Where Men Win Glory written by Jon Krakauer and narrated by Scott Brick
Publisher: Random House Audio, 2009
Length: 13 hours and 11 minutes
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Where I Got It: Audible
My Rating: 4.5 stars
It is appropriate to write this book review on the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. After all, if 9/11 hadn’t occurred, this book would have never been written and Pat Tillman would probably still be alive.
Does the name Pat Tillman ring any bells for you? When I first saw the subtitle of the book—The Odyssey of Pat Tillman—the name sounded familiar but I couldn’t place it. Upon reading the book description, I realized that he was the NFL player who had enlisted in the Army after 9/11 and was killed in action. I didn’t recall any specifics though, other than marveling that someone could have made that choice.
Deeply troubled by the events of 9/11 (as so many of us were), Tillman did what he felt was right and honorable: join the Army to fight for and defend his country. Although 9/11 inspired many Americans to do the same thing, I suspect that most post-9/11 military recruits didn’t leave behind a $3.5 million football career. Tillman’s decision wasn’t done for public relations reasons either. He never publicly addressed his decision to join the Army—despite the Bush Administration’s desire to use him as a poster boy—and turned down all media requests regarding his enlistment and military service.
I mention the subtitle for another reason too—the use of the word odyssey. “Odyssey” is such an appropriate word to describe Pat Tillman’s story. Not only do the definitions of odyssey aptly describe Tillman’s life…
1: a long wandering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune
2: an intellectual or spiritual wandering or quest
…but it is also a nod to the Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Although Tillman’s journey does not mirror Odysseus’s journey, Krakauer quotes a variety of Greek tragedies and philosophical works (including Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) at the start of the book’s various sections. As the book developed, I began finding these quotes almost prescient—as if they had been written specifically about Tillman.
Of course, that last statement sounds like hyperbole … because it is. Pat Tillman wasn’t a god or a mythical figure. He was a man with virtues and flaws like everyone else. However, to say that Tillman was “ordinary” doesn’t do him justice. He lived life on his own terms—following his internal moral compass and beliefs. He didn’t always play by the rules or follow the pack. This strong internal drive led to his success on the football field and his enlistment in the Army, a decision that caused him much angst. His journals reveal his struggles with his enlistment decision, leading as it did to his separation from his beloved wife Marie and bouts of frustration, disgust and anger at the Army and its practices.
The book isn’t a simple telling of Pat Tillman’s story however. It also provides a fairly concise history of the conflict in Afghanistan, the formation of the Taliban, the rise of Osama Bin Laden and why the events of 9/11 came to pass. By alternating Tillman’s personal history with the history of the conflict in Afghanistan/Iraq, the reader starts to feel a sense of inevitability as events that will slowly and inexorably lead to Tillman’s horrible death unfold … because as much as this book is about Tillman’s life, it is also very much about his death.
Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan was the result of friendly fire (what the Army terms “fratricide”). In other words, Tillman was killed by his fellow Army Rangers. Although fratricide is a fact of life in war (and, as Krakauer discusses, much more frequent than most of us probably realize), the Army chose to cloud the circumstances of Tillman’s death with cover-ups, fabrications and outright lies. Krakauer makes a good case that Tillman’s death was used to distract the American public from the public relations nightmare of Abu Ghraib. (In much the same way it used the Jessica Lynch story to distract Americans from how poorly the war in Iraq was progressing.) However, the truth of Tillman’s death didn’t make for a good enough story. After all, friendly fire doesn’t sound so heroic… but getting killed while fighting the Taliban does. So that was the initial story that the Army put out—both to the public and Tillman’s family. Until, of course, the truth came out and the powers that be needed to be protected and distanced from the cover-up.
As you can tell from the length of this review, this book affected me quite deeply. I found Tillman’s story to be so tragic. He tried so hard to do the right thing and made the ultimate sacrifice, yet the Army and the U.S. government pissed all over it. It sickened me to read about the Army’s actions, and the lies and misdirection that the Bush Administration practiced throughout the conflicts that followed 9/11. In addition, the seeming futility of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan (recent events notwithstanding) is disheartening and upsetting. This was a thought-provoking and upsetting read…and exactly why I think that people ought to read it. (Although I suspect that supporters of George W. Bush and his administration will not find much to like in this book.)
A word about the audiobook narration: I finally listened to a book narrated by Scott Brick—the “voice crush” of quite a few book bloggers (in particular Natalie of Book, Line and Sinker). I can see why Brick is a popular narrator. His voice is easy on the ears, and his reading of what was sometimes a technical book was flawless. I was riveted by his narration… particularly the sections in which Krakauer describes the events that led to Tillman’s death as well as the firefight in Nasiriyah that happened after Jessica Lynch’s rescue. I was on-the-edge of my seat listening to these sections, and it made the chaos and confusion of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan feel very real. After listening to the book, I’m glad I opted for this format over the printed copy.