Taking Bin Laden
Nov 2, 2012-
Earlier this year, under a half-moon in eastern Afghanistan, I found myself on a C-130 transport plane with a group of American Special Operations commandos. The operators, as they like to call themselves, had come for a mission, carried it out and were hitching a ride back to their base. They had long hair and long beards, and their eyes were hard. They didn’t smile and they didn’t talk, not even to one another. When the plane landed, they disappeared.
In the 11 years since 9/11, Special Operations commandos like SEALs and Rangers have done the dirty work of America’s wars. By day, ordinary soldiers may be trying to win over the locals with water projects and new schools, but at night the SEALs and Rangers are swooping into villages and killing and dragging away guerrilla leaders. In Afghanistan, Special Operations teams carry out dozens of these missions every night: Kill and capture, kill and capture.
I thought of the men on the C-130 that night while reading No Easy Day, the first-person account of the raid last year that killed Osama bin Laden. The author, writing under the pseudonym Mark Owen (real name) Matt Bissonnette was a member of the SEALs for 10 years before he went on the mission to kill Bin Laden. The raid on Abbottabad, Pakistan, is at the heart of No Easy Day, and it makes for a thrilling narrative. Still, in nearly 300 pages of what amounts to a memoir of his life as a SEAL, Bissonnette does not report a single twitch of conscience, barely a moment of reflection, not a twinge of regret. He does not appear to question, even for a moment, why he is in these countries, hunting down these men. He’s a killing machine.
But he’s a good one. Almost half of the book is dedicated to Bissonnette’s training and a number of kill-and-capture raids he went on in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bissonnette, the son of missionaries, is a nearly perfect physical specimen, able to tolerate tests of strength and endurance that would wreck or even kill most other men. The secret of the SEALs, Bissonnette writes, is knowing when to tiptoe and when to pounce: “Nothing got our blood pumping more than creeping into an enemy compound, sometimes directly into the rooms of enemy fighters while they were sleeping.”
When, after nearly 10 years of searching, CIA analysts tracked a man they believed was Bin Laden to a compound in Abbottabad, the SEALs got the call. We all know the outline of the story: No one in the US government was certain that Bin Laden was there, and President Obama did not trust Pakistan’s leaders to ask them for help. So he ordered the SEALs to fly into the country and kill or capture Bin Laden themselves, without anyone’s permission, and then get out.
Even though we know the basics of the story, Bissonnette takes us on a great ride. This is a book of details. And though many of the specifics are left out, there are enough here to bring the mission to life. No Easy Day amounts to a cinematic account of the raid to kill Bin Laden: you feel as if you’re sitting in the Black Hawk as it swoops in, peering through the greenish haze of night.
We all know Obama made the call to send the SEALs into Pakistan, and Bissonnette reports that the president’s team left very little to chance. While still in the US, Bissonnette and his fellow SEALs conducted a nighttime dress rehearsal of the raid, on a mock-up of Bin Laden’s house, for the president’s national security team. As Bissonnette and the other SEALs slid down ropes and stormed the fake house, administration officials stood by and watched through night-vision goggles.
What we also learn is that American intelligence officers might not have been absolutely sure that Bin Laden was inside the compound in Abbottabad, but it’s amazing how intimate their knowledge was of the place. In the run-up to the raid, Bissonnette asked an intelligence officer about one of the many doors that the commandos would have to breach. The answer came back immediately: “The door is metal and opens to the outside.”At one point, Bissonnette describes just how close the SEALs came to disaster. It’s been widely reported that one of the Black Hawk helicopters carrying the SEALs to Abbottabad malfunctioned and had to be destroyed at the scene. In the seconds before the raid began, the Black Hawk carrying Bissonnette and others appears to have gotten out of the pilot’s control and nearly turned on its side. The pilot righted the copter just as it touched down, catching the tail on the compound’s wall.
As fun as this book is, however, by the end it gives off a tacky feel. Bissonnette suggests that he doesn’t think much of President Obama, doesn’t have much respect for the civilians who ordered the raid and believes, more or less, that anyone in war who doesn’t carry a gun is a wimp. He seems to resent the fact that Obama took credit for the raid and at one point even resisted signing a framed flag for him, on the now-preposterous grounds that he didn’t want his identity revealed. “Politics are for the Washington, DC, policy makers who safely watched the action on a video monitor from thousands of miles away.” This is the carping of a warrior with little appreciation of what his country actually stands for—like that messy thing called democratic politics. After all, he’s just a killing machine.
—©2012 The New York Times
Published: 03-11-2012 09:39