Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Book Review

Commenter Organic Cheeseboard mentioned writing another review in the last thread, and he's welcome to send it to me when he finishes it, and I'll put it up, just as I did his Jacobson one (which eventually garnered a respectful, if modest, collection of comments).

Before we go gentle into that good night, as readers, following the example of Justin, one by one, without any fuss, shuffle from this [get ON with it - Ed] I'd like to post one book recommendation.

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer.

I didn't expect to read this book, let alone love it. I wanted to read the author's earlier Into Thin Air (because Anne Billson had recommended it). The library didn't have it, but it did have this, and I'd heard of Tillman, and am, as you may imagine, interested in Afghanistan, so I couldn't resist. I read most of it on train journeys between Cardiff and London. They flew by.

As I said, I'd heard of Tillman; I knew he was an American Football player who joined the Army (actually the Rangers, who seem to be more of an analogue of the Paras, but more knowledgeable readers may correct me on that point) following 9/11, and was killed (by "friendly fire" though this took time to emerge) in Afghanistan in 2004. Until now, I knew three things about American Football. It's a poem by Harold Pinter. It ruined the end of M*A*S*H the movie. And it's responsible for a lot of lower leg injuries in US jocks.

(Ed: hold on, hold on. This has all gone a bit Liz Jones. Who cares what you know about American Football? Even if it's the most boring game on the planet, ignorance is nothing to be proud of. Me: excuse me! I'm making a point here. AW readers probably hate all those helmets and forward passes almost as much as they do Nick Clegg. I'm trying to tell them not to switch off because it's about some meat head . Ed: you're much too late for that.)

This isn't a straightforward or non-partisan book. IMO, Jon Krakauer, is a very gifted writer, but (or, perhaps, and) he doesn't bother to hide his distain (too mild a term really) for George W Bush. This is a polemic. A very well crafted polemic: it twines Tillman's innocent suburban childhood as a very gifted, headstrong athlete in a tolerant, liberal, and discursive family, with the parallel story of the US (eg Carter and Brzezinski) plan or plot to goad the USSR into the Afghan war, how that developed, and what happened next. Krakauer meanwhile builds a case on the US Army's "economy with the truth" regarding 'fratricide' (in this case, US soldiers killed by other US military personnel).

If I have any readers at this point, I'd like to ask if they remember the Jessica Lynch case, and what they remember of it. Tillman had a 'sort of' role in it. He was in a unit deployed to her rescue, but he didn't engage in combat. Krakauer shoves Lynch in because she's an example of how hard the White House was spinning the Iraq invasion. The story of her capture is the only place that book comes to extended humour, and by humour I really mean pathos. Tillman kept a diary, to which he confided that he thought the rescue was a PR exercise. He was right.

I thought about quoting from the book, but that would bulk up this post considerably. I was affected much more than I thought I ought to have been. Tillman was the sort of pro athlete amateurs aspire to be, not necessarily the best, but the guy who tried hardest. He had an element of the thug about him. He was always known for "violent" tackles, and he beat up a surfer kid between leaving school and going to college. (It was mistaken identity; but he was a physical guy, and a bit scary.) However, he was smart, an atheist, and a book lover, and a keeper of (rescued) cats. In other words, my sort of man, even before we get to the marathon and triathlon and competitive wine drinking.

I was big on the web in 2001. I knew about blogs, but wasn't sure if I wanted one. In those days, Dave Winer pretty much kept watch over all of the live ones. I remember the outrage. "America is being attacked" badges on every US blog. Tillman and his brother Kevin (younger by fourteen months and a professional baseball player when he left college) joined the forces. Almost no one else who could hold down better than a minimum wage job joined them. That's in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" and however much Nick Cohen and others abuse Moore, that remains the truth. Army recruitment is hard. The moral of this story is, unfortunately, almost intuitive. Those bright, and white, and middle class kids who stayed away: they had the right idea.

This is a very short precis of the fulcrum of this narrative. Tillman and his brother had served in Iraq and their second tour took them to Afghanistan. Their platoon was recce-ing Afghanistan when one vehicle broke down. Because of the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan having been demoted to the second war on Terror, or whatever), a helicopter was not made available to airlift this vehicle. Therefore, it needed to be towed. This slowed down the patrol, and would have meant that they would not have been able to reach a village by dusk (as scheduled), so their headquarters (or Forward Operating Base or FOB) insisted against the one Lieutenant's protests, as well as his NCOs, that the convoy split. They manage to find an Afghan tow-truck (called a Jinga truck) to tow the broken down vehicle, and go separate ways. However, the Jinga driver does not like the shortest route back to the FOB - neither do the Rangers - so they turn round and follow the other half of the platoon.

The first half do not meet with any resistance. The second half are not so lucky. They are fired on by a few, not well organised feyadeen, who probably flee not long after fire is returned. (This is important: the actual fighting as in mutual hostilities did not last long at all. The Taliban purpose was to harry, not to destroy, because the latter was beyond their capabilities without a lot of luck.) The first half (now known as Serial One) become aware of shooting, and realise that American forces are involved because they see tracer fire, which the US uses and the Taliban doesn't. Serial Two (or more precisely, one of its vehicles) do not realise that the danger is past, and target anything human they can, these being Sayeed Farhad, an Afghan in US uniform, but holding a Kalashnikov (a Taliban and not a Coalition weapon) and Pat Tillman, who, having recognised his comrades was unarmed with his hands up. The latter was killed with very close placed rounds just under his helmet. (The Taliban don't wear uniforms, camouflage, armour, or helmets. They don't tend to be tall and muscular either.) Krakauer is quite certain he knows who shot Tillman. Shall I say, he doesn't seem to like him much? The military ground through tribunals (after an autopsy the doctors refused to sign because Tillman's corse arrived naked, when regulations state the post-mortem needs it in the clothing at time of death) and eventually "RFD'd" him (and several others) - which means they were moved to the regular army, with no other penalties. To reiterate, admittedly at dusk, in hostile country, and having come under fire, he had shot one of his own platoon, with his hands up, in uniform, and done so with impressive precision for the bad light which didn't allow him to recognise who or what he was shooting at.

Krakauer's ire doesn't stop at a pathetic specialist soldier; most of it follows the lead of JB Priestly's "An Inspector Calls" with about half a gallon of Alan Clark's "The Donkeys". Everyone above the rank of lieutenant gets it.

If you have any male relatives approaching school leaving age with that gleam in the eye that says they're thinking about being the best, remind them that there are other honourable ways to earn a crust: playing the accordion in underpasses, organ donation, prostitution, and writing for the Daily Mail. They may seem degrading, but at least they're not the army. Gore Vidal, in "Julian" (which I'm also reading, and elsewhere no doubt, because he'd never waste a good apercu) complains that the young men of the Roman Empire won't fight. If civilisation has an obvious benefit, it is very good for imparting wisdom painlessly.

[Having read through the above, I realise it needs five or six more passes to become readable, but as this is a blog, and I'm not getting paid, fuck it. If you didn't get this far, good for you.

If you did, don't let me put you off. This may be the best book I'll read in 2011.]


Anonymous belle le triste said...

You were already looking for it before this, and presumably are doubly convinced now, but I echo Anne Billson's recommendation of "Into Thin Air"

1/19/2011 10:34:00 AM  
Anonymous cian said...

Almost no one else who could hold down better than a minimum wage job joined them.

This doesn't sound right to me. I think its highly geographical. In the South its definitely not true, and I suspect the same is true of some of the mid western states.

1/19/2011 01:11:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Cian, I took the book back to the library yesterday, but fortunately, I found the tweet where I wrote down Pat Tillman's own diary entry on his fellow recruits who survived boot camp.

"They're resentful, ungrateful, lazy, weak, and unvirtuous, as often as not." Tillman on fellow soldiers, post boot camp.

Also this:

"a young man I would not trust with my canteen is walking about armed"

IIRC, Jimi Hendrix only joined the Army because it was that or prison. Nothing has changed.

1/20/2011 12:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Cian said...

Yes just because a lot of people join up because they have no choice, doesn't mean that everyone who joins up does so for that reason.

People join up in the South because they want to, because they are "patriotic", because their family has served for X generations, because they thought it was the right thing to do. 9/11 just strengthened that enormously. So yes while there are definitely people in the south who sign up for those reasons, plenty don't/didn't.

1/20/2011 02:02:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Kind of on topic, am watching Generation Kill at the moment. The politics aren't particularly subtle but it is based on reportage. One line the marines keep repeating is a wistful 'this isn't Afghanistan...'.

I would recommend it though, it's like The Wire with the preachiness turned down (most of the time). And if you're a fan of the male form in general then Eric from True Blood is in it.

1/20/2011 03:55:00 PM  
Anonymous BenSix said...

I thought I'd read that Hendrix avoided the army by pretending to be gay...

(If they were to institute the draft tomorrow, some DADT opponents might feel less enthusiastic.)

Into Thin Air was desperately sad. After ploughing through this it strikes me that both that and the Tillman case would make good subjects for Herzog.

1/20/2011 04:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Richard J said...

There is a documentary on Pat Tillman. Film buff friends of mine say it's very good.

John Krakauer's book on splinter sects from mainstream Mormonism is also very good indeed, though it suffers from a remarkable blind spot in that it doesn't discuss how exactly the communities maintain the surplus of women that polygamy requires. (Which I understand relies on principally drumming out young men on flimsy pretexts to let powerful older men marry teenagers.)

1/20/2011 04:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Richard J said...

Ahem, it's called Under the Banner of Heaven.

1/20/2011 04:12:00 PM  

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