Sunday, July 03, 2011

Book #7: Where Men Win Glory

Jon Krakauer is an excellent writer. Before I left for Nepal last summer, I spent a Saturday night reading various accounts of disastrous Himalayan expeditions, Krakauer's account of the 1996 Everest disaster published in Outside magazine being chief among them. Krakauer is an excellent writer, one of my favourites, as much for his writing style as his choice of topics.

Krakauer's account of the death of former NFL star Pat Tillman is well-written. I found much of it to be rather obsequious in a way that is uncharacteristic of Krakauer. It's sort of reminiscent of why small, overpriced portions at restaurants where prices are expressed in single digits without dollar signs cause rich people to go berserk in a way that stale McNuggets simply wouldn't.

If an 18-year-old soldier gets into a drunken brawl, it's because he's stupid, but when Tillman does it, it's an expression of his masculinity, commitment to a moral code and unwillingness to shrink down from a challenge.

The most important part of this story is not that Tillman died, or how he died, but that almost from the moment he enlisted, he was used by the American government as a public relations tool. About a half dozen people, retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal being one, seem obviously guilty of criminal activity in deliberately covering up the fact that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, although no one was punished in a meaningful way.

Krakauer is most famous for Into Thin Air, the story of a disastrous spring season on Mount Everest, and Into the Wild, another story about a man who thought he could do more than he was capable of doing. Where Men Win Glory is similar. Tillman's wife Marie describes how, two years into his three-year commitment to the military, Tillman was aggressively pursued by several NFL teams.

"[A]t that point in time he probably would have loved to have gone back and played football... But we never really discussed it it because it just wasn't going to happen. There was no way he was going to bail out of the Army halfway through."

Krakauer further observes that "[a]s much as Pat hated being in the military and forcing Marie to endure all that his enlistment entailed, breaking the commitment he'd made to the Rangers would have violated principles he considered inviolable."

It's only in hindsight that Tillman's insistence on completing his three-year commitment seems to have been a mistake, but throughout the book Tillman is lauded for sticking rigidly to principles and rules of his own making.

Both in running and in the combination of hiking-slash-traveling that has become one of my favourite past-times, we all know people with a bizarre obsession for sticking to self-imposed rules. Some people have to run everyday, others have to run everyday at a certain speed or feel like a failure, and others have to run a certain number of kilometres per week in order to feel like they're training. If you're not a runner, you'd be amazed at how many runners feel like a week of 51 miles is a success, but one of 47 miles is a failure.

In his analysis of why it was that so many experienced climbers died on Mount Everest, Krakauer pointed to one key cause: pointless rigidity. Many climbers sacrificed safety at the final push to the summit because, to them, it was absurd to have come this far without reaching the top. Those climbers who stuck to a pre-determined time in the afternoon for turning around, regardless of whether or not they had summited, tended to make it out alive. Those who insisted on summiting no matter what the cost, paid the price.

It is obviously not true that there is nothing to be gained from the sort of determination that Tillman displayed throughout his life. As a professional athlete and as a soldier, rigid determination gets you very far. Flexibility keeps you from working out on days when you don't feel like it, rigidity and determination takes you from being someone who was 5'5, 120 lbs, judged by your high school coach as someone not suited to football, to being a professional.

Obviously, the line between pigheadedness and determination is a fine one. I can't remember if there is something like this in Aristotle's virtues, but Aristotle presents us with an excellent method for divining this line. Virtue, as defined by Aristotle, is the mean between excess and deficiency. Someone who insists on running everyday, even on a broken leg, isn't doing themselves any favours, but neither is someone who doesn't run if it's hot, cold, rainy, windy, or snowy.

On first examination, Tillman seems to have an excess of determination, but Aristotle also judges the standard of virtue to be virtuous people. If we consider Tillman alongside other excellent people, be they soldiers or football players, he certainly compare favourably.

Nevertheless, Krakauer either portrays Tillman unfavourably or ascribes to him virtues that don't exist by lauding his stubbornness as something to emulate. Tillman is constantly portrayed as someone hemmed in by rules of his own making for no other reason than they were rules of his own making. It's one thing for me to eat a dozen donuts if I feel that it's healthy for me. It's another to force a dozen donuts down my throat just because I once said that I would do it.

The other notable aspect of the book is Krakauer's account of Tillman's death itself. What makes his death such a catastrophic mistake is that he was fired at by his unit from as close as 120 feet, "the distance from home plate to second base". Tillman died when he stood up from behind a rock to indicate that he was American, not Taliban. The soldier who shot him tesified that "I identified two sets of arms straight up. The arms did not indicate any signs of a cease-fire."

When asked to explain "why would you fire on two sets of arms if they were straight up in the air?", he replied "this was a third world country, and they don't have hand and arm signals like we do."

Of Tillman's last moments, Krakauer writes, "it's impossible to know what was going through his mind. ...Although Pat probably couldn't make out Alders's features in the twilight, he would have known who it was from Alders's compact stature and the fact that he was holding a SAW. Shortly after Alders brought the weapon to his shoulder, Pat would have seen a flash from the gun's stubby barrel. Concurrent with the muzzle flash, three .223-caliber bullets pierced the right side of his forehead, just below the rim of his helmet, killing him instantly."

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