January 26, 2011

Where Men Win Glory

I didn't officially sign up for the TBR Dare but was inspired by it to finally take a few books down off my shelf that I hadn't gotten around to.  This is the first of those.  I got it for Christmas last year and I hung on to it thinking it would make a good book for our club.  But when book-choosing time rolled around they mentioned that we'd already done a Krakauer a couple of years ago.

It's also lingered on my shelf because, honestly?  It looked like broccoli.  Depressing broccoli.  It was the same reason I put off seeing An Inconvenient Truth for so long.  I knew that would be depressing and that there was nothing I could do about it so why go out of my way to deal with that?

I am glad I read it, though.  It's a well done piece of work.  Krakauer captures the true character of the person Pat Tillman was which couldn't have been easy and puts him in the context of the world events that led, ultimately, to his death and the fiasco of what some tried to use him for afterwards.

I think the first half is the most compelling.  Krakauer inter-cuts what's happening in Tillman's life as a young man with what's going on with the Taliban, the mujahideen, Osama Bin Laden, and others in that part of the world.

Interestingly, Tillman isn't the most likable character in his younger days.  He wasn't a bad guy by any means and he definitely wasn't the stereotypical jock.  He had a violent altercation in high school that almost led to his losing out on his college scholarship, but I don't fault him for that.  I was a high school boy and know how these things can go.  But every time I felt sympathy for the guy he'd do something goofy like the time he and his girlfriend went to France where he got trashed and acted like a typical boorish American yelling that if it wasn't for us, they'd all be speaking German.

Yet then he would really work hard in school, not just coast on his football scholarship and it's perks.  He read deeply and got into many intense discussions and went out of his way to befriend unique people.  And he was loyal beyond measure.  He was chosen by the Arizona Cardinals as a 7th round draft pick and worked his tookus off to prove himself.  It worked and he got noticed by the Sport Illustrated gods and was subsequently courted by a team offering him a multi-million, multi-year contract whereas the Cardinals could only offer one-year league minimum contracts.  He baffled everyone by sticking with the Cardinals.  But he felt he owed them for giving him his chance, loved his coaches and wasn't that impressed with money.

This very characteristic, however, was partly what got him killed.  After the World Trade Center attacks and the ensuing invasion of Afghanistan he began to feel that he should enlist.  Most heroic stories point to some "tragic flaw" that brings down the hero in question.  Krakauer calls Tillman's a "tragic virtue" and does a great job with the complexity of this man and this situation.

Once we get to Iraq, the level of detail is impressive but can get a little mind-numbing.  I think it's important and Krakauer certainly wants to be as clear as possible in describing events that have been so called into question, but as a general reader it can be rough going for a few chapters.

The investigation into the cover-up will, of course, make you sick but I think it's important to read these kinds of things.  I didn't know, for example, that Tillman was present at the "rescue" of Jessica Lynch which of course foreshadows the same bone headed PR and cover up response that the Tillman story would eventually receive in a much darker and painful way.

Overall it's an amazing piece of work and fits right in with Krakauer's growing list of are-they-crazy-or-idealistic characters that he has spun into some of the most masterful narrative non-fiction of the past decade or more.

Observation Post, Forward Operating Base Tillman

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman