Exposing the government and military lies about Pat Tillman's death

Issue June 2010 By Jon Krakauer

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman
by Jon Krakauer
Doubleday, 2009, 416 pages

Most people know Pat Tillman as the football player who walked away from the NFL to join the War on Terror. Most people also know that after he was killed in Afghanistan, the Army and the White House covered up, for five weeks, that he died by friendly fire. After reading scores of official documents, which lend an objectivity to the book, Jon Krakauer delves further into Tillman's life and the morass of lies and obfuscations surrounding his death,
painting a bigger picture of the man he was, and the tool for White House propaganda he became.

Krakauer begins by sketching the incident that took Tillman's life, then backtracks to his childhood, teenage years, college life and NFL career, all with an emphasis on Tillman's strong character, almost superhuman athleticism, and constant focus on doing the right thing. Throughout the middle chapters, Krakauer weaves in current events: as Tillman set an Arizona Cardinals tackle record in 2000, Bush v. Gore was playing out in the courts. As Tillman prepared for preseason in mid-2001, the CIA was reporting that Bin Laden's threats were real, while top administrators, including President Bush himself, continued doubting those threats. Shortly before Tillman began his fourth season, 9/11 struck. Krakauer aims for fireworks; he wants the reader to become inflamed, and he is successful. There simply is no way to avoid Krakauer's viewpoint, but it is entirely well supported with facts and documents (and a compendium of sources).

In 2002, Tillman and his brother, Kevin, enlisted in the Army. The brothers assumed they would go to Afghanistan; but in 2003, the administration presented persuasive, but erroneous, evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and the Tillmans first were sent to Iraq. What the reader might not know: Tillman did not support this war; he saw no "clear purpose" for it. Nevertheless, as he wrote in his journal (excerpts of which pepper Krakauer's narrative), he and Kevin "willingly allowed ourselves to be pawns in this game and will do our job whether we agree with it or not … [But] we harbor no illusions of virtue."

Against this backdrop, Krakauer details the friendly fire incident in Afghanistan in 2004. Krakauer catalogs the Army's aggressive maneuvers to conceal details from Tillman's family and the public, even awarding him the Silver Star for actions when "ambushed." A captain ordered Tillman's blood-soaked uniform and body armor to be burned, contrary to military procedures. And the White House went into "overdrive," rushing a statement to the media that withheld the known fact that Tillman was killed by his compatriots.

Curiously, the Army assigned a captain to investigate the incident, even though higher ranking personnel might have made the errors leading to Tillman's death. That investigation, concluding that fratricide caused Tillman's death and that gross negligence was a factor, disappeared in the chain of command. The Army finally disclosed the truth, though, as Krakauer suggests, only because Tillman's brother was returning to duty, and "[g]uilt, anger, and alcohol were likely to loosen tongues."

Few disciplinary actions were taken, perceived by the family as wrist slapping. The Army still denied there had been fabrications, just misunderstandings about regulations and secrecy policy.

Krakauer's level of detail is impressive, as is his knowledge of Army procedure. The reader never wonders, never sees a hole in the logic of this comprehensive biography. And Krakauer proves his theory - that the Army and the White House duped the country into believing that Tillman was killed by the Taliban, for the sole purpose of positioning Iraq as a righteous war. Krakauer accomplishes in this book what he's best known for: seizing a provocative story, illuminating its details, and exposing the truth.

Lynn S. Muster is a senior staff attorney at the Massachusetts Appeals Court.