New Jon Krakauer Book on Pat Tillman Death -- and Media Manipulation -- Coming This Week

Editor & Publisher, September 14, 2009 | Go to article overview

New Jon Krakauer Book on Pat Tillman Death -- and Media Manipulation -- Coming This Week


Jon Krakauer has never shied away from assigning blame for blunders, especially fatal blunders. In his best-selling account of a disastrous 1996 climb of Mount Everest, "Into Thin Air," he dished out stinging criticism to a professional guide and even chastised himself.

His new book, "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman," pulses with indignation at the generals, politicians and soldiers he holds responsible for the death of Tillman, the NFL star-turned-Army Ranger killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004.

But the sharpest rebukes are aimed at those Krakauer accuses of covering up the truth of Tillman's death, fabricating a more heroic story and then using it to distract the media and the public from bad news coming out of Iraq.

"You've got to explain what happened, and when you explain what happened, you've got to name names," Krakauer said in an interview in Boulder, where he lives.

"It doesn't do any good to say, 'Mistakes were committed, mistakes were made,' in that passive voice that's so annoying."

Publisher Doubleday is giving the book, which goes on sale Sept. 15, a first print run of 500,000 copies.

The book chronicles Tillman's short but remarkable life, interwoven with threads of American politics and global geopolitics, Afghan history and geography, even philosophy and Greek epic poetry.

Krakauer said a longtime fascination with Afghanistan and the news of Tillman's death attracted him to the story. Some of it is well known: Tillman's standout career with the Arizona Cardinals and his decision to leave the NFL to join the Rangers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But much of Krakauer's account is new, or at least not widely known. As a high school student, Tillman served time in juvenile jail for beating up another teen he mistakenly thought had attacked his friend. He kept a journal and had a lively intellectual life. He opposed the war in Iraq but didn't hesitate to serve when his unit was sent there. He was an agnostic and maybe even an atheist. He loved cats.

In a detailed but fluid narrative, Krakauer juxtaposes milestones in Tillman's early life with contemporaneous events in the collapse of Afghan society and the rise of al-Qaida. The story lines converge when Tillman enters the Army in June 2002, compelled by a sense of honor and duty after the 9/11 attacks.

After retracing Tillman's training and his deployments to Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan 2004, Krakauer lays out a step-by-step accounting of Tillman's movements on April 22, 2004, the day he was killed.

A few of the key players emerge as competent, even valiant. Krakauer spent five months with U.S. and Afghan troops in Afghanistan researching the book, and that gave him "a tremendous appreciation of how hard a job it is" to be a soldier, he said.

But other players come across as bunglers, self-interested careerists, cynical political operatives or ideologues. Their sins, in Krakauer's account, range from firing at someone without first making sure it was the enemy to staging an unjustified war in Iraq that diverted much-needed troops and equipment from Afghanistan.

The upshot was that Tillman's platoon was ordered to drag a disabled Humvee back to base while also keeping to a tight schedule for clearing insurgents out of isolated villages in a rugged corner of Afghanistan. That required splitting the platoon in two, which contributed to the ensuing chaos when the unit was ambushed. And that's when Tillman was killed by friendly fire.

Then came "a very calculated effort to deceive not just the Tillman family but also the American public" about the circumstances of his death, Krakauer writes.

The Defense Department didn't disclose that Tillman died by friendly fire for more than a month. In the meantime, he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for valor and promoted from specialist to corporal.

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New Jon Krakauer Book on Pat Tillman Death -- and Media Manipulation -- Coming This Week
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