Sunday, 23 September 2012

Book Review: No Easy Day by Mark Owen

Former navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette was part of the SEAL Team Six which raided Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad and executed him. A little over a year after that daring raid into the heart of the Pakistani establishment, Bissonnette has come out with a first person narrative, co-authored with journalist Kevin Maurer, about the events which led to the death of Bin Laden. Bissonnette’s No Easy Day has been published under the pseudonym Mark Owen, but his identity was revealed by Fox News shortly after the first news release of this book came out. Bissonnette is now all over television and YouTube.

The Author’s Note to No Easy Day tells us that Bissonnette has ‘taken great pains to protect the tactics, techniques and procedures used by the teams as they wage a daily battle against terrorists and insurgents around the world. If you are looking for secrets, this is not your book,’ we are told. I am not sure if the Author’s Note was written after the book was written, as an afterthought, but No Easy Day does divulge a lot about Navy SEAL tactics and the workings of the mind of a SEAL. For this 300-odd page book is not just about the Abbottabad raid. It is also the story of what motivated Bissonnette to become a SEAL, the training he underwent before he became one and describes a few operations that preceded the Abbottabad raid, such as the one in which SEALs killed three Somali pirates who had hijacked the Maersk Alabama and held the captain of the ship, Richard Phillips, hostage

The SEALs refer to Osama Bin Laden as Usama Bin Laden. UBL was code-named 'Geronimo' and the operation was called 'Neptune Spear'. It may be remembered that after howls of protests, it was ‘clarified’ by the US Government that 'Jackpot' was the code name for Bin Laden as an individual and 'Geronimo' was the code word for Bin Laden's capture or death. No, Bissonnette doesn’t give any such clarification. I guess the USA is no better than India which insensitively used the phrase the Smiling Buddha for its first nuclear device.

Why did Bissonnette come out with this book? Bissonnette says that he proposes to donate most of the proceeds from book sales to veterans’ charities. One of the reasons for keeping the identities of the SEALs involved in the raid secret is to protect them from revenge attacks. Bissonnette is a brave man and doesn’t seem to care about any possible threat to his life. However, such bravery alone cannot explain why Bissonnette broke his service rules to write this book.

From the manner Bissionette profiles his childhood in Alaska, how he was allowed to use a gun very early in his life, taking responsibility for his firearm, to the statement by one of Bissionette’s comrades just before the raid that if they pull it off, Obama will get re-elected, to the various wise-cracks about Obama, it is clear that Bissionette is Republican or at least, he is anti-Obama. If one goes by Bissionette’s narrative, most SEALs are cut from the same cloth. As Bissionette ends his book, he tells us how when the entire team met with Obama and Biden in Kentucky, Obama invited them all to his residence for a beer, a promise which wasn’t kept. In the closing lines of No Easy Day, Bissionette asks Walt, his friend and fellow SEAL, “Hey, did you ever hear anything about that beer?” Walt’s smirk is back, Bissionette tells us. “You believed that shit,” Walt said. “I bet you voted for change too, sucker.

Mind you, I don’t claim to be an Obama fan. I’ve written a number of not-so-flattering things about Obama in the past. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here for my posts on Obama. I’d also predicted (before foot-in-the-mouth-Romney put in an appearance) that Obama won’t win a second term. When I examine Bissonnette's feelings towards Obama, my only interest is to understand what might have motivated Bissonnette to write this account. I’d say it’s highly likely that Bissonnette wanted to convey to his fellow American voters that though Obama was in charge at the time of Operation Neptune Spear and though he gave the green light for the operation to go ahead, the SEALs who really did the job don’t think much of Obama. The fact that the US elections are just around the corner must have played no small part in Bissonnette’s decision to bring out this book at this time.

Bissonnette makes an effort to justify his decision to write this account. In his Epilogue, Bissonnette says that after the raid, so many incorrect account of the attack came out. ‘Even reports claiming to have the inside story have been incorrect. To me, the story is bigger than the raid itself and much more about the men at the command who willingly go into harm’s way, sacrificing all they have to do the job. Theirs is a story that deserves to be told, and told as accurately as possible.’ Further, Bissonnette says that ‘since May 1, 2011, everyone from President Obama to Admiral McRaven has given interviews about the operation. If my commander in chief is willing to talk, then I feel comfortable doing the same.

According to maps given in the book, the SEAL teams flew from Jalalabad to Abbottabad via Indian territory, though on their way back, they took the direct route. Bissonnette does not explain if the Americans evaded Indian radar or if they had permission from India to fly over Indian territory. I feel that they latter is much more likely. India most probably has a system in place for allowing American craft to fly over Indian airspace close to the Pakistani border without the need for elaborate explanations.

Did Bissonnette and his colleagues kill Bin Laden in cold blood? According to No Easy Day, the answer is in the affirmative. Bissonnette tells us that Bin Laden was shot by a SEAL as he peeped out of his room. When Bissonnette entered the room with another SEAL, Bin Laden was on the floor, at the foot of his bed, wearing a white sleeveless T-Shirt, loose tan pants and a tan tunic. ‘The point man’s shots had entered the right side of his head. Blood and brains spilled out of the side of his skull. In his death throes, he was still twitching and convulsing.’ Though Bin Laden was dying, Bissonnette and another SEAL trained their lasers on Bin Laden’s chest and fired several rounds. ‘The bullets tore into him, slamming his body into the floor until he was motionless.

Bissonette and other SEALs who frequently pop sleeping pills to get a good night’s sleep never voice the slightest hesitation about their mission, never question for a second the morality of their action. Immediately after entering the three-storied house, the SEALs killed al-Qaeda operative Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Later they killed Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s brother Abrar al-Kuwaiti along with his wife Bushra as she tried to shield him. Just before Bin Laden was killed, the SEALs had despatched Bin Laden’s son Khalid. Bissonnette’s descriptions make it clear that the SEALs were not making any serious effort to take Bin Laden or any of the other men alive, though they had been instructed by a lawyer from either the Department of Defence or the White House that ‘if he is naked with his hands up, you are not going to engage him. If he does not pose a threat, you will detain him.' Mind you, I doubt if anyone else in the SEALs' place would have acted any differently, considering they were in hostile Pakistani territory.

Written in simple, functional prose, No Easy Day is a compelling read. It will be interesting to see if the US government takes Bissonnette to task for writing it.

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