No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden, the memoir released by Dutton in early September, 2012, is very significant because it’s the first book about the mission that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden (OBL) written by someone who actually experienced the event first hand.
People who say, “It’s a grunt’s perspective” are wrong. “Grunt” is Army or USMC slang for an infantryman, and the author, a U.S. Navy SEAL, is a sailor, not a soldier. But accuracy of terms aside, “a grunt’s perspective” doesn’t come close to doing the book justice. It’s a warrior’s perspective, complete with the raw, nostril-burning stink of death.
War can be hell on earth. That’s where Special Operations (Spec Ops) and Unconventional Warfare come into play. Spec Ops warriors thrive on adversity and all have gone through their own version of rite of passage to become part of their unit. Once the bastard children of the military, Spec Ops warriors have become central to the way war is waged today. How else can we hope to defeat enemies that have no borders or rulebook?
Many Are Quick to Judge
A lot of people, including those in Special Operations, will be quick to criticize the author of No Easy Day without even reading it or having any real knowledge of its actual content. The book will doubtless hit the shelves accompanied by controversy, political scandal, and likely legal action taken against the author. But this is a historical book, packed with significance, and history will be its ultimate judge, the current court of public opinion.
Yes, many in the SEAL community feel betrayed by this book. At the same time, many also understand the author’s motive and the reasons behind the book. Never judge a person till you have walked a mile in his shoes.
The timing of this tell-all account, being published a mere sixteen months after the events it depicts, along with the fact that the book itself did not receive a Department of Defense (DoD) review before its publication, raises serious concerns for the Special Operations community. It is the general consensus at SOFREP that the author would have been best served submitting the book for an official review, even if this would have meant delaying the book’s publication-which it surely would have.
Such a review would have come with intense scrutiny and put the integrity of the story at risk. It has been our experience as writers that DoD reviews are painfully long and typically are more concerned with removing information that might make senior leadership look bad than with ensuring operational security (OPSEC). We’ve surveyed six military authors, and all report that they share this assessment.
Can One Person Determine What’s Classified?
For one individual (in this case, the author) to know exactly how and where to carve out classified information just over a year since the mission took place is a very tall order. It’s too large an operation and, in our opinion, too soon after it went down, for any one person to be able to make fully accurate assessments about what is and what is not classified. Thus, without review by a qualified larger body, it is highly likely that some classified information would make it into print.
Then there is the issue of what we call a “threat chain.” Once one person is exposed, there is an entire chain of people who are then put at risk. Within forty-eight hours of the first press release on No Easy Day, an Al Qaeda affiliate had put out a death hit on the author.
The release, like the book itself, referred to the author only by his pseudonym, “Mark Owen.” However, FOX News soon leaked his true identity, and at that point it immediately became easy for anyone to search the Internet for public records that pointed to his last place of residence in Virginia Beach, Virginia. And what about his friends, who still live in this neighborhood? And their families?
Many people not directly involved or truly familiar with SOF or the Intelligence Community may not realize the true ramifications of identifying players. It would be a huge PR win for a terrorist organization to harm the people involved in such a high-profile operation or their families. This puts a lot of people at undo risk.
Our Main Objective
Releasing this book will have its pros and cons.
Our objective with this SOFREP analysis of No Easy Day is to provide expert perspective on the Spec Ops community controversy, discuss the motives for writing the book, and point out the consequences that will follow and forever affect the SEAL community. We don’t aim to tell you what to think about it all. You’re an intelligent reader; you can make up your own mind. We just want you to have the facts and an informed perspective.
No Easy Day was originally scheduled to be released on September 11, 2012; as a storm of publicity erupted, the released date was moved up one week, to September 4. (The operation itself took place on May 2, 2011, barely sixteen months earlier. (The timing of the release is fraught with political implications. No one can seriously think that this book will not be seen as a political statement as America gears up for a presidential election.
Matt Bissonnette’s intentions, we believe, were noble but shortsighted. His desire to keep the book from becoming political is impossible when the text is politically charged and the release of the book is right before the 2012 Presidential elections. The timing of the book’s publication was sure to give it a backstage political pass. Publish the book after November and sales aren’t that likely to be as high.
Why Do SOF Guys Write Books?
One question this episode raises is, why would a former Spec Ops operator write a book in the first place? Reasons vary, and each book has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
Some former SOF Operators write because they have something to tell the world, something that they feel they need to get off their chests. For others, it is a question of setting the record straight, for historical reasons if nothing else. Perhaps this is part of the rational behind No Easy Day. It also probably played a large part in former Delta officer Dalton Fury’s decision to write Kill Bin Laden (published in 2008).
Then there are those former operators who write to bring awareness to veteran issues and raise money for charity. With Bissonnette leaving SEAL Team Six under less than desirable circumstances (a charge his publisher denies frontward and back), there seems to be some bad blood between the author and his former unit. No doubt, this helped him break the code of silence that SOF operators normally maintain in Tier One units.
Apologists have attempted to excuse Bissonnette’s book, saying the Obama administration already politicized the OBL raid, which gives the operators and spies involved the “right” to “set the record straight.” This is essentially a two-wrongs-make-a-right sort of argument. If a politician can get away with it, then so should a former SEAL who was on the raid. Of course, this argument is particularly appealing to those who oppose the current president.
Although we have charged the OPSEC PAC with needlessly politicizing a righteous cause, it must be noted here that they have written a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder regarding No Easy Day. The letter states in part:
“We are asking you to commit any and all resources of the Department of Justice necessary, including your authority as the U.S. Attorney General, to immediately seek the extraordinary remedy of an injunction in federal court to prevent this book from being published and distributed until it can be subjected to proper review procedures by the appropriate government agency. A failure to act to prevent an unauthorized disclosure of sensitive or classified information is a failure to act to protect those who serve our country.”
The reasons for not writing a book can be just as convoluted as the reasons for writing one.
In addition to potentially violating OPSEC and informing America’s enemies about national security secrets, another reason for not publishing a book is the often extreme scorn it can invite from your peers. Members of the Special Operations community are well known for eating their own. This is especially true in Army Special Operations units. Even active-duty Green Berets who have had their books fully vetted at all levels of the Army and the U.S. government have been scorned and ridiculed.
On one hand, the actions of the SOF community regarding authors could be seen as the community policing their own. On the other hand, it often descends to levels that could only be described as childish. Some of these authors are considered personae non grata by their former units: members are instructed to never talk to the author and the author is never to be allowed to participate in unit functions again.
The childish part comes in when the SOF community and fellow veterans simply throw their former teammates under the bus for writing at all. Even Robin Moore, a civilian writer who was later confirmed as a lifelong member of 5th Special Forces Group, was criticized by some in the Special Forces community for writing The Green Berets, which was fully authorized and published in 1966. Some Special Forces soldiers take the “Quiet Professionals” motto to heart and believe that there should be a total media blackout, something that seemed unrealistic and unlikely in 1966 and is essentially impossible in 2012.
This “total media blackout” opinion is also bolstered by the extreme distrust for the media and Hollywood that most in SOF have. The distrust stems from the total access that the media has been given during these wars and the inaccurate and politically bias reporting that has subsequently followed. So in the minds of many SOF veterans, anything that is put out there (whether a book or contribution to a story) about the community will be changed, twisted and rewritten ultimately making the SOF community look bad.
Another childish aspect is that when a book is published, some SOF veterans feel slighted because they were not given individual and personal credit for their own accomplishments in the book. Just as an author attempting to showboat is scorned, so should these silly so-called professional soldiers who have their feelings hurt be pointed out.
Part of the controversy surrounding No Easy Day is a larger issue that involves the differences in unit culture between Army Special Operations and Naval Special Warfare. (see “Bonus Content”)
Army Special Operations units, such as the 75th Ranger Regiment, Special Forces, and Delta Force, were born from an infantry-centric service that has a rich military tradition dating back well over two hundred years. In the Army, those who tell war stories or attempt to make themselves sound tough are usually put in their place very quickly. In this culture, where soldiers have been fighting and dying since the founding of America in direct confrontation with the enemy, no one wants to hear braggarts telling tall tales of their heroics.
In contrast, the Navy does not come from an infantry tradition but rather from a maritime warfare tradition. For sure, the Navy’s history is just as rich and just as filled with heroics as the Army’s, but the nature of these two branches of service makes for different mentalities within each branch’s Special Operations units. In the Navy, everything is big, gray, and floats. In a world of sailors afloat in the ocean for months at a time, pretty much any type of ground combat element is going to appear as the coolest, most bad-ass thing that has ever happened in the history of the U.S. military.
This is where the SEALs come in. As the only “cool” thing in the Navy, the SEALs have had tremendous top cover from their chain of command. Over the years, the Naval Special Warfare community has covered up many mistakes, accidents, haphazard planning, and a lack of discipline. In part, this contributes to a culture in which SEALs have become known within the military for running roughshod over their conventional military partners who are assigned to help them and their peers in the Spec Ops community.
Without a doubt, SOF has conducted joint operations on a scale never before imagined. Egos have been checked and good work has been done by SEALs working in tandem with, for instance, Rangers, MARSOC and Special Forces. However, a culture of boasting and arrogance continues to haunt the SEALs and the way the larger military community perceives them. Some SEALs have even expressed that they feel that they have to partake in this culture or risk getting pushed out of the Naval Special Warfare community entirely.
Taking this into account, it becomes clear why dozens of SEALs have written their memoirs from this current war while only a handful of Special Forces soldiers have done so. To date, only one Ranger has written about his experiences in Afghanistan, a self-published book called Team Reaper. Only one Delta Force member (the aforementioned Dalton Fury) has written about combat undertaken in the global war on terror.
A cursory look at Amazon’s Top Twenty books in the intelligence and espionage genres reveals seven nonfiction books by and about SEALs, one SAS memoir, and one fact-based self-published novel by a former Green Beret called The Deguello.
While No Easy Day was not reviewed and vetted for publication by any of the relevant offices at the Pentagon or the CIA, it can allegedly be reported that a “Special Operations lawyer” named Robert D. Luskin has been reviewing these types of books ahead of time. It appears that without Luskin’s review and approval, the Big Six book publishers in New York will not accept the legal burden that comes from publishing a book that may include sensitive disclosures of military secrets.
In the end, No Easy Day is nothing more than a well-executed marketing strategy that will make the author and publisher tens of millions of dollars overnight. The reading public will get their dose of reality, no argument there.
However, when it comes to military operations, details matter, but most of the intimate details will not be included in No Easy Day-which we believe is a good thing. It remains to be seen whether or not classified material was published. The General Counsel of the DOD is yet to point out specific disclosures.
For better or for worse, this book will become the established narrative on the raid, the only truth. In the public’s eye, this will probably be the final word on how the OBL raid was executed. Contradictory information will be scorned once the public has made an investment in the story unfolded in No Easy Day, and maybe this is a good thing.
More than likely, with a lawyer like Luskin double-checking to make sure, there was never anything in the book that violated operational security. If the book did have sensitive information in it, the Justice Department would have moved in and shut down the publication of the book or redacted huge sections from it prior to shipment to book stores.
One way or the other, this first-hand account of the OBL raid was a PR stunt. The publisher knew exactly what they were doing every step of the way and is still playing the media cycle to great effect.
(Read Chapter 2, The OBL Aftermath)