From Sunday’s NY Times Book Review:
Most everyone, at least in the United States, is familiar with the basic facts: [Pat] Tillman, a free-thinking, hard-hitting safety for the Arizona Cardinals, walked away from a multimillion-dollar contract after 9/11 to enlist in the Army. He joined an elite unit, the Rangers, and was killed on April 22, 2004, in a canyon in eastern Afghanistan. The story did not end there: Tillman’s commanders and possibly officials in the Bush administration suppressed that he had been killed accidentally by his own comrades. They publicly lionized Tillman as a hero who died fighting the enemy and fed the phony account even to Tillman’s grieving family. The sordid truth, or most of it, came out later.
. . . Tillman was very much his own man: he wore his hair to his shoulders, rode his bicycle to training camp each morning and “never went anywhere without a book.”But after the 9/11 attacks, Tillman found his professional life suddenly hollow. “Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful,” he wrote in May 2002. “However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I’ve come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is. . . . It’s no longer important.”
So Tillman said goodbye to the N.F.L., to stardom and to the three-year, $3.6 million contract the Cardinals had offered him to stay. In deciding to enlist, he moved hard against the grain of contemporary wartime America, which demands extraordinary sacrifice from a few while asking almost nothing of everyone else.
. . . Once Tillman lands in Afghanistan, though, Krakauer’s narrative lifts off. The death of Tillman is handled deftly — and sad it is, the end of a series of errors and misjudgments, some of which border on the criminal. During a mission to search villages, one of the Humvees in Tillman’s platoon broke down. An officer back at headquarters ordered the platoon to split up: half to tow the Humvee to the base, the other to search the villages. The platoon leader objected — splitting his platoon in a hostile area rendered his men vulnerable — but he was ordered to proceed.From there, the disaster unfolded. The units went off in different directions, but then, the one towing the Humvee thought it had found an easier route and doubled back, only to come under attack from Taliban insurgents. Tillman and others from the first unit raced to the rescue — and were fired on by their fellow soldiers in the second unit, who mistook them for the enemy. Tillman was shot three times in the head by a machine-gunner; an Afghan government soldier was also killed, and two other Americans were wounded. Tillman’s brother Kevin — the brothers enlisted together — was in the unit that killed Pat, but his weapon, a grenade launcher, had jammed. He never got off a shot.
While most of the facts have been reported before, Krakauer performs a valuable service by bringing them all together — particularly those about the cover-up. The details, even five years later, are nauseating to read: After Tillman’s death, Army commanders, aided and abetted by members of the Bush administration, violated many of their own rules, not to mention elementary standards of decency, to turn the killing into a propaganda coup for the American side. Tillman’s clothing and notebooks were burned — a flouting of Army regulations — and he was fast-tracked for a posthumous Silver Star, which, as Krakauer shows, was a fraud. Members of his unit were ordered to stay silent about the manner of his death. Even part of Tillman’s body disappeared. Most important, Army commanders went to great lengths to keep the facts of Tillman’s death a secret and allowed the story that he died at the hands of the Taliban to flourish. The low point came at his memorial service, where he was lionized before television cameras, while officials who knew the truth stayed quiet.
Krakauer doesn’t nail down precisely who gave the initial order to conceal the manner of Tillman’s death, but he demonstrates conclusively that the White House was happy to peddle the story that he’d been killed by enemy fire. It makes sense: at the time of Tillman’s death, the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq was dominating the news. In any case, the slipshod way the Army investigated Tillman’s death is part of Krakauer’s story.
Oddly enough, Tillman himself suspected that, if he were killed, the Army might try to turn him into a poster boy. And he wanted nothing to do with it. As Tillman told an Army friend: “I don’t want them to parade me through the streets.”
If only he’d gotten his wish.