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John Krakauer's Where Men Win Glory: A Review

I call it the “Michael Crichton/Tom Clancy Character Syndrome.” When every character is not just good, but the best, ever. In Jurassic Park, for example, there's the best geneticist, the best computer programmer, and the best big game hunter. Tom Clancy's John Clark is the ultimate spy and Jack Ryan is the ultimate analyst. In Crichton/Clancy novels, no one is just "the guy who's ok at stuff."

It pops up occasionally in non-fiction writing too, especially if you deal with people who live at the extremes of life as Jon Krakauer does in his books. He brings real--and exceptional--people to life. He does a better job than most biographers in probing mankind's limits, physically and mentally.

Krakauer has written about men climbing the world's the tallest mountain, a person who dropped out of society, and the extremes of religious fanaticism. Do the extremes of violence--war--fit into his world? Absolutely. In Where Men Win Glory, he takes on one of our nation's most exceptional contradictions: Pat Tillman, the intelligent football player who dropped a lucrative NFL contract to join the Army Rangers. Overall, he tells Pat Tillman's story well, with perhaps a bit too much applause. In the last quarter of the book, when he takes on the military's handling of his death, he excels at revealing the US Army leadership as one more concerned with PR than mission accomplishment.

Krakauer loves his characters. In Into the Wild, the main character is a recluse, but sounds like the smartest, most gifted, most charismatic recluse who ever walked the earth. Even the violent extremists in Under the Banner of Heaven come across as the most violent, most charismatic extremists you will ever meet. He might not love them, but he certainly admires them.

And Pat Tillman is equally impressive. A professional football player with an extremely high GPA from the University of Arizona is nothing to laugh at. But it seems like he has no faults in Where Men Win Glory. His being an obnoxious American to French people is downplayed as just a guy having some fun. His assault on an innocent student during high school comes across as nothing more than an accident.

After you get past Krakauer's near-worship of Tillman, the work takes off. When I was finished, I understood why Tillman joined the military, and why, until the end, he was conflicted about going to combat. Krakauer captures the bizarre duality of wanting to excel in your job--fighting wars--but detesting the slaughter and devastation that come with it. He also captures the crucial moments of fear Tillman felt, and Tillman's growing frustration with the US Army and the US Army Rangers; all emotions I understand.

But Where Men Win Glory has one central theme bigger than Pat Tillman's tale, and Krakauer argues it very well: the military is a CYA place. When mistakes are made, the military does what it can to avoid punishing those responsible, and then obscures the truth if needed. This happens three times in Where Men Win Glory: the Jessica Lynch rescue, a Marine Corps friendly fire debacle in Nasiriyah, and the death of Pat Tillman. In each case, dramatic mistakes were made; in each case, the military never blamed its subordinate commanders. And in each case, the initial press releases deliberately misled the media.

Maybe the Jessica Lynch rescue, or the history of Afghanistan, or countless other asides take us too far from the Tillman tale. Or they help weave a tapestry that was Pat Tillman's life, and death. And when writing about Pat Tillman's death, you can't ignore the military's impulses to cover up every mistake they make.

six comments

Sounds like a good example of one persons life representing the larger military.

I think I need to read this.

Me too.

FWIW, Gary Smith’s Pat Tillman story for Sports Illustrated was fantastic: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2006/ma..

I was a huge Pat Tillman fan from his ASU football days, and I think his story has affected my life, personally, a whole lot.

I couldn’t pick anyone I’d rather tell the story then Krakauer, for the simple reason that for Krakauer, everyone is a BIG DEAL. While this is often ridiculous in writing, I think it helps when he writes about egotists like Tillman, McCandless, and of course Krakauer himself. To these guys, they are the best at everything they do, and Krakauer sympathizes with them and gets the reader to, too.

I’ll have a more educated opinion on the book once I, you know ,read it. But it definitely sounds neat.

Me too.

Sorry about the double post, sometimes my phone has a mind of it’s own.

Very insightful review of that book. I actually went to BNCOC last March with a fellow (now) Staff Sergeant who was with Pat on his assault up the hill that day. He’s actually mentioned in the Sports Illustrated article that AJK points out.

I didn’t know much about the Pat Tillman incident, only that it was a massive blunder by the Army and the 75th to seemingly try to cover it up the way it did. But reading this review prompted me to read more about it and through that, I too stumbled upon the SI article. I also posted the link to it below for anyone to check out. It made me laugh and cry like a good article should. Its tough to read, especially seeing the apparent negligence on behalf of the “TOC monkeys” but invigorating nonetheless.