Updated: Dec 30, 2021
"Got Him!" may be my favorite headline ever. It was featured on the cover of the New York Post on May 2nd, 2011, the day the world had learned that Osama Bin Laden got his brain bifurcated.
Of course, there was to be a landslide of media to follow an event such as this. The whole "SEAL Team 6" became the new soup du jour with shows and fanfics galore. Though, there were some efforts being made for more accurate portrayals. Only about a year or two after the event we got Zero Dark Thirty, which detailed the manhunt and raid itself in as realistic a fashion as Hollywood can package. However, if you wanted the real deal, you read this book. Mark Owen is about as good a source as any. In fact, he was on the staircase and felt the thump of the suppressed rounds that did the deed.
Late to the Game
Yeah, it's 2021. The book came out in 2012. Whatever.
Actually, not whatever. It gives me a bit of an advantage in that I get to read several other book reviews on this work and I can fill in all the gaps they left.
Matt Bissonnette is the guy's real name. Not Mark Owen. It was a pseudonym and you can understand why he'd want to use one since the event was still pretty fresh in the minds of a lot of Taliban. Details in the book often got questioned as to whether or not they were aggrandized. Well, Matt did have to forfeit $6.8 Million due to potentially classified materials in the book and breaching his nondisclosure agreement. Does that mean things in the book were completely truthful? Not necessarily, but I doubt the Dept. of Justice would have got that worked up ove Ir falsehoods portrayed as chest thumping.
So while I'd encourage anyone to take books like this with a grain of salt, I definitely feel as though this one would get the "low-sodium" label in a vending machine.
Enjoying the Grind
The climax happens pretty late in the book. And no, there aren't going to be spoiler tags in this. Osama dies at the end. I really hope this isn't the first place you're hearing that news.
Much of the book details the arduous training path towards the SEAL teams. Likewise, the famed DEVGRU unit that Matt eventually gets to isn't who he details most of his time with. You'll read along with a lot of different raids and missions that happen all over the parts of the world covered in browns and grays. With some deft pacing, the grind towards the eventual payoff is pretty enjoyable. I never found myself saying "get on with it already!" A big part of the message is struggle and learning lessons. It almost feels as though cues were taken from the classic "hero's journey" story structure as previous missteps are circled back on. Matt spends a solid portion in the introduction detailing a time he straight fucked up in a shoot house. And hey, who doesn't fuck up in a shoot house at least once? But it's different at his level. I did some shoot houses, but I was also with the National Guard and it was more of a 101 level training to just understand the wider concepts (such as "please don't shoot your friends," and "don't stand in the doorway, dipshit"). We were also using paintball guns. Comparatively, I was tossing a baseball outside of Fenway with some friends, while he was in the bullpen warming up for the relief. As a guy who has had a glimpse into what that sort of training can be, he really make the difference in stakes feel real.
That's shown well in the instructor's words to Matt. The minor leaguers like me get yelled at and lectured. The major leaguers already know. A little eye contact between trainer and trainee communicated most of what was to be discussed, no audible words needed.
Little things like that really portray the culture well. A good rule in writing is "show, don't tell." That showed us pretty well the level of competence that is expected and the even higher level of self awareness and ownership it takes to get there. Later on, during a mission in Iraq they encounter a barricaded position. It was a tough situation. Fighting on staircases is a dubious affair. Dangerous at best, catastrophic not uncommonly. Watching from the outside in, this is where Matt gets to mark the first notch on his buttstock and is struck with just how hard he felt nothing at all.
Later the reader will get a tour of Afghanistan as they chase a series of frustrating dead ends. In between are bits back stateside where, after becoming a senior guy, Matt does some instructor time, talks of his family, and life with the Teams in general. I'm torn a bit on the family stuff. It's obviously a really big deal, but it has been covered in many places before. The book's about shooting the biggest bad guy of my generation, part of me is thankful for not having to deal with too many tugs on the heartstring, but in a book where Matt showed so much of his humanity in chaos it would have been nice to see what the other side of that coin was.
Perhaps it just shows how in the mindset guys like him always are, regardless of location and circumstance. Perhaps my armchair psychology is just as bullshit as ever. It's hard to know that we may never have the answers to these quandaries.
Done on the taxpayer's dime, though. And it certainly ain't cheap.
Entering the portion of the book that details the raid could easily read as a military history book as much as a memoir. The details about phase-lines, equipment, training contingencies, personnel, etc. I can see why Matt could have been in some hot water for the information he put out.
The book includes a map of the compound in Abbottabad, complete with some sparse timelines and little arrows for the average joe like me to follow the action as we read it. If I wanted to make a YouTube video detailing the raid, I could likely do it off this book alone. You really get it all.
I'm a big sucker for dogs. I wish there had been a squirter so I could get more of that action. Ol' Cairo has his own book, though. Written by his handler on the mission. That's gotta go on the list. Rest in peace, buddy.
My favorite part of the raid section was after the famous shots were already taken. The excitement of having just won the god-damn superbowl but not having the ability to celebrate it. It makes one almost disbelieve what's happening. It is neat to read how the weight of the matter really hit different guys at different times. Only a few people got to make it to that third story (deck, if you're in the Navy, I guess), and so the folks that spent time securing the downed helicopter or patrolling the perimeter had to hear the game on FM like it was the Ali-Foreman fight.
It's a fun read. I really enjoyed the lack of flag waving. There's so much of that out there already. We get it. We aren't reading these books because we're not already into the idea of the stars, stripes, and multicam. That dead horse is a 10 foot hole in the ground by now.
Mostly, I liked the injection of humanity into everything. I've read other books by SF dudes and the reminds of being consulate professionals is always there. My favorite parts were when they were simply drinking beers, a friend faceplanting in the middle of a field in Afghaniland, or that friend that jury-rigged anything he needed to get that one good cup of coffee. It reminded me of the Bastogne episode of Band of Brothers when Doc Roe goes foxhole to foxhole. Everyone's too damn tired, cold, and hungry to put on the faces they had in Carentan. That's where the humanity really comes through in war movies and books. Not the faces people put on, but the ones they make when they aren't thinking about putting a face on.
If you're a bit gear-obsessed you'll get a bone thrown to you here and there, but it's just not the point of the story. The included photos of suppressed MP7's rattle-canned and banged up from scraping against kit on little bird benches are pretty rad. Who doesn't like a candid shot of unobtanium in the wild?
If you're at all interested in what the path to the top looks like, or just want a no-details-spared account of what bagging the biggest boogeyman of the 21st century so far was like, you'll get what you want. If you think it'll be American Sniper 2, it won't. And thank fuckin' Odin for that.