Where Men Win Glory – An Unwilling Mockingjay

Hi all. This week I want to revisit my favorite biography about politics and football. I care about neither politics nor football, but Where Men Win Glory is an engaging drama about the life, death, and manipulation of one very interesting man. Let’s get into it.

I was also inspired to write this imagist poem in 2017 after I first this book.

First, a summary: This biography uses the story of Pat Tillman’s heroic life and tragic death to critique the US Government and military, showing how institutional deceit and ineptitude cost extraordinary lives. From falsified military awards to vanishing “investigations”, the aftermath of Tillman’s death has all the action of a blockbuster espionage drama. But at the center of this national catastrophe is one singularly beautiful human life.

Jon Krakauer’s stunning biography Where Men Win Glory details the life and death of Pat Tillman, a nationally known NFL player who turned down a multimillion-dollar contract to serve in Afghanistan, a decision that ultimately cost him his life. The chapter arrangement is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s style in The Grapes of Wrath, alternating between painting Tillman’s life and chronicling the Afghan political turmoil that led to his untimely death in 2004. I honestly don’t care much for political history of any nation, but reading about the thoughtful, tough, sensitive, gentle giant named Pat Tillman, I wish I could have met him. I realize posthumous tributes are often written with rose-colored glasses, but Krakauer authentically paints a complex man who’s at once relatable and strange in his uniqueness.

Pat Tillman was an NFL player from Arizona who left a contract worth millions to serve as a Ranger after 9/11. He lived in California, in a “conventional” family. He kept a lifelong diary of introspective wisdom and married his high-school girlfriend. He also died in Afghanistan at age 27 of “friendly fire” (he was shot by an American soldier rather than an enemy).

The biography spans Pat’s entire life and includes details about the investigation into his death, but one through-line is his lifelong partner, Marie. His devotion to her adds an air of epic romance to this tragic odyssey. The second half details the aftermath of his death, and Marie’s preternatural calm and grace in the storm.

Krakauer’s rage is palpable on every page, and it transfers easily to readers. The author takes particular aim at government officials like President George Bush II, his VP Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, along with various high-ranking military personnel. His interviews with Pat’s friends family, and fellow soldiers cast clear lines of right and wrong, and I am both awed and worried by his audacity in calling these people out.

Let me clearly state something before proceeding: I wholeheartedly support America’s military. I believe people who choose to enlist are brave and honorable, and I know people who have served well in a variety of roles. I think in this particular instance, “The Government” mishandled a political and PR crisis, and the officials to blame are no longer in office

Pat is portrayed as a mix of Paul from Norman MacLean’s memoir A River Runs Through It, and Captain America – a complex man with equal tenderness and strength, who becomes a political pawn. The book includes a number of Pat’s journal entries, and he comes across as intellectual and articulate, introspective and observant of the world around him. It’s not what I would expect from a professional footballer, but it’s a fascinating window into the mind of an icon. Because he was something of a celebrity, his enlistment made headlines, and even Pentagon officials took interest in him, hoping to find a real-life Captain America. He didn’t take the bait. After his death, Pat becomes something like Katniss Everdeen’s Mockingjay – a pawn manipulated to resemble a symbol of a worthy cause.

In conclusion, this is one of my favorite books, and I appreciate different aspects as I get older, I would recommend this to fans of football and military histories, or to fans of dramatic tragedies that manage to inspire. Pat’s legacy will live on, and inspire others, even from beyond. 💜

I took this photo of the back of my book.

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