Remembrance Day in Canada, and Veterans Day in the United States is this Wednesday. With on-going wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, this day takes on greater resonance.
A couple of weeks ago, I read Jon Krakauer’s compelling new book, “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman“. Tillman was a starting safety for the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League and a rising star, who, in the spring of 2002, declined a contract extension and instead walked away from the NFL to enlist in the military. He became the first and only athlete from a major professional sport to do so. Two years later, he was killed in Afghanistan in an incident of friendly fire.
The title of the book only tells part of the story. The life of Pat Tillman is certainly a big part of it. Tillman, his younger brother Kevin (who enlisted alongside him, and served in units with him right up until his death), and Pat’s wife Marie are central characters in the book. Through them (Pat wrote religiously in his diary), we get a glimpse into the life and mindset of a soldier, and of how it affects their loved ones as well. The book also covers the history of Afghanistan, starting in the 1970s. Early on, the book alternates between sections about Tillman’s life and the developments overseas, leading up until the decision to enlist. As much as the book is about Tillman, it’s also about Afghanistan, and how American decisions over the previous three decades contributed to the present day situation.
The two stories converge in 2002 with Tillman’s enlistment. From then on, the story focuses on three angles:
– The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on a macro level
– The Tillmans’ involvement in those wars
– The mindset of Tillman, mostly as told through his diaries, with some focus on Kevin and Marie as well.
Krakauer pulls no punches when examining the wars and the actions of the pentagon. He investigates and criticizes their attempts to spin the Jessica Lynch capture and Tillman’s death into good PR. He is critical of their strategies, offering that the leadership ignored advice of their subordinates which would have greatly increased the chances of an early, decisive victory. He goes into painstaking detail to try and recreate the precise series of events of the day where Pat Tillman perished.
He continuously draws on Tillman’s writing, both to frame situations, and to better understand Tillman. This aspect of the book is fascinating. It gives the reader a glimpse into Tillman’s thoughts, and how they evolved from enlistment (he felt a sense of duty) to the frustration of being away from his wife, and of having to serve in Iraq (which he felt was an illegal war). Reading it, I wondered if it could serve as a reasonable proxy for how other soldiers feel and think as well? I’m interested to see how it compares to “The Unforgiving Minute” once I’ve read it.
If you like feel-good books, this is not for you. While fascinating and well written, it’s ultimately also pretty depressing. There are protagonists, but no winners. The wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq don’t resolve themselves in this book, and they likely won’t for years after. In all likelihood, both will result in stalemates at best, with lots of damage done to all parties involved. The Tillmans enlisted for the honourable reasons, Pat’s life was ended, and Kevin’s and their family’s was devastated on that fateful day in April 2004.
All this being said, if you want to read more about these on-going conflicts, and about how soldiers think and how their lives are affected, this is definitely worth a read.
Also worth reading: Drew Magary’s review.