News & Politics

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

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

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.