Not often is a work of nonfiction containing the ideal tragic tale of a modern-day hero presented to the public, simply because it is generally acknowledged that perfect heroes and tearfully tragic lives do not exist. However, Jon Krakauer’s latest novel,
Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman
, defies this assumption by re-introducing audiences to Patrick Tillman, the hero of an inspiring and shocking story of the NFL player-turned-Army Ranger-turned-victim of a media cover-up by the United States government.Krakauer is a bestselling author known for his adventurous nonfiction titles, such as
Into the Wild
Into Thin Air
Under the Banner of Heaven
. The tale of Tillman and his untimely death was obviously a good fit for Krakauer.The book begins with the startling scene of Tillman’s death on the edge of a canyon in Afghanistan and then jumps back to where the story begins. The first half of the nonfiction novel is spent interweaving the story of Tillman’s childhood, college life (mostly spent playing football for Arizona State University) and early NFL career with the Arizona Cardinals with the history of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and 9-11.
Krakauer does an excellent job describing Tillman’s almost unbelievably virtuous character, which defies the stereotype usually placed on hulky football players. Drawing from interviews, research, and Tillman’s journal, Krakauer is able to paint a picture of a handsome, loyal, intellectual, and idealistic young man who always believed in doing what he felt was right.
By combining events in the Middle East somewhat chronologically with smooth transitions to Tillman’s life, Krakauer creates a frightening sense of fate throughout this first half of the book—the same feeling one gets as a director builds up suspense in a movie by switching between images of a hurtling train and a person on railroad tracks—and the reader waits in horror for the narratives to collide.
After 9-11, Tillman begins to feel that his role as a professional football player is insignificant and chooses to enlist in thedeat United States Armed Forces as an Army Ranger, along with his younger brother Kevin. The government tries to make the national sports star an example of good ol’ American patriotism, but Tillman refuses to draw attention to himself. The second half of the book concentrates on his time in the Armed Forces, which ends abruptly for the young man when he is killed by friendly fire in the mountains of Afghanistan.
The most fascinating part of the book is the view of the United States government, the Bush administration, and their actions following Tillman’s death. Krakauer also spends time on this topic before Tillman’s death, describing the propagandist actions and skewing performed by Deputy National Security Advisor Jim Wilkinson and other officials, especially in regard to the fabricated report of the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch. The corruption appears even more disgusting when juxtaposed with Tillman’s own morality and his idealistic reasons for enlisting in the Army. The controversial cover-up that ensued after his death involves many shocking frauds, including false eye-witness testimonies for his posthumous Silver Star award, burning his uniform instead of using it as forensic evidence (as is military procedure), and refusal to accept the initial report on the investigation of the circumstances of his death because it did not match the government’s media agenda. Most shocking was the complete deception surrounding his death—the implication, carried on for more than a month, that Tillman was shot by the Taliban rather than fellow Rangers. When the truth was finally announced (quietly), it was given to the media before it was told even to Tillman’s mother.
Krakauer begins each chapter with a different quote, defining the protagonist in the terms of classic writers like Homer, Aeschylus (
), and Nietzsche. A Nietzsche quote stuck out as a perfect description of Tillman: “I love him who makes his virtue his addiction and his catastrophe.” Tillman’s admirable, though perhaps unrealistic, virtue can be seen as leading to the catastrophe of his death. Krakauer does readers a favor by combining all the bits and pieces of Tillman’s life story with the controversy surrounding his death into a fascinating narrative. Even for those who are not familiar with the hero—those who are neither fans of professional football nor particularly informed about the war—
Where Men Win Glory
captures our emotions, inspires its readers to remember Patrick Tillman as a modern day hero, and hopefully moves more than one person to act righteously, according to their own conscience, throughout their life.