Sunday February 3, 2013
Just doing the job
Review by MARTIN SPICE
No Easy Day
Author: Mark Owen
Publisher: Dutton/Penguin, 316 pages
THERE are two main controversies that have surrounded the release of Mark Owen’s firsthand account of the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden: the first is that it claims to be the true account of what actually happened that night in Abbottabad, Pakistan, rather than the account officially put out by the US government; and the second is whether in writing the book the author is guilty of giving away classified information.
If you want to know the full extent of the discrepancy between the official US version and Owen’s version, you will have to read the book and do some Internet digging and then put the two side-by-side. But it is fair to say that the book implicitly raises the question, for instance, of whether there was in reality any attempt to capture Bin Laden alive. By the time the Navy SEALS burst into his bedroom he had already been shot in the head and was in his death throes – but just for good measure he was shot repeatedly in the chest to ensure there was no chance of revival.
It would also be difficult on Owen’s evidence to substantiate the US claim that Bin Laden’s body was treated with respect before being buried at sea. None of this is particularly surprising – war is a dirty business and a nighttime attack on an unknown compound is always going to be a nervy and dangerous operation. Nonetheless, the US attempts to present the attack to the world as some sort of clean cut Boys’ Own story takes a bit of a knocking here.
It is possible that this is at least a part of the motivation behind the US government’s threat to prosecute Owen for revealing classified information and, as they put it, “for a material breach of the non-disclosure agreements signed by the author”.
Their main gripe with Owen and his publishers is that the book was not submitted for pre-publication review, a “no-brainer” according to the official line. Perhaps, but it did not happen and it is not difficult to see why. Submit the book to a pre-publication review and you can easily envisage the extent of the “suggested” cuts that might have followed.
Owen himself is adamant that his book gives nothing away that should remain concealed: “I hired a former Special Operations attorney to review the manuscript to ensure that it was free from mention of forbidden topics and that it cannot be used by sophisticated enemies as a source of information to compromise or harm the United States”.
All of this controversy might reasonably lead the potential reader to expect something far more revelatory and exciting than eventually emerges. No Easy Day is a competent book but it is not an edge of the seat read. Its main interest lies in getting what we are assured is the truth of what happened that night in Abbottabad and in discovering more about the training methods, skills, equipment and modus operandi of one of the most elite and efficient fighting forces in the world.
Owen is a SEALS man to the core. From his school days onwards he had but one ambition: to join the SEALS and see if he could “measure up”. That he was a team leader on one of the most important assignments they ever carried out would suggest that he succeeded.
One of the first myths to be dispelled is that there are any real-life Rambo qualities about their activities. These men are not solo fighters that go out with all guns blazing. Quite the contrary – the emphasis to the nth degree is on team tactics and on working with and for your comrades. Assignments are not random acts of valour, they are meticulously planned and rehearsed.
The compound in Abbottabad had been under surveillance for months before the attack was launched. The SEALS knew its exact layout, where in the compound each member of the family lived, who was likely to be armed and what resistance they were likely to meet. Yet despite the levels of preparation and training the mission started with disaster when the first of two helicopters went down and was forced to crash land in an outer part of the compound. From that point on, the original planning had to be modified and it is here that the SEALS initiative, training and talents really come into their own and where they are at their most impressive.
No Easy Day is a modest, factual and uninspiringly written account of probably the biggest manhunt of all time. It will be widely read because of the significance that the event carries. If anyone was going to tell this story, possibly in breach of regulations and arguably creating greater risks for future missions, Owen is probably a good choice. He is modest, loyal and there is no self- glory, even in the end; that was created by the government, the press and the public. For the SEALS it was more a question of “job done”.