Jon Krakauer has never shied away from assigning blame for blunders, especially fatal blunders. In his best-selling account of a disastrous 1996 climb of Mount Everest, "Into Thin Air," he dished out stinging criticism to a professional guide and even chastised himself.
His new book, "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman," pulses with indignation at the generals, politicians and soldiers he holds responsible for the death of Tillman, the NFL star-turned-Army Ranger killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004.
But the sharpest rebukes are aimed at those Krakauer accuses of covering up the truth of Tillman's death, fabricating a more heroic story and then using it to distract the media and the public from bad news coming out of Iraq.
"You've got to explain what happened, and when you explain what happened, you've got to name names," Krakauer said in an interview in Boulder, where he lives.
"It doesn't do any good to say, 'Mistakes were committed, mistakes were made,' in that passive voice that's so annoying."
Publisher Doubleday is giving the book, which goes on sale Sept. 15, a first print run of 500,000 copies.
A new accountThe book chronicles Tillman's short but remarkable life, interwoven with threads of American politics and global geopolitics, Afghan history and geography, even philosophy and Greek epic poetry.
Krakauer said a longtime fascination with Afghanistan and the news of Tillman's death attracted him to the story. Some of it is well known: Tillman's standout career with the Arizona Cardinals and his decision to leave the NFL to join the Rangers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But much of Krakauer's account is new, or at least not widely known. As a high school student, Tillman served time in juvenile jail for beating up another teen he mistakenly thought had attacked his friend. He kept a journal and had a lively intellectual life. He opposed the war in Iraq but didn't hesitate to serve when his unit was sent there. He was an agnostic and maybe even an atheist. He loved cats.
In a detailed but fluid narrative, Krakauer juxtaposes milestones in Tillman's early life with contemporaneous events in the collapse of Afghan society and the rise of al-Qaida. The story lines converge when Tillman enters the Army in June 2002, compelled by a sense of honor and duty after the 9/11 attacks.
After retracing Tillman's training and his deployments to Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan 2004, Krakauer lays out a step-by-step accounting of Tillman's movements on April 22, 2004, the day he was killed.
A few of the key players emerge as competent, even valiant. Krakauer spent five months with U.S. and Afghan troops in Afghanistan researching the book, and that gave him "a tremendous appreciation of how hard a job it is" to be a soldier, he said.
‘A very calculated effort’But other players come across as bunglers, self-interested careerists, cynical political operatives or ideologues. Their sins, in Krakauer's account, range from firing at someone without first making sure it was the enemy to staging an unjustified war in Iraq that diverted much-needed troops and equipment from Afghanistan.
The upshot was that Tillman's platoon was ordered to drag a disabled Humvee back to base while also keeping to a tight schedule for clearing insurgents out of isolated villages in a rugged corner of Afghanistan. That required splitting the platoon in two, which contributed to the ensuing chaos when the unit was ambushed. And that's when Tillman was killed by friendly fire.
Then came "a very calculated effort to deceive not just the Tillman family but also the American public" about the circumstances of his death, Krakauer writes.
The Defense Department didn't disclose that Tillman died by friendly fire for more than a month. In the meantime, he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for valor and promoted from specialist to corporal. A Navy officer said at a televised memorial service that Tillman died heroically, a victim of the ambush.
The reason for allowing the more heroic but misleading account to proliferate, Krakauer argues, was the same reason behind the leak of a highly embellished account of Pvt. Jessica Lynch's capture in Iraq a year earlier: to distract the public and the media from bad news just breaking in Iraq.
In Lynch's case, Krakauer says, the bad news was a cluster of friendly fire deaths of Marines in Nasiriyah, Iraq — he says it was at least 17, while the military says it was no more than 10. In Tillman's case, it was bloody fighting in Fallujah and an expose on the abuse of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison.
"White House officials guessed that selling (Tillman) as a fallen war hero would send the media into an orgy of adulatory coverage," Krakauer writes. "They were not disappointed."
Army Secretary Pete Geren said there was no conspiracy, just a "perfect storm of mistakes, misjudgments and a failure of leadership." A retired general was censured over Tillman's death and the misinformation that followed. Seven other officers and enlisted men received punishments ranging from reprimands and demotions to expulsion from the elite Rangers. One was effectively forced out of the Army altogether. No one was charged with a crime.
Krakauer calls the punishments a slap on the wrist, and he doesn't buy Geren's explanation. In the book, he ticks off a list of irregularities, including the fact that Tillman's uniform was burned in Afghanistan instead of returned with his body for the autopsy.
"That's a very conscious effort to cover things up, up and down the chain of command. And the Army still hasn't come clean," Krakauer said in the interview. "That bothers me. So I guess, when that kind of stuff happens, it's easy for me — my outrage seeps in and I don't feel any qualms about naming names."
The Tillman story is more deeply entwined in politics than Krakauer's previous books — "Under the Banner of Heaven," "Into Thin Air," "Into the Wild" and "Eiger Dreams" — but he doesn't see that as a departure. Politics are an essential part of the story, he says, just as religion and church power were essential parts of the story he told in "Under the Banner of Heaven," about Mormon polygamists.
"So this book doesn't feel like a great departure to me. None of them ever have," he said with a laugh. "I find a story that intrigues me and I run with it."
‘New New Journalism’Krakauer's work has appeared in Outside, Rolling Stone and National Geographic. He practices what Robert Boynton of New York University calls "New New Journalism" — intensively reported and beautifully written nonfiction that builds on the work of the earlier "New Journalists," such as Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and John McPhee.
Boynton calls Krakauer the "gold standard" of New New Journalism because of his commitment to reporting, climbing Everest for "Into Thin Air" and spending five months in Afghanistan for "Where Men Win Glory."
Before writing was lucrative enough to pay the bills, Krakauer was a carpenter. He still looks the part, with a wiry build, tousled gray hair and an easy, rapid-fire style of talking. Even now, after five books — including "Into the Wild," which became a movie directed by Sean Penn — he professes to be not much of a writer.
"I'm not a good writer. I'm a good editor of my own stuff," he said. "I kind of throw stuff on the page," and then he rewrites and rewrites again. He estimates he wrote 30 drafts of "Where Men Win Glory."
Krakauer said he doesn't know what his next project will be; he's still recovering from this one, and he has a full calendar of appearances — including one at West Point.
What will he talk to the cadets about?
"The danger of putting your career before the truth," he said.