November 02, 2009

On Martial Virtue ... and Selling Jon Krakauer's Crappy New Book

A few months ago, I was asked to review Jon Krakauer's new book by the Washington Post, and I must admit to having been excited. Having grown up a pretty serious rock climber, I was a huge fan of Jon Krakauer's previousir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0385494785booksir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0307387178, and in my mind, Krakauer was the best possible guy to write a book on the incredible life and tragic death of Pat Tillman.

Alas, the book was awful. I mean, it was really bad. On the same day in which I had very little good to say about it in the Post, it was similarly panned by Dexter Filkins in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. The book was so bad that Filkins and I managed to find completely different reasons to think it was rubbish. The main problem I had with the book was that Krakauer let his visceral hatred of the Bush Administration get in the way of telling what could have been a pretty good story about an amazing young man who gave up a career in the NFL to enlist in the U.S. Army and then died in Afghanistan, killed by a member of his own platoon in a firefight gone horribly wrong.

In my review, I did not spare -- as you might have expected me to do, given the particular U.S. Army regiment in which I was serving -- Pat Tillman's chain of command for what were a series of monumental cock-ups in the aftermath of Tillman's death. I thought it particularly unconscionable that Tillman's battalion commander sent a young Ranger to the funeral and expected him to go along with the lie about how Tillman died until his family could be notified once the battalion had returned. (A friend reminded me later that the 2nd Ranger Battalion had very little experience dealing with combat casualties up until that point in the war, which is a good point that I might have mentioned.) But a very wise woman -- and a former C-130 pilot -- told me once that when you're examining military miscues, you should draw a long line on a sheet of paper and write "conspiracy" on one end of the line and "buffoonery" on the other. The odds are in favor of buffoonery -- the act whereby otherwise intelligent people make a series of stupid decisions -- being a more likely explanation for what went wrong than conspiracy.

Not in Krakauer's world. In Krakauer's world, there is no rock in Afghanistan under which a plot cooked up by Donald Rumsfeld and Doug Feith is not hiding. This guy even went so far as to say that the Ranger Regiment's strict adherence to timelines was a by-product of the Bush Administration and Rumsfeld's Pentagon. (Funny, and here I grew up thinking it was because things like airfield seizures are really complex operations that demand subordinate units be places and do things according to schedule.)

So Krakauer wrote a crappy book, and now he has to market it. And how is he doing that? By going after Stan McChrystal, who is probably the least culpable guy in Tillman's chain of command for any of the stupid things that happened in the aftermath of his death. There Krakauer was, on Meet the Press yesterday, going after McChrystal, who he never interviewed for his book but who had sent a memorandum up through the chain of command at the time of Tillman's death warning his commanders about the circumstances surrounding the event.

In the great tragic story that is the death of Pat Tillman, Stan McChrystal stands out as one of the guys who made mistakes but ultimately did the right thing. At this point, he should issue a statement saying something along the lines of:

"Pat Tillman was an American hero. His death was a great tragedy. I apologize to his family for the poor quality of the initial investigations into his death and for the decisions made by Pat Tillman's commanders to not immediately notify them of the circumstances under which he died. I personally apologize for not closely reviewing the citation for Pat Tillman's valor award to ensure its accuracy. I am now fully committed to winning the war in Afghanistan and to ensuring that Pat Tillman's sacrifice and the sacrifice of his family was not in vain. Thank you."

Here's what really upsets me. I know that Jon Krakauer has to sell his book, but in doing so, he is cravenly seizing upon the fact that Stan McChrystal is the man of the moment to do so even though by doing so Krakauer once again takes the focus off Pat Tillman and politicizes his death in as crummy a way as the Bush Administration ever did.

On the night Pat Tillman was killed, I myself was leading a platoon of Army Rangers as part of a quick reaction force in Afghanistan under the command of Stan McChrystal (albeit many rungs down on the chain of command). I heard the casualty report on the radio en route to another objective, but I did not discover it had been Pat Tillman who was killed until returning to base the next evening.

On returning to base, I walked into my battalion commander's office and started chatting with him, as I often did, about books. This was the guy who had introduced me to books like The Centurionsir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=B0000CL4NJ and A Savage War of Peaceir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1590172183, and before long, we started talking about Pat Tillman. Tillman's highly emotional repatriation ceremony had been that night, and we were thinking about how his death would hit the news back in the States. (We were serving in a different battalion, and I at least had no idea Tillman was killed by friendly fire. I would not learn that fact until I had returned to the United States a week later.) Toward the end of our conversation, I remember my battalion commander saying that he "could throw a rock in this compound and hit ten Pat Tillmans".

What he meant by that was no slight on Pat Tillman, a man who in life and in death embodied courage and sacrifice and a host of other virtues and traits. What he meant by that was that so too did every one of the Rangers who followed me onto a very cold mountaintop in eastern Afghanistan the night Tillman was killed. So too did all of the other Rangers and special operators on the compound. Hell, none of us were drafted. We were four-time volunteers -- we volunteered for the Army, we volunteered for the Airborne Course, we volunteered for the Ranger Course, and we volunteered to serve in the Ranger Regiment. None of us were dead-end high school drop-outs with no other place to go. The guy who was #1 in his class at West Point was a fellow platoon leader in my battalion. Our intelligence officer went to Cornell. My forward observer was captain of the baseball team at James Madison and turned down law school to enlist in the Rangers. (And now works in the Obama Administration, by the way.) We all had better places to be than fighting a war in eastern Afghanistan and all of us could have chosen a more comfortable and profitable way to spend our twenties.

But in the eyes of Krakauer and on the fringes of the American left, soldiers are either victims of circumstance or war criminals in waiting. If soldiers have any martial virtues such as those displayed by Pat Tillman, we're only comfortable celebrating them posthumously. This allows a guy like Krakauer to praise Pat Tillman but slander Stan McChrystal, a guy who has spent 30+ years faithfully serving his country in the most demanding jobs -- jobs which require not just hard work but martial virtues we Americans have lost the ability to even speak about. 

Stan McChrystal is one of the finest men I have ever known, and I hope I have sons who serve under men like him. Jon Krakauer is going after him now because he has written a crappy book and now has to sell it. McChrystal is in the news, and that gives Krakauer's book relevance, even if the virtues of Pat Tillman fade to the background. That really makes me angry. But I guess it remains a possibility that Jon Krakauer wrote an entire book about Pat Tillman without ever understanding the kind of man he was -- and that there might exist other men like him.