Krakauer is always a good read. I loved Into Thin Air and really loved Into the Wild. I passed on Under the Banner of Heaven and Eiger Dreams, but I should probably backtrack on those decisions. I liked this book so much that I’ve decided to try and read every word Krakauer has ever written.
You know the story I think. Pat Tillman was an all-star for the Arizona Cardinals who was on track to bask in NFL riches for years to come. But he cut short his career at around age 26 to join the Army, motivated by some sense of duty after witnessing the events of 9/11. He then gets killed in active duty about half way through his three year tour. He gets a hero’s burial, but while his death is being mourned the military is actively trying to figure out how to keep secret the fact that he died from friendly fire in hopes that they can mitigate the horrible publicity that they know will come when the truth is released. It’s sad, really sad.
The book really grabs you just before half way into it. I was reading along about Tillman’s football career in 2001 and all of a sudden he joins the Army in 2002. In the expanse of a few chapters the book transitions from talking about his life as an Arizona Cardinal to his time in boot camp. It’s an especially emotional few chapters because there are extensive passages from his own journal. He expresses sorrow and longing for the first few months of training, then great joy and satisfaction when his wife and best friend come for a 30 hour visit. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching I tell you.
It would be gut-wrenching and emotional reading about any new member of our armed forces who was missing their family and concerned about what was to come. But stories about those not-so-famous young people who join the military never get published. I wonder how representative Tillman’s experience was and how the average enlisted person feels about this story.
This Tillman story is a special case for a few reasons. First, he was famous before he went in thereby resulting in much publicity and a desire to tell the story. Second, he wrote a lot of it down. He liked to keep a journal so there is a fair amount of first person material to describe the events and his feelings towards them. And finally, his brother was by his side almost the whole time to corroborate the story. These things don’t make it any more painful for Tillman’s family than it would be for any family who loses a loved one to war (especially if there’s a cover-up), but it does provide momentum to tell the story.
Besides the sympathy that you feel for the Tillman family, there is an equal and opposite feeling of anger toward the people who tried to cover this up. It felt like a grave injustice was done to the Tillman family, and it was perpetrated by just about every level of the Army and reached into the highest levels of the Bush administration. That is, if Krakauer is being completely truthful with us and telling the story in an unbiased manner. But in the absence of a book telling the Army’s or the Bush Administration’s side of the story, I’m probably going with Krakauer’s version. I should do some research on that.
Regardless, I’m taking a somewhat philosophical point from this book. Let me see if I can make sense of my thoughts. Here goes: there are only a few people in the world that will do right by you; your spouse, your family, and your closest friends. I’m talking five, ten, maybe twenty people depending on the size of your family. The other few billion people on earth don’t give a damn about you. In fact, a large chunk of those other few billion people either want to harm you or will relish any harm done to you. What makes this story so inspirational is that Pat Tillman tried to buck this.
He did right by a much larger portion of humanity than did right by him. He had a soft sport for the under served, was loyal to a fault, and was immune to greed. I think his theory was that if you just do right by the people that do right by you, you aren’t really making the world a better place, you’re only breaking even. So he treated groups like the Arizona Cardinals, the Army, and the United States of America as a few groups that he did right by. And the saddest fact of this whole story is that those groups did not reciprocate. Instead, they cheapened his work product, spread his brains all over a mountain in Afghanistan, and perpetrated lies and half-truths about his death for years. WTF? It’s a sad commentary on humanity.
Pat Tillman passed up a $9.6 million contract to stay with the Cardinals at the league minimum ($512,000) because he was loyal to the team who took a chance on him. They kept him at the league minimum and he didn’t care; he wasn’t greedy. He was famous when he went into the Army but asked for no favors. He wouldn’t even entertain the thought of participating in any Army marketing schemes involving him because he didn’t want the appearance of favoritism. He was a guy who did the right thing. But this did not prevent the guys in his own battalion from concealing the truth from his family. Guys he worked with every day, fellow military men who went to war next to him, didn’t step up and do the right thing. Tillman’s small circle of family and close friends did the right thing. They went to bat for him to find the truth after he died.
If Tillman had survived and a member of his battalion was killed by friendly fire, I’m betting Tillman would have stood up and told the truth. But hindsight is 20/20 right? Who knows. You can’t deny that the nature of Tillman was that he did right by people outside of his small circle of family and friends.
I hope I have the fortitude to expand my “circle of right,” but I fear I’ve failed in this endeavor. I’ve failed to do the right thing for much more of humanity than will do the right thing for me. I’ve failed to stand up for strangers, acquaintances, and groups I disagree with. I’ve failed to be first in line to help regardless of my connection to the people or the problem. Pat Tillman raised the bar in this regard. He was wired differently man.
So where does that leave me? What should I, as an American, be doing to help my country? What should I, as a human being, be doing to help humanity? Pat Tillman asked a similar question and arrived at the idea of serving in the military. He looked at his life and saw how meaningless pro football was and decided to pursue something more meaningful. So what is my moral obligation to finding some higher level of meaning? Is it something as straightforward as just helping people who have less than me? That seems to set the bar pretty low.
Helping people who have less than me seems like it should just get me in the door, but not even in the same door that Tillman got to take. This idea of finding meaning permeated the very fiber of Tillman’s being. Every decision he made had a higher purpose. I’m not saying they were always the right decisions. He certainly hurt loved ones with his decisions. In one sense, his selfishness in pursuit of his own quest for meaning hurt those he loved most. But his intent was noble, so does that make it alright? His wife seems to have come to terms with it.
Anyway, I think the dude was cool. Here are some of Krakauer’s insights into Tillman that I found interesting:
He enjoyed almost everything about getting drunk, in fact: the sound of the Guinness going blub-blub-blub into the glass; the shedding of cares; the heightened sense of interpersonal connection; the swelling euphoria; the way it caused the music to bore a hole through one’s skull; the giddy, fleeting glimpse it seemed to provide into the deepest mysteries of the cosmos. When Pat was lit, recalls Alex, “he’d throw his head back, his eyes would turn into these little slits, and he’d let loose with this booming laugh.
Although imbibing was certainly one of Tillman’s great pleasures, his favorite beverage wasn’t alcoholic. It was coffee, which ran through his life like the Ganges runs through India, lending commonality to disparate experiences and far-flung points of the compass. And although Pat delighted in the rituals associated with coffee—grinding the beans, mashing down the plunger on a French press, perusing the menu at espresso stands—the coffee itself was really just a lubricant, a catalyst, a means to a particular end, which was stimulating conversation.
And this about journaling stuff:
Explaining his reasons for journaling (something he had never done during previous football seasons), he added, “1) This is a pivotal year for me and by taking the time to put down my thoughts I might just help myself. 2) I think in the future it will be a good thing to have, both to learn from and laugh at. 3) After keeping my journal in Europe, I learned to enjoy it. I realize it’s no good but it’s still fun to put your thoughts together. … Practice starts tomorrow.”
And about reading:
Although Pat spoke self-deprecatingly about his intelligence, and claimed that his academic success in college came from hard work rather than brainpower, his intellectual curiosity was boundless, and he was a compulsive reader who never went anywhere without a book.
This sounds like the kind of guy I want to hang out with. Krakauer certainly feels the same way about Tillman and then some. I wondered at times if Krakauer was truly unbiased during this book. Krakauer does have an axe to grind with our foreign policy regarding Afghanistan. Beware that there is a lot of hardcore political stuff on Afghanistan and how American foreign policy has been botched there.
Great story. It’s the book that sparked the most emotion in me so far this year. Maybe the best book thus far. I’ll start thinking about that.