Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1756
In “The Soldier’s Faith,” his 1895 Harvard Memorial Day tribute to the Civil War dead, Oliver Wendell Holmes concludes that “every society rests on the death of men.” Only “true and adorable faith,” Holmes continues, “leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he little understands.” Wounded in the Battles of Ball’s Bluff and Antietam, Holmes came finally to insist on the dignity of war as an exercise in personal virtue. If somehow a reincarnated Holmes could be privy to the tragic crucible of Specialist Pat Tillmana soldier of such “true faith” in himself as to be martyred by itwould the jurist still, as he seemingly did, approve of war?
Former National Football League (NFL) strong safety Tillman rejected a multimillion-dollar contract to enlist as a private in the U.S. Army in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. After deployment to Afghanistan, he was the belatedly acknowledged victim of friendly fire in a remote canyon (since designated as Tillman Pass). Jon Krakauer, the biographer of another profoundly driven figure in Into the Wild (1997), has outdone himself with Where Men Win Glory, his comprehensive account of the tragic fate of a compelling man. Tillman walked away from the $3.6-million contract offered to him by the Arizona Cardinals in part out of honor, duty, and family tradition. His great-grandfather had served at Pearl Harbor during World War II. His younger brother, Kevin, enlisted with Pat and served in the same Ranger platoon. As Krakauer reveals, however, these matters are the virtues in which male aggression often cloaks itself. Honor and duty could just as easily have obliged Tillman to resist the war in Iraq, which he called “illegal as hell” and an act of “imperial whim.”
Tillman was convinced to enlist in part by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (1841), especially its last lines: “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” Two months before he enlisted and a month before he married his childhood sweetheart, Tillman, in a document he called “Decision,” wrote, “However, these last few years, and especially after [September 11, 2001], I’ve come to appreciate how shallow and insignificant my role is. I’m no longer satisfied with the path I’ve been followingit’s no longer important.This new direction will, in the end, make [life with Marie] fuller, richer, and more meaningful.” Krakauer has subtitled his book The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, which obviates the complaint of one reviewer who faults Krakauer for devoting nearly 250 pagestwo-thirds of the book to Tillman’s life before he and Kevin were shipped from their training base at Fort Lewis, near Seattle, to Bagram Airfield, Iraq. An odyssey is a long series of wanderings. Where Men Win Glory seeks to document these wanderings, not merely the tragic conclusion to which they led.
During six weeks at Fort Benning, Georgia, Pat and Kevin completed “jump” training and the challenging curriculum designed to impart the skills Rangers need for special operations warfare. Shortly before Christmas, 2002, Pat and Kevin received their tan berets and assignments to a unit called the “Black Sheep”: Second Platoon, Alpha Company, Second Ranger Battalion, based at Fort Lewis, near Seattle. When they enlisted, the Tillman brothers assumed they would be deployed to Afghanistan to fight Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. They, like most Americans, had no reason to suspect that in November, 2001, scarcely two months after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by al-Qaeda, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney had instructed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to secretly create a detailed plan for the invasion of Iraq. It was in Iraq, at Qadisiyah Airbase, that Pat was denied his first combat engagement because his M4 carbine, a small-arms rifle, lacked a grenade-launcher attachment. When a member of his team, the squad automatic weapon (SAW) carrier, was wounded, Pat became his replacement. “Truth be told,” Pat confessed in his journal, “I’d rather stick with the lighter M4, but because I have no choice, I will learn this new weapon and get proficient at it. This is a heavy casualty-producing weapon, which will change my role.” Pat only fired one shot in Iraq, noncombatively. A burst of bullets squeezed off by an inexperienced SAW gunner who mistook Pat’s cease-fire signals would end his life a year later in Afghanistan.
Tillman’s reservations about the war in Iraq may have been fueled by his first mission there. He and Kevin were part of an immense contingent of Marines, Rangers, Green Berets, and others dispatched to rescue a nineteen-year-old soldier reportedly being held prisoner by Iraqi fighters at a hospital in Nasiriyah. The prisoner, who would become famous as a result of the rescue mission, was Jessica Dawn Lynch. As Pat and Kevin got ready to join the most elite special operations commandos in the world, the scale of the rescue missionunlike anything they’d seen since arriving in the Persian Gulfpuzzled them. “We leave tomorrow,” Pat wrote in his journal on March 30, 2003. “This mission will be a P.O.W. rescue, a woman named Jessica Lynch.I do believe this to be a big Public Relations stuntsending this many folks in for a [single low-ranking soldier] screams of media blitz. In any case, I’m glad to do my part and I hope we bring her home safe.” Tillman’s intimations proved right. Lynch’s “ordeal” was eventually exposed as propaganda after more than six hundred stories about her appeared in the media, including a rushed-into-print book that debuted at number one on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.
The Jessica Lynch hoax worked so well that the White House would recycle the same tactic thirteen months later. A spurious story about an iconic American soldier would be fed to the media to divert attention from unsettling news. This time, however, the soldier cast as the hero would be Tillman himself: a professional football player whose sense of duty had inspired him to enlist in the Army.
Tillman’s deeply desired but long delayed opportunity for combat would come in early spring, 2004, when his Second Battalion deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. On April 22, Tillman’s Black Sheep Platoon found themselves at dusk engaged in a fierce firefight on the shabby road to Mana, near the Pakistan border. During a mission to search villages, one of the armored Humvees in Tillman’s platoon broke down. An officer back at Bagram Headquarters ordered the platoon to split up: half, including Kevin Tillman, were to tow the Humvee to the base; the other half, with Pat, were to search the villages. Lt. David Uthlaut, the highly regarded platoon leader, phoned headquarters to protest the dividing of his outfit, insisting that splitting up in a hostile area weakened each segment. He was told to proceed as ordered.
A catalog of horrors unfolded. The units went in separate directions, but Kevin’s group towing the Humvee thought they had found an easier route and doubled back, only to come under attack from the Taliban. Pat and others from the first unit sped to aid their buddies and were fired on by their fellow soldiers in the second unit, who mistook them for the enemy. Pat was shot three times in the head by a SAW gunner, killing him instantly; an Afghan government soldier was also killed, and two other Americans were wounded.
Tillman had become the most famous American soldier in Afghanistan. The demoralizing particulars of his death had thus been known worldwide for years before Krakauer began his research. With masterful skill, he has produced a coherent account of what a popular radio commentator used to call “the rest of the story.” In the Tillman story, the “rest” is mostly about the Army’s cover-up, its attempt to hide the friendly-fire horror behind fobbed-up heroics that included awarding Tillman the military’s third-highest honor, the Silver Star, despite the fact that it cannot go to a victim of friendly fire. After Tillman’s death, Army commanders backed by Bush and Rumsfeld, as New York Times reviewer Dexter Filkins put it, “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.”
An Army officerthe leader of a forty-man quick-reaction force of Rangers who was serving in Afghanistan when Tillman was killedhas taken issue with Krakauer’s “misimpression that U.S. military officers are mainly political conservatives better at following orders than thinking critically. In reality [they] are as diverse as the people they defend.” Writing in The Washington Post, Andrew Exum finds that Krakauer, although credible about mountaineering in his book Into Thin Air (1997), does not appear to understand light infantry combat [when] he claims that [the decision to split up Tillman’s platoon] was driven not by poor and independent decision-making by field-grade officers but by Donald Rumsfeld’s insistence on [arbitrary deadlines]. Ranger unitsmeet deadlines because the missions they executeare complex operations that demand that men [coordinate] with one another under high levels of stress and confusion.
The historical context that Krakauer provides is important. At the time of Tillman’s death, America’s mood was increasingly disenchanted by the war in Iraq. The public was reading more and more about the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Rumsfeld and his image-conscious generals needed a win. Tillman’s death gave it to them. As Krakauer notes in his prologue: Aeschylus, the Fifth Century b.c. Greek tragedian wrote: “In war, truth is the first casualty.”
In late fall of 2009more than five years after Tillman’s deathhis long shadow still cast its spell. Major General Stanley McChrystal, just named commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, asked President Barack Obama for a reinforcement of troops. It was General McChrystal who one week after the disastrous firefight e-mailed a high-priority personal memo to special operations leaders that warned of an upcoming investigation that would probably reveal that “Corporal Tillman was killed by friendly fire.” General McChrystal’s memo sought “to preclude any unknowing statements by our country’s leaders which might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death became public.” It was McChrystal who prepared the citation for Tillman’s nebulous Silver Star.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 39
Army Times 70, no. 14 (October 19. 2009): special section, p. 10.
The Boston Globe, September 27, 2009, p. C6.
The New York Times Book Review, September 13, 2009, p. 11.
O: The Oprah Magazine 10, no. 12 (December, 2009): 192.
People 72, no. 12 (September 21, 2009): 59.
Sports Illustrated 111, no. 25 (December 21, 2009): 71.
The Village Voice 54, no. 51 (December 16, 2009): 35.
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