Friendly Fire

Where Men Win Glory; The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, Jon Krakauer, 2009

Previously read books by Krakauer include Into Thin Air, the account of the 1996 climbing disaster on Everest; Into the Wild, which was adapted for a movie by Sean Penn; and Under the Banner of Heaven, a story of the Mormon’s violent history. Given this list, it is clear why Krakauer would be interested in the Tillman story.

Pat Tillman

Krakauer had some difficulty fleshing this one out. No one in Pat’s family beyond his wife Mary was willing to help or even be interviewed. The reluctance of the family in the aftermath of the Bush administration’s attempt to turn his tragic death into war propaganda and to hide his fratricide is understandable. As he points out, Pat’s mother Dannie’s insistence on learning the truth of his death and holding the responsible accountable led to the release of most of the material that made the book possible. But to this day, The Bush administration and defense department have refused to release emails and other documents relating to top level involvement in the cover up and propaganda campaign.

One of the big ironies of the book is the central role of Pat’s mother Dannie in raising her three sons to love sports and athletics and to give them a set of values which made it all but inevitable that Pat and Kevin would volunteer for the army rangers in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Dannie was crushed when she organized an intervention to talk Pat out of his decision that failed.

The book is organized into the parallel stories of the recent history of Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion to today with the story of Pat Tillman as he grew to become a star football player whose small size and relatively slow speed belied his real talents that allowed him to star at Arizona State and to start for the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL. Krakauer gets much of his Afghan story from Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars.

Propagandist Jim Wilkinson with Rice

Pat was first sent to Iraq where his group played a backup role in the rescue of Jessica Lynch. This allows Krakauer to talk about the false information and propaganda campaign surrounding Lynch spur headed by a Bush campaign propagandist Jim Wilkinson who later played a similar role in glorifying Tillman. A few days after the uneventful Lynch rescue, a group of marines was ordered into the same city An Nasiriyah to capture the bridges. When the commander’s tank bogged itself into a sewer under a power line so he lost both mobility and communications, the operation turned into a disaster. The group separated into three sub groups, none of which knew where the others were due to the terrible radios. Making matters worse, communicating with air cover requires different radios entirely and the only person able to establish contact with the two circling warthogs mistakenly directed the planes to fire on his own group killing many marines. The cover up of this action included “losing” the warthog videos that recorded the entire action.

The cover up of Tillman’s death, which is described in great detail because of the many subsequent investigations included burning his uniform and vest as well as his personal diary. Finally, after about seven investigations (all by the military), the squad responsible for the actual shooting was kicked out of the rangers and the staff Sargent was demoted. No higher authority was ever even reprimanded. The only reason the military finally revealed the friendly fire was that Pat’s brother Kevin was still in the rangers and was the only member of his group not to know the truth. The army finally realized that someone in Kevin’s group was bound to reveal the truth at some point so they decided to tell him.

Krakauer ends with disturbing statistics; 21% of American deaths in WWII are believed to be caused by friendly fire. the number for Vietnam is believed to be 39%, in the first gulf war the number climbs to 52%.

FOB Tillman
FOB Tillman

The book indicates that army ranger Tillman may have fired his weapon only once, a warning shot in Baghdad. The only action he was involved in was to be shot by his own colleagues. Not exactly the heroism he expected. Oh, the canyon where he was killed and the nearby Forward Operating Base (FOB) were named after him.

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