Friday, October 16, 2009

Book Review: Unfriendly Fire - A close look at the case of NFL star Pat Tillman, whose death in Afghanistan triggered a military coverup

By John Dufresne
Boston Globe
September 27, 2009

On Aug. 6, 2001, our vacationing president was warned by the CIA for the 36th time in eight months that Osama bin Laden was determined to strike in the United States and that recent intelligence had suggested an attack might be imminent. There were at that moment, George W. Bush was told, 70 bin-Laden-related field investigations being conducted in the country. “All right," our president told the CIA officer, “you’ve covered your ass."

On one level, Jon Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory" represents a detailed look at the tragic tale of Pat Tillman, the football star who quit the NFL to enlist in the Army and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

But Krakauer’s book is also an exhaustive examination of America’s political and military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Krakauer documents an unsettling history of miscalculation and mismanagement, of tactical blunders, deliberate deceit, and stunning incompetence at the highest levels of leadership. He finds no shortage of examples of the brand of blind arrogance and bad judgment reflected in Bush’s dismissal of the warnings by intelligence officers of a possible bin Laden attack. It all makes for painful, infuriating, and required reading. Truth, we learn, is the first casualty of war, and betrayal is a rule of the game.

In July 2002, Tillman, an Arizona Cardinal strong safety, walked away from a $3.6 million contract to become a grunt in the Army. In light of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, Tillman no longer felt that his role as an athlete was important. “My voice is calling me in a different direction,’’ he wrote in his journal. “It is up to me whether or not to listen.’’

Krakauer, author of ‘‘Into Thin Air,’’ tries too hard to win our admiration for Tillman, and, when he does, his prose becomes unnecessarily effusive. Here’s a description of Mr. Tillman that might have come from a romance novel: He has, we’re told, ‘‘chiseled features and a magnetic smile. But his eyes were his most arresting feature: greenish brown and angular, narrowly set, they were framed between high cheekbones and a dark forceful brow that emphasized their intensity.’’ And so on.

There are gratuitous passages of Tillman’s gridiron heroics complete with Brent Musberger’s play-by-play commentary. We could do with fewer reminders of the young football star’s robust masculinity or his alpha-male, superior-warrior status. And we don’t need to be told more than once that he was undersized and overachieving.

In fact, we like our heroes flawed. Odysseus taunted the vanquished Polyphemos; Achilles sulked in his tent. Tillman, it turns out, was given to impetuous acts of rage and valor. In his journals, in letters to friends and family, and most especially in his interaction with fellow Army Rangers, Tillman reveals himself to be an intelligent, inquisitive, principled, and tolerant young man with a zest for life.

When Specialist Tillman’s Alpha Company is deployed to a secret base in Saudi Arabia, he soon becomes marginally involved in the “rescue’’ of Private Jessica Lynch, a cynical exercise in perception management staged by an administration trying to rally support for its foundering military adventure. Tillman, himself, thought the war in Iraq was illegal and unjust, but became furious when he was not chosen to fight alongside Navy SEALS at Qadisiyah Airbase. His opportunity for combat would come a year later when his Second Battalion deployed to Afghanistan. Operation Enduring Freedom was a fight that Tillman believed in.

On April 22, 2004, after a series of confounding logistical decisions made by commanders quartered far from combat, Serials One and Two of the Black Sheep Platoon found themselves at dusk engaged in a ferocious firefight on the desolate road to Mana, near the Pakistan border. Fourteen minutes of chaos and horror followed, in which American soldiers fired uphill at other American soldiers. Despite the fact the soldiers being targeted waved their arms and identified themselves, the shooters would not stop firing. This whole sad, confusing misadventure, this “perfect storm of mistakes,’’ is rendered with alarming clarity and chilling detail by Krakauer.

At 6:46 p.m., Tillman was killed by friendly fire. He took three bullets to the head, killing him instantly. The Army had killed its poster boy. The coverup began almost immediately. When Tillman’s aggrieved family asked for the truth, they were answered with broken promises, persistent denials, and egregious lies. When the family persisted, when Tillman’s wife, mother, and brother demanded an accounting of the killing, they were met with arrogance, derision, and deceit all the way up the Army’s chain of command.

Under pressure, the Army launched a series of bollixed investigations, costing tens of millions of dollars, and designed to obfuscate the truth, blame the powerless, and protect the dishonorable and the culpable. It’s an exasperating story of vanishing evidence, falsified statements, and gross negligence.

In the end, Krakauer’s dogged efforts to uncover the unpleasant events of that fatal evening had to rely to some degree on the understandably suspect available evidence and had to contend with the fact that not all pertinent documents to the affair were released “because they implicate Executive Branch confidentiality.’’ Given these formidable obstacles, and given that the Defense Department did not want anyone to ever know the facts, Krakauer has somehow managed to illuminate a dark and bewildering chapter in America’s “War on Terror’’ and arrive, finally, at the truth, if not the whole truth.

John Dufresne’s most recent book is the novel “Requiem, Mass."

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