Book Review – Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman

7714686Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman describes the life and death of the man who felt compelled to walk away from a multi-million dollar NFL contract to enlist as an Army Ranger in a surge of post-9/11 patriotism. Serving in first Iraq and then Afghanistan, Tillman shunned the spotlight, preferring to serve as “one of the guys” instead of a celebrity or tool for propaganda. He fell in Afghanistan to “friendly fire”, gunned down by a member of his own squad under largely preventable circumstances.

Tillman’s story unfolds like a classical tragedy. An aggressive and competitive teen, he threw himself into whatever pursuit he undertook, from sports to partying to an ego and testosterone fueled brawl that landed him (and rightfully so) on the wrong side of the law. Behind the full-tilt exterior is a well-read, intelligent, and introspective man, as shown by his often-thoughtful journal entries and his quiet love for his wife.

Combined with a description of Tillman’s life is a history of Afghanistan that was a solid primer on the region, though not as compelling as the parts about Tillman himself.

Krakauer outlines the events of Tillman’s death in a horrifyingly precise, factual account. The litany of bad decisions surrounding his death–from inability to provide support for the squad to a refusal by higher-ups to listen to the judgment of the officer leading the men on the ground to the “fog of war” that led to his squadmate turning an automatic weapon on parts of his team–unfold with a sad inevitability.

The coverup of Tillman’s death is utterly infuriating, and Krakauer clearly paints a case that Army brass knew the circumstances yet tried their best to bury the truth. The author doggedly outlines the who and what of institutional malfeasance, as the White House and the Army first sought to lionize him, then to cover their own tracks.

What irked me about this book was that Tillman made it clear, through his refusal to grant interviews or be glorified for his decision to enlist, that he had no desire to advance anyone’s agenda. Krakauer specifically uses Tillman’s life to grind an anti-Bush axe, continually harping on point after point of everything that the author disliked about the Bush administration.

IMO, less is more, especially when it comes to authors’ opinions in nonfiction/journalistic pieces. Tillman’s life and death are a scathing indictment of war–these are the vibrant men turned into dust, frequently for no good reason other than unhappy accident. The facts of Tillman’s posthumous glorification and the coverup of the circumstances of his death are pretty damning on their own, without Krakauer telling me so over and over. His repeated injection of his own opinions both weakens the power of his narrative and calls into question whether his political leanings have colored his account.

Where Men Win Glory is, in general, what I love and hate about Jon Krakauer’s writing. In compelling prose, he tells fascinating stories of people, issues, and events that are important and meaningful. Then he ensures that no room is left for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about the subject by bludgeoning the reader with his own opinion.

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