Book Review: Where Men Win Glory – by Jon Krakauer

Reading Where Men Win Glory profoundly changed the way I think about honor, duty, our U.S. military, our media, these crazy wars we’re in and our political leadership. Most importantly, Where Men Win Glory puts a spotlight on how terribly frightening war is when you are the one that’s in it. War kills people, and no matter how much our leaders tell us about serving our country, when the bullets whiz around your head you are the one that’s on the line.

Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun were warlords. George W. Bush was a warlord along with his minions Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rove. The difference is, Alexander and Attila were on the front lines, leading their soldiers into battle, shoulder to shoulder. If Bush and Cheney had had to drive a Humvee into Afghanistan or Iraq, these wars would never have happened. It’s easy to give orders to send thousands of people into battle, so they can win glory, when you are sitting safely behind a desk in Washington.

Jon Krakauer, the author of Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven, is a masterful journalist, researcher and author. I have read all his books, and all get four stars. In Where Men Win Glory, Krakauer tells the unlikely story of a true American hero, Pat Tillman, the NFL football player who enlisted with the Army and eventually lost his life in Afghanistan.

Pat Tillman playing for the Arizona Cardinals

Tillman was born in the Bay Area  in 1976. He was an exceptional athlete and passionate young man in high school. Smaller than the typical football player and passed over by coaches as a child, Tillman nevertheless, through goal setting, perseverance, intelligence and integrity beat all the odds, became a high school start player and got a scholarship at Arizona State University where he played for the Sun Devils. Eventually he joined the Arizona Cardinals and became a star player on that team and attracted national attention.

The Cardinals paid him a salary of $361,500 for his services in 2000 and gave him a contract for a single year to continue. On April 13, 2001, the St. Louis Rams, who had won the Super Bowl the year before, offered him a 5-year contract for $9.6 million, with $2.6 million upfront, upon signing. Tillman, however, felt loyalty to the Cardinals who first took him in and gave him his chance in the NFL. He turned down the Rams and stayed with the Cardinals for a one-year contract at $512,000. His agent was beside himself. Never had he experienced somebody turn down such a package on principle and loyalty before.

Then 9/11 happened. Many of his colleagues talked big about kicking al Qaeda ass, but like most of us, talk or write was all they did. Tillman’s ethics and sense of right did not allow him to just talk. After intense deliberation he decided to enlist in the Army with the goal of becoming an Army Ranger, the elite special forces branch. Even through, by virtue of having a college degree, he was eligible to become an officer, he decided to enlist as a common soldier. His goal was not to sit at some desk giving orders, his goal was to make a difference in the front lines. His brother Kevin joined him and enlisted with him.

The salary for a private in the Army was $1,248 a month. Just before he enlisted, the incredulous Cardinals offered him a contract for $3.6 million. Tillman turned that down.

Pat and Kevin Tillman in Saudi Arabia in 2003

He joined the Army as a grunt.  Anyone who has served in the military knows that in that environment, initiative, capability, intelligence, motivation and enthusiasm do not count. Time on record counts. Pat and Kevin Tillman spent the next year going through boot camp and training in utter frustration. The dream of making a difference started looking a lot like a pipe dream indeed.

When the White House became aware of his enlistment, they wanted to make him a poster boy and milk the publicity. To their dismay, Tillman, in his entire time in the military, never once granted a single interview. He wanted to serve, and that was all.

Eventually Pat Tillman was killed in a firefight in Afghanistan in April 2004 by bullets to the head shot by members of his own platoon. This is called “friendly fire” or “fratricide.” Krakauer meticulously describes how fratricide can happen, first by a story of the invasion of Iraq in the first few days of the war, when American A-10 aircraft are called in for air support of a company of Marines on the ground under fire by the Iraqis. However, the soldier on the ground calling in the support does not realize that the target he outlines for the attack is another American company across the river, also under attack. The A-10 planes go to town on the Americans. Their cannons can fire rounds the size of Red Bull cans at a rate of 67 per second. They attack with rockets and missiles. The Americans on the ground are helpless. 17 marines died that day from friendly fire.

Friendly fire is a phenomenon that happens much more frequently than one might expect. Krakauer writes:

According to the most comprehensive survey of American war casualties (both fatal and non-fatal), 21 percent of the casualties in World War II were attributable to friendly fire, 39 percent of  the casualties in Vietnam, and 52 percent of the casualties in the first Gulf War. This far in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, casualty rates are 41 percent and 13 percent, respectively. All these figures are conservative estimates, moreover; due to endemic underreporting of fratricide by the military, the actual percentages are unquestionably higher.

And thus continues the saga of Pat Tillman. When discovering what happened, the superiors of Tillman’s platoons immediately put a gag order on all the soldiers that actually witnessed what happened. Through the ranks, all the way to the commanding general, to Rumsfeld and to the White House, it appears that the truth was systematically covered up. The Army had made Tillman their poster boy, and now they had shot him. The White House and military spin machine went into high gear, fed misinformation to the nation, and worst of all, to Tillman’s family. For months, nobody knew the truth of how he had died. Eventually the family persisted, and over the years seven different investigations took place. The family is still not satisfied.

Tillman wanted to serve, and the military used him. Used him up.

This is an astounding story, an extraordinary book, that puts a light on our wars that is not so glorious and honorable, that exposes how the military works, and it shows in glaring spotlight the machinations of the Bush administration.

Besides telling the story of Pat Tillman, Krakauer takes us through a quick history lesson on modern Afghanistan, starting with the time of the Soviet invasion and war, all they way to today. He explains the rise of the Taliban and how the U.S. actually welcomed them early on since it looked like they were going to unite and stabilize a war-torn nation.

When I was done reading, I put down the book and concluded that men will never win glory in war. People make money with wars at the expense of others. Yet, through the ages, men and women will sign up for the military to serve their countries, go to war for ideals that just a few years later are proven misguided, fight against troops their own country trained, outfitted and funded only years before during another conflict against another foe. Men and women lose their lives for that false glory. This will continue to go on through the ages.

Rating: ****

One thought on “Book Review: Where Men Win Glory – by Jon Krakauer

  1. Kim Rothstein

    I read your review with great interest; obviously because I have two boys in the USAF. The book is very dead on…. the lure for many people who join
    is lack of knowing what they want to do with their future; the commradery ; and more money than they would make working in a store somewhere….. and I’m speaking of those who go in as “enlisted” as opposed to officers out of college. It gives them a “sense” of purpose…. although distorted. That is true of many regular jobs as well…. a company lures you with money; they want you; they need you…. then you find out the office politics. The difference is; you’re not giving your life for your job. Johnny Cash has a song about Ira Hayes; a Native American Indian who joined the military… the US made him a hero for P.R. purposes WWII -?… he died an alcoholic. Tillman; a true hero; obviously at the wrong place at the wrong time…. a true heartache.
    I do not believe we as humans are meant to kill other humans; but it obviously happens everyday; everywhere.
    Nothing is perfect; protecting territories; trying to gain more territories; greed; sadly all part of it…
    but I can say there is much good to the military too.
    I get to see it for myself…otherwise I could not live with myself for letting my sons join~

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