Surprisingly, the story has a backdrop of anti-Republican sentiment. Mr. Krakauer establishes his anti-Republican credentials early in the book when he characterizes Republican figures in a negative fashion. From the Prologue, referring to Pat Tillman’s public persona (page xxiv):
“Seizing the opportunity to capitalize on his celebrity, the Bush administration endeavored to use his name and image to promote what it had christened the Global War on Terror.”and…
“The right-wing harridan Ann Coulter claimed him as an exemplar of Republican political values.”When I see characterizations like this, I tend to put my reading into “scan mode.” I no longer look for gifted prose or clever uses of description and style. I simply look for the substance and highlights of the text and go through the book rather quickly.
Mr. Krakauer does have substance in his book. We learn that Pat Tillman and his brother Kevin were both assigned to the same platoon in Afghanistan. We learn that Pat appears to have been killed by three rounds to the right side of his forehead from a single burst of a .223-caliber M249 SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon). We also learn that Pat’s brother was not told the killing was “fratricide” until May 24, 2004, more than a month after Pat’s death. The incredible part of the story is that Kevin did not know the actual circumstances of his brother’s death, even though he was on the scene when his brother was killed.
This is the story of an American tragedy, and Mr. Krakauer uses that tragedy to showcase the scandal of “blue-on-blue” killing in the American armed forces. He sums up the problem in a Postscript at the end of the book (page 343):
“If the United States’ involvement in future wars is inevitable, so, too, is it inevitable that American soldiers will fall victim to friendly fire in those conflicts, for the simple reason that fratricide is part and parcel of every war. According to the most comprehensive survey of American war casualties (both fatal and nonfatal), 21 percent of the casualties in World War II were attributable to friendly fire, 39 percent of the casualties in Vietnam, and 52 percent of the casualties in the first Gulf War. Thus far in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, casualty rates are 41 percent and 13 percent, respectively. All these figures are conservative estimates, moreover; due to endemic underreporting of fratricide by the military, the actual percentages are unquestionably higher.”Mr. Krakauer’s concern for fratricide is honorable, but 41 percent blue-on-blue casualties in Iraq? That seems high. I went to the Internet and looked for confirmation.
I came across an indicator of Mr. Krakauer’s honor and integrity in an article published by Entertainment Weekly on 9/11/2009. It quotes him as saying:
“I go with what the material gives me. I don’t try to impose a narrative on it. And now, perversely, I enjoy criticism. I write these books and people don’t have to buy them.”This level of personal integrity takes a toll on his personal life. Mr. Krakauer explains:
“I need to decompress. It’s not like I have a compulsion to write, so who knows, there may not be another book. This book was really hard. I don’t necessarily need to do this again.”We get the sense that Mr. Krakauer is passionate about his work, and would attempt to faithfully report the statistics from “the most comprehensive survey of American war casualties” referenced above. (We unfortunately don’t know exactly what source Mr. Krakauer is using, as he doesn’t footnote it.)
Luckily, there are other sources. CBS News has an article by Sean Alfano from March 11, 2006. It reports strikingly different figures:
“Over the past four years, 17 soldiers have died in friendly fire incidents such as the one that killed former professional football player Pat Tillman, according to Army data.and…
The 17 soldiers felled by friendly fire incidents are about 1 percent of the 1,575 soldiers who have died overall.”
“The rate of friendly fire deaths for all U.S. troops in World War II was 12-14 percent; Vietnam, 10-14 percent; Grenada, 13 percent; and Panama, 6 percent.To resolve the discrepancy (1% friendly fire deaths reported by CBS News vs. 41% friendly fire casualties reported by Mr. Krakauer), we can analyze data provided by the Brookings Institute. I like using this source because the information is transparently available and frequently updated. (This stands in marked contrast to data being manipulated by global warming advocates, or by our federal legislature for that matter.)
The Brookings Institute Data was just updated on December 11, 2009. It shows that in Iraq there have been 31,582 U. S. troops wounded in action since March 19, 2003. In the same timeframe, there have been 4,367 U.S. troops killed in action (KIA).
What’s extremely helpful about the Brookings information is that it categorizes KIA data by “cause of death.” On page 15 you can see the breakdown for each month from March 2003 to the present.
Assuming Mr. Krakauer’s percentage of blue-on-blue casualties for Iraq is correct (41 percent of the war casualties, both fatal and nonfatal) we have a major scandal in front of our eyes. With 4,367 U.S. troops killed in action and 31,582 U.S. troops wounded in action, 41 percent of that total would be 14,739. This means nearly 15,000 of our troops in Iraq have been killed or wounded by friendly fire, and according to Mr. Krakauer, these figures “…are conservative estimates.”
Let’s use the Brookings data to examine the problem more closely. If the same proportion of “fatal and nonfatal” friendly fire incidents (41 percent) applies just to KIA, then 1,790 deaths in Iraq would have been caused by friendly fire. That’s a lot of deaths by fratricide, and the Brookings Institute helps us put it in perspective. They list the number of deaths by IED (Improvised Explosive Device) at 1,735. Assuming that death by IED cannot be a “fratricide event,” then the friendly fire percentage is indeed a scandal. Of the non-IED killed in action in Iraq, fully 68 percent of the deaths would necessarily be the result of friendly fire. If you are not killed by an IED, you are twice as likely to be killed by your own compatriot as by the enemy! How’s that for a recruiting slogan!
I hope by now some of you are coming to the conclusion that there might be something wrong with Mr. Krakauer’s use of statistics. Read his book and you will come to understand that he has a low regard for the leadership of our combat forces, from the battalion level all the way up to the Pentagon. But to assume our armed forces are experiencing the level of friendly fire casualties cited by Mr. Krakauer in “Where Men Win Glory” requires a giant leap of faith.
This book may be categorized as “nonfiction”, but if you believe his numbers and take them without question, you may indeed be stepping “Into Thin Air”.
Linked by Instapundit.
Thanks, Professor Reynolds.
An anonymous commenter directs us to the American War Library site for verificiation of the 41% statistic. Maybe they would have information on how that value was determined.
This recent friendly fire "incident" reminds us that human error on the battlefield is something that must be minimized but can never be discounted in the "fog and friction of war."
Here's more on the April 6, 2011 incident noted above.
Return to Top
Return to Bottom