Friday, November 30, 2012

No Easy Day - Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer [book review]

Released in September

No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account Of The Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden was written by former Navy SEAL Mark Owen, who participated in the May 2011 operation that captured and killed the most wanted man on the planet (the book is also co-authored by Kevin Maurer). Owen used a pseudonym to protect the safety of himself and his family, although less than a day after it was announced that No Easy Day would hit bookshelves, appropriately, on September 11th, his true identity was revealed by some media outlets. Owen served as a member of the elite operations force from 1998 until earlier this year, when he retired. 

The author's desire to share such sensitive information has obviously rankled some very powerful people, with the Pentagon claiming Owen violated his non-disclosure agreements and revealed military secrets. Owen states that his motivation for writing the book was to set the record straight due to the excess of misinformation in the media about the historic event and that any information in it has "maintained and promoted the security interests of the United States". Financial motivation isn't in play here, as Owen vowed to donate most of the book's proceeds to the families of SEALs killed in action and military support organizations (one of them, the Navy SEAL Foundation, has refused the offer). Despite these noble intentions and the engrossing story that the book's focal point delivers, there's still a lingering uneasiness with Owen's willingness to go so public with details that seemingly betray the protective SEAL brotherhood that he references numerous times throughout the book. We may never know because of Owen's necessarily low profile and the SEAL organization's secretive nature, but I'd love to hear what kind of reaction the ex-soldier has had to his literary endeavour from others in the tight-knit SEAL family.

The first portion of No Easy Day, amounting to a little under half of the book, mostly covers Owen's pre-bin Laden raid military career and it turns out to be surprisingly underwhelming. He writes briefly about his childhood, his motivation for becoming a SEAL, the SEAL training process, and how one makes it all the way up to the group's elite of the elite Team Six, which was the team that carried out the bin Laden mission. Owen also writes about some of his earlier missions, most of which took place in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the stories aren't nearly as interesting as you'd expect and it tends to feel like he's just treading water until it's time to get to the main event.

Things pick up significantly as attention is turned to that main event, starting with the lead-up to the raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The mission, on a tactical level, wasn't out of the ordinary from the kinds of operations SEALs normally executed, which usually only required a few hours of preparation for the men carrying it out. Because of the high profile nature of the bin Laden mission, however, a full three weeks was taken for preparations and rehearsals. There's some levity as the SEALs speculate who will play them in the inevitable film versions and they also mock some of the higher-ups at the 
intelligence agencies involved, sarcastically referring to them as the "good idea fairies" because of some of the less-than-stellar strategic ideas that are suggested. Even Owen running down the minutiae of his routine on the day of the mission is quite fascinating, from what he ate for breakfast to his equipment and weapons check (fact: SEALs use $65,000 night vision goggles that offer a 120 degree field of vision, as opposed to the standard military-issue goggles that only offer a 40 degree view equivalent to "looking through toilet paper tubes"). Plenty of other intriguing details emerge:
  • the discussions on which area of the body to shoot bin Laden (the chest is preferred, to allow for facial recognition)
  • the apolitical stance of the SEALs, who are extremely leery of Washington types and know that a bin Laden capture or kill will be a huge feather in the cap for Barack Obama's re-election campaign
  • their flimsy cover story, should their mission go off the rails, that they were in Pakistan to recover a lost drone (if a drone were to go lost, its retrieval from Pakistan, an American ally, would have been handled by the U.S. State Department)
  • each SEAL is given $200 in cash in case the mission gets compromised and they needed to bribe locals or buy a ride ("Evasion takes money and few things work better than American cash", Owen writes)
The vividly detailed reconstruction of the book's centerpiece operation, which understandably was the cause of much handwringing in Washington as the reliability of the intelligence was questioned until the final hour, is where No Easy Day shines brightest. Owen really immerses the reader into the tense minute-by-minute specifics, starting with the helicopter ride in, where some of the SEALs somehow manage to get some light sleep in. Once the helicopter Owen was being transported in reaches the compound and crashes, eliminating any advantage with the element of surprise, he takes us through the series of events as the two SEAL squads storm the compound like something out of a Call Of Duty video game. They face a couple of armed threats that are neutralized (one of the men killed is bin Laden's son, Khalid) and also encounter a number of women and children who have to be approached with great caution due to the threat of suicide vests. Once their target, codenamed "Geronimo", is believed to have been caught and killed (Owen takes responsibility for firing some of the final shots into the mortally wounded al Qaeda leader), the ensuing moments are packed with fascinating information, as his identification is confirmed and computers and data are collected. Among the revelations following the kill:
  • a search of bin Laden's bathroom revealed that he used Just For Men hair dye for his beard
  • after finding a Makarov pistol and AK-47 in bin Laden's room, Owen writes "I took each weapon down and pulled out the magazine and checked the chambers. They were both empty. He hadn't even prepared a defense. He had no intention of fighting. In all my deployments, we routinely saw this phenomenon. The higher up the food chain the targeted individual was, the bigger a pussy he was."   
  • duplicate sets of photos taken of the dead target and his collected DNA samples were carried by a couple of SEALs on separate helicopters for the return flight, just in case one of the choppers crashed or was shot down by Pakistan's air force
  • one of the SEALs sat on the chest of bin Laden (who was in a body bag) in the cramped helicopter on the flight back
No Easy Day spins its wheels for a good portion early on, but when the book does hit its stride, Owen provides a consistently gripping level of information and details, while also adding an appreciated humanizing touch to the extraordinary individuals and events involved with the most significant counter-terrorism mission ever conducted. 

Rating: B+

Recommended viewing: 60 Minutes' program from September featuring a lengthy interview with Owen (available in four parts here)

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