By Jon Krakauer
Doubleday, 400 pp., $27.95
By Don Oldenburg, special for USA TODAY
Much of Tillman's remarkable story is widely known, but not all. You may recall he was the chiseled, long-haired National Football League star who, seven months after 9/11, decided to trade the football field for the battlefield.
Leaving behind a devoted wife, adoring family and friends and a $3.6 million contract, Tillman enlisted in the Army with his brother, Kevin. They endured boot camp, trained as elite Army Rangers, then spent an uneventful and disillusioning two months in Iraq. In 2004, the brothers were deployed to Afghanistan to do what they set out to do: fight America's enemies, the al-Qaeda terrorists and the Taliban insurgents.
Krakauer digs deeply into Tillman's California childhood, his love of the outdoors and his struggles as an undersized teen to make the high school varsity football team and take the next step to college football. His zeal for living led to on-field heroics as well as partying and drinking that almost jeopardized his future. Tillman met each new setback and challenge with amazing resolve.
Krakauer is a best-selling author (Into the Wild and Into Thin Air) whose narrative talents have chronicled the lives of other unforgettable characters. An adventurer himself, he clearly empathizes with Tillman's quest for reaching new heights (he loved cliff jumping) and testing his mettle. The author details turning points for this rugged individualist, such as a spectacular catch in a youth baseball game that instilled a lifetime of self-confidence, and a month in juvenile lockup for pummeling a kid in a fistfight, which turned him into an insatiable reader. (He eventually graduated summa cum laude from Arizona State University.)
Seeking events and decisions that led Tillman into battle, Krakauer also inserts cogently crafted chapters on Afghanistan's modern war-torn history, the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the U.S. response to 9/11 and the war in Iraq.
But this riveting book isn't without flaws. Krakauer explores some threads that he never convincingly connects to influencing Tillman — from the large Afghan community in the Bay Area, where Tillman grew up, to the controversial outcome of the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential election. More annoying, Krakauer inserts long passages in the Afghanistan and al-Qaeda chapters from books such as Steve Coll's Ghost Wars and Ahmed Rashid's Taliban that interrupt Krakauer's otherwise page-turning prose.
In the end, however, Krakauer circles back in disturbing detail to the moments when Tillman was accidentally killed by a Ranger in his own platoon. His narrative turns powerfully critical in examining the aftermath of lies, destroyed evidence and falsified documents in an unconscionable cover-up, which led Tillman's devastated family, the news media and the public to believe that Tillman had died heroically in a firefight with Taliban warriors.
Krakauer blames the cover-up on military bungling and what he says was the Bush administration's desire to exploit Tillman's death with a gung-ho fallen-hero tale to divert attention from scandalous disclosures soon to emerge from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Tillman indeed was a fallen hero who, while alive, shunned all efforts to make him the poster boy of a global war against terrorism. And Krakauer's gripping book about this extraordinary man who lived passionately and died unnecessarily sets the record