Pat Tillman was a top-notch safety with the Phoenix Cardinals of the NFL. He was an incredibly intense guy, always looking to challenge himself, to push himself past his limits. But he also had a sensitive, emotional side and an intellectual curiosity, exceptional in his chosen profession. He came from a close-knit family that held the military in high regard and was touched deeply when the USA was attacked on and subsequently went to war following 9/11. Setting aside his lucrative football career, Tillman and his brother, Kevin, joined up, intent on going to Afghanistan to fight.
Krakauer braids several strands here, one of Tillman, a biography that offers enough warts to matter, the second a look at the events leading up to the Afghan war, pretty much all warts, and a third, which looks at the specifics of how Tillman was used by political types, how he was killed and how the military and politicians handled his passing, by wart manufacturers.
Tillman comes across as a compelling character, a Renaissance grunt. But I would have liked for Krakauer to have at least looked at the possibility that there was an explanation for some of Tillman’s behavioral choices that was less than laudatory. Maybe the guy was, in addition to his other characteristics, an adrenalin junkie, who went out of his way to take unnecessary risks.
There were many irregularities in the investigation of Tillman’s death. The officer assigned to conduct the investigation was a captain, and thus could not investigate any officers of higher rank, which would have included the Major who gave the order to split up the squad Tillman was in, a crucial aspect of the tragedy. Tillman’s uniform and body armor were not left on his body, to be removed at his autopsy. Instead a captain had them put into a bag, then ordered a sergeant to burn the materials. Tillman’s personal notebook was also burned. When Tillman’s brother Kevin tried to reach platoon members to find out exactly what had happened, a Captain told at least one platoon member to say nothing about friendly fire. When the medical examiner was told that Tillman had been killed by the Taliban, but saw from the body that this was not the case, he asked the Criminal Investigation Division to look into the case, but CID refused. Seeking to distract public attention from the Abu Ghraib scandal, which broke the day Tillman’s body was returned to his family, the Bush administation sought to highlight Tillman as an American hero. Part of that was to award him posthumous medals. PFC Bryan O’Neal was ordered to type out a witness statement in support of Major Hodne’s Silver Star recommendation, “but after he wrote , his words were embellished so egregiously that he never signed it.” (p298)
A remarkable life went to waste here. Krakauer does a good job of showing the value that was lost and the values of those who tried to hide the truth of that waste.