Where Men Win Glory
Where Men Win Glory

Good Man Down

Jon Krakauer returns with an epic story of sacrifice and betrayal

Where Men Win Glory
Bruce Barcott

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THE STORY of Pat Tillman, the NFL star who walked away from gridiron fortune to fight for his country in Afghanistan, doesn’t at first glance seem to be Jon Krakauer material. A nonfiction master who cut his teeth at Outside, Kra­kauer wrote the classics Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, which chronicled the courage, existential yearning, and occasional foolishness of civilians who tested themselves, respectively, in the Alaskan wilderness and on the world’s highest mountain. Football players and war heroes would not seem to be his bag.

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Where Men Win Glory

Where Men Win Glory Where Men Win Glory

But the fallen man at the heart of Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman (Doubleday, $28) quickly emerges as a classic Krakauer character. A charismatic athlete possessed of an insatiably curious mind, Tillman spurned the riches of life as an Arizona Cardinals safety in 2002 to pursue old-fashioned notions of honor and sacrifice. He’s Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless gone to war. Certainly he bears McCandless’s infuriating contradictions: Tillman turned down a $9.6 million offer from the St. Louis Rams out of loyalty to the Cardinals, who paid him the league minimum. He believed the Iraq war was unjust but was gung-ho to serve. He discussed Noam Chomsky between combat missions.

The cover-up of Tillman’s death by friendly fire is by now one of the better-known acts of shame in the war on terror, but Krakauer lays down a fresh indictment of both the Bush administration and the U.S. Army. In April 2004, a U.S. Ranger caught in a canyon in Afghanistan shot Tillman, who was waving down to his comrades from a cliff above, signaling he had them covered. Tillman’s regiment concealed this fact in order to soften the blow to his brother, Kevin, who served in the same platoon; the Bush administration, reeling from bad press, continued the cover-up. Backed by years of research and thousands of pages of documents, Krakauer lays out a devastating case that shows how, in his words, “the 75th Ranger Regiment engaged in an elaborate conspiracy to deliberately mislead the family.”

Where Men Win Glory will stand as one of the signal books of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a grunt’s-eye view to complement the macroscopic work of Dexter Filkins, Thomas E. Ricks, and George Packer. If there’s a complaint here, it’s that the author seems to rein in his own critical voice. Krakauer’s willingness to probe the motives of his subjects is what sets his work apart. His insights into a young man’s search for meaning gave Into the Wild unparalleled depth. In Under the Banner of Heaven, he explored the world of Mormon extremists and grappled with religion itself. In Tillman he has a man who at times can appear a gallant fool naively pursuing virtue. In the soldier’s journals, excerpted in the book, Tillman wrestles with the justness of the Iraq war but doesn’t question his duty to carry it out. You expect Krakauer to dig in here, but instead of tackling the essential question—Is a patriot’s duty to shut up and fight or question a reckless war?—the author adopts the safer tactic of defending Tillman as a rare man of passion in a corrupt world. “The sad end he met in Afghanistan was more accurately a function of his stubborn idealism—his insistence on trying to do the right thing,” writes Krakauer. “In which case it wasn’t a tragic flaw that brought Tillman down, but a tragic virtue.”

The highly anticipated book’s publication was delayed last year when Krakauer said he was unhappy with the manuscript. In the end, he does pull some punches. No matter. The hero treatment Tillman receives can’t quite diminish the power of this fiercely reported story of a good man whose honor and sacrifice were abused by those under whom he served.