By Andrew Exum
Sunday, September 13, 2009
WHERE MEN WIN GLORY
The Odyssey of Pat Tillman
By Jon Krakauer
Doubleday. 383 pp. $27.95
On April 22, 2004, I was standing in an operations center in Bagram, Afghanistan, watching two firefights on the monitors and screens in front of me. A platoon of U.S. Army Rangers and a special operations reconnaissance force were both under fire and in possible need of assistance. As the leader of a 40-man quick-reaction force of Rangers, I asked my squad leaders to gather our men while I awaited orders.
My platoon was dropped onto a 12,000-foot mountain at night to reinforce the small reconnaissance team that had been battling men they believed to be al-Qaeda fighters, killing two combatants. On the way south from Bagram, I listened on the radio to the U.S. casualty report from the other firefight: One killed in action, two wounded.
After a truly miserable night spent at high altitude near the Pakistan border, I arrived back in Bagram to learn the name of that Ranger killed in action: Spec. Patrick Daniel Tillman.
By now, the story of Pat Tillman is widely known: how he turned down a lucrative contract in the National Football League to join the U.S. Army's 75th Ranger Regiment after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; how he fought in Iraq and Afghanistan; how he died; and how the cause of his death -- friendly fire -- was kept from his family and the public for weeks in what, depending on your point of view, was either a gross error of judgment or a conspiracy engineered by the U.S. military and the Bush administration.
A full-length book on Tillman's life -- as opposed to shorter pieces, such as Gary Smith's excellent profile in Sports Illustrated -- has been needed for some time. Jon Krakauer would seem the perfect person to write it. A world-class alpinist turned author -- Krakauer was once a climbing partner of the late, great Alex Lowe -- he shares Tillman's sense of adventure and has excelled at telling other romantic, if ultimately tragic, tales in "Into the Wild" and "Into Thin Air."
If Krakauer had committed himself to telling Tillman's story, "Where Men Win Glory" might have been the latest in an unbroken string of superb books. But his book falls flat -- not least because he is more eager to launch an inquisition into the crimes of the Bush administration than to explore this single extraordinary life.
War takes place at four levels -- the political, the strategic, the operational and the tactical. The Bush administration deserves the lion's share of the blame for the political and strategic blunders of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For too many years, U.S. troops were spread too thin to accomplish mission-essential tasks in either country. But the errors that led to Tillman's death were all operational and tactical -- and the responsibility for these mistakes must be placed on the men making decisions under stress. Why or how an army was sent into combat is often irrelevant to the men on the ground. Their lives are, for the most part, in the hands of the enemy and their fellow warriors.
I am no fan of many of the Bush administration's decisions. I did not vote for the former president in either 2000 or 2004 and was so cynical about the U.S. invasion of Iraq that my platoon went so far as to engrave my judgment of the war -- "This is (expletive, gerund) ( expletive, noun)" -- on my going-away plaque. All of this would surprise Krakauer, who, among other things, labors under the misimpression that U.S. military officers are mainly political conservatives better at following orders than thinking critically. In reality, the men and women who serve in the U.S. military are as diverse as the people they defend.
Blaming the Bush administration for all that has befallen the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan unfairly excuses the military itself for the many errors it made. This is most unfortunate because the parts of the book where Krakauer does tell Tillman's story play to the author's strengths. The personal stories about Tillman in high school or struggling to make it as a collegiate Division I and NFL football player are fascinating. And Krakauer excels at reconstructing the platoon-level events that led to Tillman's death in the same riveting style that made me devour "Into Thin Air" as a young rock-climber. "Where Men Win Glory" also includes a series of anecdotes and excerpts from Tillman's diary that give us a fuller understanding of a unique and iconic figure in post-9/11 America.
But throughout the book, Krakauer digresses from the timeline of Tillman's life to inform the reader what was going on in Afghanistan, with al-Qaeda and even in U.S. domestic politics. Why, I wondered during one maddening passage, was Krakauer spending four whole pages complaining about Bush v. Gore? In addition, rather than putting the background information on Afghanistan into his own words, Krakauer instead draws heavily on such books as Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Tower" and Steve Coll's "Ghost Wars."
In describing the battlefield actions, Krakauer does not appear to understand light infantry combat as well as he does mountaineering. He comprehends enough to know that the Ranger officers in Bagram probably made a mistake in overruling a decision by the platoon leader on the ground in Khost province. But incredibly, he tries to claim that this situation was driven not by poor and independent decision-making by field-grade officers but rather by Donald Rumsfeld's insistence on strict timelines. "[The] sense of urgency attached to the mission," Krakauer writes, "came from little more than a bureaucratic fixation on meeting arbitrary deadlines so missions could be checked off a list and tallied as 'accomplished.' This emphasis on quantification . . . was carried to new heights of fatuity during Donald Rumsfeld's tenure at the Pentagon."
While I'm willing to accept, say, Krakauer's criticism of the fateful decisions made by mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev on Everest in 1996, there is nothing in Krakauer's life or experience that inspires similar confidence in his criticism of experienced combat officers specially selected for service in an elite special operations unit. Similarly, Ranger units are not ordered to meet deadlines arbitrarily. They meet deadlines because the missions they execute -- like airfield seizures or hostage rescues -- are extraordinarily complex operations that demand that men and their units go places and do things in concert with one another under high levels of stress and confusion.
That said, there is plenty of documentary evidence suggesting that experienced military officers did, in fact, make a series of blunders in the aftermath of Tillman's death. As a former officer in the 75th Ranger Regiment -- an elite unit whose leadership Krakauer skewers -- I might be expected to rise to the defense of the officers who made the decision to initially withhold the details of Tillman's death from his family and the public. But given the available evidence in both Krakauer's account and in numerous investigations, it appears that the otherwise competent commanders of the 75th Ranger Regiment and 2nd Ranger Battalion did indeed make a series of disastrous and incomprehensibly stupid decisions.
How then-Lt. Col. Jeff Bailey, for example, could have asked a young Ranger, Russell Baer, to attend Tillman's funeral and lie to the family about the circumstances of Tillman's death until more senior officers could meet with them baffles the mind. It strikes me as a horribly unfair and immoral thing to demand of any officer, much less a young Ranger just returned from a demanding combat environment.
An Air Force officer I know likes to say that whenever one seeks to understand an epic failure of our nation's military, one must first draw a line on a sheet of paper and write "conspiracy" at one end and "buffoonery" on the other. Those who have spent time in the military and have seen it struggle not just with war but with everyday barracks life tend to err on the side of incompetence, while those who never have -- such as Krakauer -- tend to suspect conspiracy.
Andrew Exum is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and served in Afghanistan as an Army officer in 2002 and 2004 and as a civilian adviser in 2009.