disturbing item in a book filled with them is how much taxpayer money — literally duffels full of cash — went to buy the help of warlords who, because they could be bought, ultimately went to a higher bidder: Osama bin Laden. If one is prone to cry over spilled milk, this will surely prompt a torrent of tears. In the end, though, it is nothing short of a journalistic miracle that this horrendous criminal is rendered pale and practically innocuous next to our homegrown crop.
There are people who build laid-up stone walls using no cement at all. If they are good, they somehow find stones that fit perfectly next to one another. If they are great, their walls will last for centuries. These are the artists. What they create looks like art. But it is also practical too. Where Men Win Glory is this kind of achievement, its utility to act as the greatest of the checks and balances the founding fathers knew were required against a fatal consolidation of power in government: the truth.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of three works of nonfiction. Her next book will be about the sport of extreme long-distance motorcycling.