Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey Of Pat Tillman (2009)

Pat Tillman

Rating: 9/10

A key concept in most sportswriting is the idea of a unifying angle, but at first glance, it isn’t simple to figure out what angle any story about Pat Tillman should take. Is it a sports story about an undersized football player who grabbed the last scholarship at Arizona State, shone there but wasn’t chosen until the seventh round of the NFL draft, switched positions in the pros and turned into a dominant force there as well before dying tragically?

Is it a story of traditional heroism, of a man who decided it was worth giving up wealth and fame to serve in his country’s military – and in one of its toughest, most dangerous units? Is it a story about America’s various military actions abroad? Is it the details of what happened to Tillman in the military? Is it a story of how top army brass covered up that Tillman was killed by friendly fire and tried to spin his death into positive press? The answer Jon Krakauer (who’s also written such famed books as Into Thin Air and Into The Wild) comes up with in Where Men Win Glory is “all of the above,” and it’s a smart approach that turns this book into a spellbinding, highly-educational read packed with vital context.

The quotation that opens the book and provides the title does a perfect job of setting the stage for what’s to come. As provided by Krakauer, it’s “Who among mortal men are you, good friend? Since never before have I seen you in the fighting where men win glory, yet now you have come striding far out in front of all others in your great heart…” – Homer, The Illiad.

Without any prior knowledge of the work in question, that works: it establishes the ideal of combat as a place to win glory (an ideal Tillman subscribed to in at least some part) and a place to establish one’s reputation. In context, though, that fits even better. That passage comes from Book Six of The Illiad, and it’s uttered by the Achaeans’ Dionysus to the Trojans’ Glaucos as the two are preparing to face off in a duel. As pointed out in this presentation, this was a rare circumstance where duelists didn’t know their adversaries, and Glaucos’ answer (a list of his ancestors and their deeds) actually leads Dionysus to realize that their relatives had been close friends. They end up scrapping the duel, exchanging armor and promising not to fight each other. Elements of that idea show up throughout Where Men Win Glory.

One area where Krakauer does particularly well in is illustrating the many complicated dimensions of Tillman’s life and personality. That’s done through extensive reporting, including interviews with Army comrades, family members, high school and college friends and more (which are sourced well in an appendix at the back), but particularly with material from Tillman’s diaries. Krakauer’s frequent quotations from those diaries work well to illustrate the conflicts Tillman felt, especially between his desire to serve his country and his feeling that it was pursuing some of the wrong paths. His oft-expressed distaste for some of the traditions of Army life is also interesting, demonstrating how he was far more than just a slave to machismo. Tillman’s desire to serve his country is notable and laudable, but it’s clear that he was no poster-book army hero from a mould. He was a highly-unique individual, one who was eager to serve his country, but also one willing to question it when he felt it was straying. It’s not hard to picture him as Homer’s Dionysus: valiant in battle, but also someone who considers who he’s fighting and why.

It’s also notable that this is not a hagiography of a saint: Krakauer portrays some of Tillman’s missteps and less-admirable moments as well, including a fistfight during high school that wound up seeing him charged with felony assault and sentenced to community service. There’s some excellent reporting here, including interviews with the guy Tillman attacked (in defense of a friend) and his girlfriend, and the overall picture presented actually enhances Tillman’s status. He wasn’t perfect, but sought to accept the consequences of his actions and learn from his mistakes. The passages of the book dealing with that fight and its after-effects likely wouldn’t be included in such depth in something intended strictly to lionize Tillman, but they help readers understand him better, and that’s crucial.

Some of the most interesting passages in this book aren’t about Tillman at all, but rather about Afghanistan and how many of its various leaders in particular went from crucial U.S. allies in the fight against the Soviet Union to American adversaries. The book as a whole isn’t a treatise on that, but the information included on that front is vital to understanding Tillman’s life and death, why he wound up in Afghanistan and what went wrong on his last mission. It carries similarities to that passage of enemies becoming friends from The Illiad as well, but in reverse: many of the Afghan leaders involved here were once friends of the U.S., but then wound up opposed to it. Krakauer’s breakdown of the shifts in Afghanistan and the various tribal leaders involved is quite good, and it provides a lot of vital context about how Tillman and his group of Army Rangers wound up there and what they were doing in-country.

Another particularly notable aspect of Where Men Win Glory is how in some ways, it discusses what eventually happened to Tillman as part of a wider pattern instead of just an isolated incident. The passages dealing with Iraq are especially effective on that front: Krakauer describes two situations that took place near Tillman’s group of Rangers in detail, including one where significant numbers of American troops were killed by friendly fire (the Battle of Nasiriyah) and one where the U.S. military drastically altered the facts in service of a good story (the rescue of Jessica Lynch). Both have obvious similarities to the events surrounding Tillman’s death. This is done effectively too, as Krakauer does a nice job of providing the relevant information without getting too tangential and losing the focus on Tillman.

There are a few minor quibbles with Where Men Win Glory. While it’s an engaging read and one that’s very difficult to put down, it’s far from easy reading. The sections dealing with developments in Afghanistan in particular can require frequent flipping backwards to remember just who a certain tribal leader is and why he’s important. Moreover, while the context provided on Tillman’s youth and Afghanistan’s background is quite helpful to an overall understanding of the man, it might not be up the alley of those eager to find out just what happened in Afghanistan. On the whole, though, Where Men Win Glory is a superb book illustrating just who Pat Tillman was and why he mattered. That’s far from an easy task given the complexity and endless dimensions of his story, but Krakauer’s approach of pulling in a bit from every possible angle proves to be a good one, and one that gives us an impressive overall portrait of its subject.

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