No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy SEAL
By Mark Owen, with Kevin Maurer
316 pages, $26.95
By Donn Esmonde
News BOOK REVIEWER
It is the story America has been dying to hear. Sixteen months after the fact, one of the 24 Navy SEALs who took part in the operation that killed Osama bin Laden has revealed precisely what occurred on the last night of the terrorist mastermind's life.
Mark Owen - real name, Matt Bissonnette - has written a pulsating, unabashedly patriotic page-turner. It is a feel-good narrative of the payback exacted by the best America has to offer on the al-Qaida leader behind the 9/11 attacks that killed thousands of citizens on American soil.
There is no embroidering it. This is a straight-ahead tale of glory, honor and righteous retribution, wrapped in the flag of American courage and ingenuity. It leaves no room for irony or cynicism. The mission was so pure in its purpose, and so cathartic in its result, that the book ought to be accompanied by a soundtrack of a brass band playing "God Bless America," with an image of the Stars and Stripes flapping in the breeze.
The tale serves as a spiritual high-five for a country weary of drawn-out, debt-inflating wars of questionable merit. Unlike the bigger-picture conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is in this targeted assault no ambiguity of necessity, no amorphous enemy, no open-ended conclusion. The hunting and killing of bin Laden by U.S. Special Forces was as direct, purposeful and morally justified as any World War II assault on a Nazi bunker. Recall the spontaneous celebrations outside the White House and at Ground Zero prompted by the news of the terrorist leader's death. Indeed, in its raw celebration of American fighting efficiency, the narrative resonates as a throwback to a different era, a different war.
At one point, prior to the assault on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound, several SEALs jokingly speculate about which actors might portray them in the movie version of the raid, name-dropping Brad Pitt and George Clooney. Uh-uh. This is the stuff of a different generation, a simpler time. Only a resurrected John Wayne, circa "The Longest Day," could do justice to the protagonist. Check off Kirk Douglas as base commander.
Finally, a military action we can feel completely and utterly good about. Even the oft-maligned CIA comes up roses. Intelligence on bin Laden's compound, gathered mainly by unmanned satellite drones, proved remarkably precise - down to whether compound doors opened outward or inward.
Only the resolutely cynical will be able to suppress a chill when, having confirmed the head-shot victim's identity, the strike force commander gets on the satellite radio. He transmits the news of the death of bin Laden - code name, Geronimo - to the anxious base commander. Relates Owen:
"For God and country, I pass Geronimo," said Jay. "Geronimo, E.K.I.A." Owen writes in spare, direct, "just the facts, ma'am" prose that ideally serves the narrative. These are men of action, and there is little time - or regard - for self-doubt or hesitation. They think, and act, in straight lines.
Owen provides an edge-of-your-seat account not just of the historic mission, but of highlights from a 10-year SEAL career marked by numerous strikes into the heart of harm's way. Indeed, details of a successful nighttime raid on a Taliban compound, months before the bin Laden assault, are more compelling than the climactic tale, although lacking its historic heft.
Returning from that previous raid, against an enemy stronghold in Afghanistan, the regular-Army base captain is both impressed by the SEALs' efficiency and envious of their freedom to aggressively pursue a target.
"He and his men rarely got the chance to be on the offensive," writes Owen. "They were stuck protecting the villages and the roads leading into and out of the valley."
Owen and his cohorts were programmed to take the fight to the enemy - and relished the intoxicating adrenaline rush that came with it.
"The dirty secret of it all," he writes, "is that everyone, including me, loved it. We wanted to get the call every time."
The book in its broader strokes chronicles the care, training and support of an elite group of predators - there is no other word - whose sole purpose is to kill, capture or otherwise neutralize a targeted foe. Using the element of surprise, attacking only at night to enhance their advantage, they are a small, astoundingly equipped (e.g., $65,000 night vision goggles) and technologically aided strike force of startling capability. In a very real sense, bin Laden - guarded by several armed aides, and unwilling to pick up the guns found unloaded in his room - never had a chance.
Yet blueprints never go precisely as drawn, circumstances commonly intrude. All of which, in the SEAL universe, is anticipated. Every best-made plan includes contingencies and alternatives. Changing tactics on the fly is routine.
Indeed, the plot thickens early in the bin Laden raid, as one of the two strike helicopters loses its hover and crashes into bin Laden's backyard. Only a Sully-like effort by the pilot, who dropped the tail of the spinning bird atop the compound wall, prevented a potentially lethal shard-shredding of the spinning rotor. Unperturbed, the assaulters leap six feet to the ground and proceed to their target.
"All we needed was the basic plan," writes Owen. "If you know how to 'shoot, move and communicate,' the rest will fall into place. When operations get too complicated, it tends to slow things down."
Aside from everything else, the book tight-focuses on the tactics America will increasingly employ in the coming years of the war on terror: Elite units engaged in targeted quick strikes, aided by technology and reinforced with intelligence gathered primarily from satellite drones.
The book comes with a side dish of controversy. Pentagon officials claim that Owen violated a non-disclosure agreement and revealed classified information. The Justice Department has threatened to take legal action. The now-retired Owen said he would never put his former comrades at risk. He claims his sole motivation was a historic imperative to tell the real story, given the misinformation previously reported. He intends to donate the bulk of the book's proceeds to the families of fallen SEALs.
Controversy aside, Owen has given us a first-hand account of the payback exacted on the terrorist behind the 9/11 attacks. The Pentagon may not like the fact of its existence. The rest of us can revel in the details of a righteous retribution.
Donn Esmonde is a News columnist.