THESE two American non-fiction books, one pure reportage, the other a memoir of sorts, tell the story of the operation that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden last May and the long preparation that led to its success.
The problem that Mark Bowden and Mark Owen share is that they choose to tell a story that is not very dramatic at all. Both Bowden and Owen all but admit as much, attributing a lot of the outcome to luck and indicating that for the SEALs this type of mission was routine.
Bowden’s is the more interesting account, focusing on the intelligence effort and the White House’s renewed push to find bin Laden. He describes this as a slow "grind" of data-gathering rather than an exciting spy saga.
Bowden, a journalist and author of the 1999 prize winner Black Hawk Down, benefited from exclusive access to President Barack Obama to tell this story, and it is interesting to learn about the president’s deliberations that led to his decision to go ahead with the raid. At times though, Obama’s remarks seem like prepared statements of justification rather than a frank discussion about life and death decisions.
Obama’s most important judgment was to simply refocus the hunt for bin Laden. He made it a top intelligence priority — something that the George W. Bush administration lost sight of while dealing with the invasion of two countries.
Mark Owen (a pseudonym), writing with Kevin Maurer, offers a dry and poorly told story of the life of a frogman in SEAL team six. Indeed, who thought elite commandos could be this boring?
It appears that Owen is a bit of a spotlight-grabber. He was a team leader during the mission, and his job on the day was to clear a secondary building. After completing his primary task, he quickly found himself at the front of the queue to clear the third floor of the main building where the SEALs suspected their target to be living.
Owen gives a brief but clear version of how the orders for the mission were to detain bin Laden if possible, especially if he did not resist. In the heat of the moment, he forgets these orders, and he recounts how an unarmed bin Laden was shot once at distance and finished with shots at close range.
After matter-of-factly describing how he fired bullets into bin Laden’s supine body, Owen later says he was "shocked" to find how neat and organized the clothes in the nearby dresser were. Owen also explains that he had no respect for his victim, since he did not attempt to defend himself.
If you are looking for deep introspection about the legalities of state-sanctioned revenge killing or the use of appropriate force, you won’t find it in either of these books.
Matthew E. Havens served in the Canadian military for 10 years. He is a research associate with the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg.