Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Last Updated: 21 May 21:03 PM IST
20 October 2012
‘No Easy Day’, as its subtitle helpfully explains, is ‘The Only First-Hand Account of the Navy Seal Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden’. It suggests the helicopters carrying the commandos crossed India on their way to Abbottabad... A review by sam tranum
The 300 pages of this book — which are only sparsely populated with words — contain a fast-paced adventure story that reads like a reasonably skillful knock-off of a Tom Clancy thriller. Only this adventure is non-fiction. This is the book for you if you like macho talk about fearing failure, discussions of the merits of different guns, tales of juvenile pranks, and details of the lives of members of the USA’s super-elite Seal Team 6 commandos, such as that they often pee in bottles by their beds to avoid having to walk to the toilet.
Though the book is credited to “Mark Owen,” this was quickly revealed to be a flimsy pseudonym used by the 36-year-old Matt Bissonnette, who recently retired from SEAL Team 6. In the book, he says he wrote it – with help from writer Kevin Maurer – “to set the record straight”.
It’s true that there were some inaccurate reports in the first day or two after the mission. But these things were quickly corrected with details filled in by a flood of leaks from the US government, and No Easy Day told me little I hadn’t already learned from the newspapers. As the book says, you are looking for secrets, you won’t find any here.
The book tells how Bissonnette, growing up in rural Alaska, comfortable with guns and rough living, was inspired by a similar first-hand account of military exploits to join the Navy. His parents were missionaries, and tried to discourage him, but he was determined. He excelled, rising through the system to join not only the elite Navy SEALS, but the elite of the elite: Seal Team 6.
The unit, Bissonnette says, was formed in the wake of the disastrous Operation Eagle Claw in 1980, a mission President Jimmy Carter ordered in an attempt to end the Iran hostage crisis by sending in commandos to rescue 52 Americans held captive in the US embassy in Tehran.
Opeartion Eagle Claw failed spectacularly contributing to Carter’s loss in the next election.
Afterward, the Navy decided a “a force capable of successfully executing those kinds of specialized missions,” and decided to “develop a maritime counter-terrorism unit called SEAL Team 6,” Bissonnette and Maurer write. “There were only two SEAL teams, so ‘six’ was chosen to make the Soviets think the Navy had more teams.”
The guys on his team, among the best commandos in the world, were pranksters. On a mission in Iraq, Bissonnette found “a pile of bras” while searching a house and pocketed one. Later, he says, he pranked his troop chief with it. “I fished out the bra from earlier that night and discretely draped it on the radio antenna attached to his back …
As he passed some of the Marines, I saw them stare at him and laugh.”
Over time, Bissonnette moved from a “green” recruit in Seal Team 6, rich in training and poor in experience, to a veteran and was picked as part of the “dream team” assembled to capture or kill Bin Laden, once the CIA found him “hiding” in Abbottabad. The operation was called Neptune Spear. The Seals were sent in by helicopter from a US base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. According to a rather crude map in the book, they crossed all of Pakistan, flew over its eastern border and circled back to approach the city from the south-east. It’s not clear from the map whether the American aircraft circled over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir or went even closer to Srinagar.
However, it is remarkable that the four helicopters were able to cross all of Pakistan and cross the India-Pakistan border twice without, apparently, being detected or shot at by the air defences of either heavily armed nation. This seems to indicate humiliatingly ineffective air defences or cooperation by New Delhi and/or Islamabad.
The team was on the ground in Pakistan for more than 30 minutes that night in May 2011. They had prepared to deal with intervention by neighbours, police, or even Pakistan’s military. “The President had already given us the green light to protect ourselves, even if we had to engage the Pakistan military,” the book says.
During the operation, though, only Bin Laden’s curious neighbours appeared — and they obediently retreated back to their houses when the Seals ordered them to. As the operation wound down, and commandos blew up one of the helicopters they’d arrived in, which had crashed on landing. This “finally” alerted Pakistan’s military, which scrambled two F-16s that failed to catch the US helicopters.
There’s been much discussion about whether the mission was an assassination. Bissonnette says that in a pre-mission meeting, “a question was raised about whether or not this was a kill mission. A lawyer from either the Department of Defence or the White House made it clear this wasn’t an assassination. ‘If he is naked with his hands up, you’re not going to engage him,’ he told us. ‘I’m not going to tell you how to do your job. What we’re saying is if he does not pose a threat, you will detain him.’”
After the mission, President Barack Obama said Bin Laden was killed after a firefight, indicating that he posed a threat. Bissonnette says he was involved in a firefight at Bin Laden’s compound, but it was with the sheikh’s courier who was living in the guesthouse. In the main house, Bin Laden’s son, Khalid, and the sheikh himself didn’t fire a shot, according to Bissonnette, who mocks them as cowards. Bin Laden was on the third floor of his house as the helicopter crashed, the SEALs fought the courier, blew open doors, Khalid, and climbed the stairs in the dark, wearing night-vision goggles.
“We were less than five steps from getting to the top when I heard suppressed shots. BOP. BOP. The point man had seen a man peeking out of the door on the right side of the hallway about ten feet in front of him. I couldn’t tell from my position if the rounds hit the target or not. The man disappeared into the dark room.”
They followed him into the room. “We could see two women standing over a man lying at the foot of a bed… The point man’s shots had entered the right side of his head. Blood and brains spilled out of the side of his skull. In his death throes, he was still twitching and convulsing. Another assaulter and I trained our lasers on his chest and fired several rounds.”
The Seals collected photos, DNA samples and Bin Laden’s body, and spread out to search the house for material to deliver to the CIA and other intelligence services. News outlets reported that the commandos found a stash of pornography in the house that consisted of “modern, electronically recorded video and is fairly extensive”.
Bissonnette doesn’t mention this, but says he found guns in Bin Laden’s room. “He hadn’t even prepared a defence. He had no intention of fighting. He asked his followers for decades to wear suicide vests or fly planes into buildings, but didn’t even pick up his weapon. In all of my deployments, we routinely saw this phenomenon. The higher up the food chain the targeted individual was, the bigger a pussy he was,” he says.
When he returned home, Bissonnette found a barrage of phone calls and messages waiting on his phone. People knew he was on Seal Team 6 and had been out of town and unreachable when Bin Laden was killed. They connected the dots.
“The day after we got home, I was taking my trash can to the curb when my neighbour from across the street walked over and gave me a huge hug … ‘You never really know what your neighbours do for a living, do you?’ she said as she smiled and walked back to her house.” His teammates got less rapturous welcomes.
“One buddy barely got in the door before he was back changing diapers. ‘So I get home and she hands me the kid right away,’ my buddy said when he got back to work. ‘We just shot UBL. Think I can sit down and drink a beer?’ Another spent the morning after he got home mowing his overgrown lawn. We might have been getting celebrity treatment in the media, but at home we were just absent husbands.”
The reviewer is Editorial Consultant, The Statesman