In 2002, I read Jon Krakauer's excellent book "Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster." It's a fascinating book: Krakauer originally set out to go to Everest to gather information for a magazine article about the commercialization of the mountain-- that people who had no business climbing a mountain, let alone the world's tallest mountain, were being led to the summit by profiteering mountain guides, and that this was causing the accomplishment to lose it's luster, let alone endangering people. Nature, as if to punctuate Krakauer's point, blew in an unexpected storm, resulting in the deaths of a bunch of climbers. It was one of a small handful of books I've read in the last ten years or so that I seriously could not put down until I finished.
With "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman," he's done it again. I'd wanted to read the book since I read the first reviews. This Christmas, my lovely wife got me a Kindle, and the first book I downloaded was this one.
Most of you are probably familiar with Pat Tillman. He was a player on the Arizona Cardinals who walked away from a multimillion dollar contract to join the elite Army Rangers after 9/11. He was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. At first it was reported that he'd died at the hands of the Taliban. Within a few months it was revealed that he had been, along with an Afghan soldier helping his platoon out, killed by fire from his own squad.
I think many people, like I, thought that Tillman was a patriotic jock-- well-intentioned, but not intellectually complex. As Krakauer makes clear, this was farthest from the case. Tillman was a bright, curious, well-read man. In fact, from boot camp on, he began to have doubts about his mission-- particularly when he was diverted from Afghanistan right out of boot camp to go to Iraq.
Krakauer had, fortunately, access to Tillman's journal and many letters to his wife and friends. They reveal a guy went into the war with noble motives, but feared that the Bush administration, which he held in contempt, would use him for propaganda purposes. Tillman is revealed as a highly principled guy-- to a fault. He rejected an opportunity to leave the service and return to football, even after he'd become disenchanted with both wars.
Krakauer charts Tillman's intellectual development-- he began reading Noam Chomsky, and in fact was trying to arrange to meet Chomsky, who was friends with a college friend of his. He believed the war in Iraq to be not only unnecessary, but illegal and working counter to United States interests.
In the course of the story, Krakauer points to two incidents that occurred at the beginning of the Iraq war-- the stage-managed rescue of Private Jessica Lynch and a bad fratricide ("friendly fire") in Nasiriyah, the same town Lynch had been captured in, in which 17 US soldiers were killed. Tillman was peripherally involved in the rescue, but Krakauer points to the real significance: a Bush White House functionary named Jim Wilkinson, who'd been the brainchild behind a lot of the dirty tricks Bush' team had pulled (including their hatchet job on Republican primary opponent John McCain in 2000 and promoting the myth that Al Gore had claimed to have invented the internet). Wilkinson was, as Krakauer pointed out, Bush' primary "perception manager." He was stationed in the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar, and was responsible for the false stories that Lynch, who had not fired a single shot (or had been shot for that matter-- her injuries were from when her vehicle ran into the vehicle in front of her in the convoy) had fought doggedly until she was captured. The story was propagated in order to hide the fact that the war was already off to a bad start-- that the US troops were not, as the Bush administration flunkies had claimed would happen, being welcomed as liberators.
In the end, it's also clear that the Lynch story was created to draw attention from the diasasterous incident at Nasiriyah.
Later, these same people would try to hide the facts behind Tillman's death, and use him as a poster boy for the two wars.
The coverup of the true circumstances began immediately upon his death, and without a doubt included Bush, Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld and other higher-ups. It also began unravelling immediately. Tillman's clothes and body armor-- and a notebook diary he'd been keeping in Iraq and Afghanistan-- were taken away and destroyed. The pathologists at the Dover forensics facility were so suspicious at the missing evidence that they refused to sign off on his autopsy.
Krakauer makes no bones about what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan-- that Afghanistan was always a sideshow for the Bush administration from the beginning-- that the invasion of Iraq was being planned even before 9/11. He also points out that the United States wasted valuable time and resources in Iraq and allowed the Taliban to regroup and gain while they got bogged down in a pointless war that had nothing to do with our national interests. He points out that Tillman questioned everything in his life, including his participation in both wars. Krakauer quotes Nazi Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring:
Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter Germany. That is understood. But after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether its a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship... Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to greater danger. It works the same way in any country.
When I and many others questioned the war in Iraq, we got shouted down as "unpatriotic." After reading "Where Men Win Glory," my guess is that Tillman, a guy given to reading things like Plato's "Republic" in his free time, would, were he still alive, be the first to point out that it's a patriot's duty to question his government and leaders. I highly recommend this book.