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Book Review: “No Easy Day” Tells Retired Navy SEAL Mark Owen’s Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed bin Laden
Owen’s story offers a blunt critique of “the Washington machine.”
“Let me be clear, I do not consider this to be my story,” writes retired Navy SEAL Mark Owen in his firsthand account of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, No Easy Day, published Tuesday.
Your first clue that this book is, in fact, about Owen is its subtitle: “The Autobiography of a Navy SEAL.” Your next clue lies in the pages themselves, which reveal a deeply personal story of a man who dedicated his life to self-perfection and sacrifice to country, and who saw battle in some of the most dangerous corners of the world.
But it’s also the story of a man, now at the end of a 14-year career as one of America’s best warriors, who has a personal beef with his bosses in Washington, most notable among them the President of the United States.
The first half of Owen’s book is a richly detailed, at times moving and gripping account of his personal journey from a childhood spent in a remote Alaskan village, where he learned to hunt and became a self-professed “gun geek,” to the rugged battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan and the shark-infested oceans off the coast of Somalia, where Owen was part of a team that rescued shipping captain Richard Phillips from pirates in 2009. Owen even fought inside Pakistan before he became part of the bin Laden story, which he doesn’t get to in earnest until chapter 9 (of 19).
When he does, we find a by-now familiar narrative. Owen—who has been identified by news organizations as Matt Bissonnette, age 36—was part of the SEAL team that helicoptered into bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in the early morning of May 2, 2011, and stormed the home of the world’s most wanted man. Owen was one of two SEALs who actually shot bin Laden, and this moment, which accounts for mere seconds of the approximately 40-minute mission, gives us the only notable variation on the widely reported version of events.
Owen says the SEALs first shot at bin Laden from a landing outside his third-floor bedroom, not once they were inside the room, as had been previously reported. There had been some question about whether bin Laden was moving to pick up a weapon, and whether this prompted the SEALs to fire. Instead, by Owen’s account, bin Laden was unarmed and already on the ground with a gunshot wound to the head when he and another SEAL entered the room. Then, according to Owen, they finished off bin Laden with several rounds to the chest.
That’s really the only significant amendment you’ll find to the bin Laden account, and its significance is debatable. There is no indication, for instance, that bin Laden was planning to surrender. If he’d done so, the SEALs were instructed to capture him alive. But Owen, whom the Defense Department has accused of violating a signed agreement to show his manuscript to official censors before publication, says he wrote his book to “set the record straight” about the bin Laden mission. “Lost in the media coverage … is why and how the mission was successful. This book will finally give credit to those who earned it.”
It’s that last bit—giving credit where Owen feels credit is due—that forms the real heart of the book. Much of No Easy Day is a blunt critique of what Owen calls “the Washington machine,” out of touch with the grunts on the ground, slow to act, and motivated by politics and the desire to win elections. Owen complains that in Afghanistan (where soldiers are still fighting and dying), Pentagon lawyers implemented new, restrictive rules of engagement that forced SEALs to announce their presence outside suspected insurgents’ homes, rather than storm in by surprise.
He writes, “We were fighting the war with one hand and filling out paperwork with the other,” hemmed in by “policy makers” in Washington who “were asking us to ignore all of the lessons we had learned, especially the lessons learned in blood, for political solutions.”
Owen’s book should rightly take its place among other firsthand combatant accounts of the reality of war and the frequent removal of the men who command it. But he forgets that war is a political act. And despite his public assertions to the contrary, No Easy Day is a political book—not a partisan one, but political nonetheless.
Any time a member of the armed forces, retired or otherwise, openly criticizes the judgment of his civilian and military superiors, he’s committing a political act (and a constitutionally defensible one). What makes this book controversial, and potentially influential, is its arrival in the heat of a presidential campaign, in which the President has been attacked by his political opponents for taking an undeserved victory lap after ordering the bin Laden raid. Owen makes it clear he agrees with that critique, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that he was motivated by more than a settling of the historic record.
In writing about the planning for the bin Laden raid (which, it should be noted, does offer interesting new details, and likely ones Owen was never authorized to disclose), he criticizes the White House, the military brass, and President Obama at least half a dozen times. Rehearsals for the bin Laden raid, which were staged on a scale mock-up of his Abbottabad compound, “were less about training and more about selling to the White House that we could do it,” Owen says. Senior-level administration and military officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, watched one of those rehearsals. Owen recounts looking at the crowd from a helicopter with a palpable degree of contempt: “The rotors kicked up a maelstrom of rocks and dust, blasting the VIPs and forcing them to run in the opposite direction. I chuckled as I watched a few of the women stagger away on their heels.”
Owen doesn’t acknowledge that the President might want some understanding of the mission and proof that it would work in practice, not just in concept. Rather, he describes the raid as no different than any of the many night raids he conducted in Afghanistan and Iraq, and says the SEALs spent the run-up to the mission “jumping through hoops” to satisfy the political leadership in Washington. This contradicts numerous reported accounts, based on interviews with senior administration officials, that describe intense deliberations about the best way to get bin Laden, rather than doubts about whether the SEALs could actually do the job. On that point, the President seems to have had little doubt. After all, he ordered their mission.
Owen, speaking on behalf of his SEAL comrades, says, “None of us were huge Obama fans.” He says the men believed Obama would try to personally take credit for the bin Laden raid—just as he had, Owen says, for the mission that rescued Captain Phillips. Owen becomes convinced of this when, after killing bin Laden, he watches Obama deliver the news to the world live on television. “We just got this guy reelected,” Owen quotes a friend saying. Speaking for himself, Owen writes, “We were tools in their toolbox, and when things go well they promote it. They inflate their roles.”
At the end of the book, Owen recalls a meeting with Obama, during which he congratulated the SEALs on their mission. The men gave the President a case bearing an American flag that they took on their mission. Owen refused to sign it with his real name, he says, to keep his identity a secret.
Obama presented the men with a Presidential Unit Citation, the highest honor he can give to an individual unit, and made what Owen describes as forgettable remarks, “straight from the speechwriter playbook.” The men took pictures with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, whom Owen says “kept cracking lame jokes that no one got” and acted like “someone’s drunken uncle at Christmas dinner.” Obama invited the men to come to the White House for a beer, an invitation, Owen says, that the President never followed up on. “You believed that shit,” a fellow SEAL tells Owen. “I bet you voted for change too, sucker.”
Owen says the mission to kill bin Laden was the right call, and that the SEALs were the right ones to carry it out. SEALs don’t seek accolades, he says. “Our reward was doing the job, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.” Which begs the question: Then why write a book?
Since Owen’s account offers few corrections to the historical record, one is left to conclude that personal grievance was a significant influence, as well as an understandable and commendable desire to document such an extraordinary moment in history. But had Owen just stuck to those facts, his claims that politics had nothing to do with his decision would be more credible, and he still would have told a really good story.