Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book review: "No Easy Day"

If you want to know what happened on the 2011 U.S. military raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, "No Easy Day" is the book to read. It's not that this is a perfect book it's good, not great it's just that it's all we have

The military has offered only a handful of official details about the mission and even some of those have been shown to be doubtful. So until anyone else who was on the raid steps forward to tell his story, this is the only publicly available eyewitness account.

"No Easy Day" was written by former Navy Seal Matt Bissonnette, using the pseudonym Mark Owen, who says he was a part of the team that assaulted the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan on May 1, 2011.

It's quite a story. The mission, according to Bissonnette, did not go nearly as smoothly as the government claimed. The helicopter carrying Bissonnette and other soldiers almost suffered a disastrous crash. It actually DID crash, but miraculously hit the ground in a way that no one was hurt.

A team that was supposed to land from a helicopter on the roof of Bin Laden's home aborted that route, forcing the soldiers into a time-consuming entrance through a series of barricaded doors. One group of soldiers blasted through one of the compound's gates only to find a brick wall behind it. One soldier told to blow up the disabled helicopter mistakenly set up explosives to destroy Bin Laden's house instead (he was stopped in time).

While the soldiers collected many computers and documents that could have information on Al Qaeda, they left a lot behind because they ran out of time. On their way out, Bissonnette said, the helicopter he was on came perilously close to running out of fuel.

For all the danger, only one person at the compound fought back, according to Bissonnette. Shortly after landing, Bissonnette and two other soldiers were trying to get Bin Laden courier Ahmed al-Kuwaiti out of a guesthouse in the compound. Al-Kuwaiti fired an AK-47 blindly out the window, narrowly missing one of the Seals. The Americans fired blindly back in, killing him, and somehow managing not to hit his wife and kids.

Next, as they entered the Bin Laden's three-story home, Bissonnette describes the soldiers seeing a man's head sticking out of one room.

"The point man snapped off a shot. The round struck the occupant, later confirmed to be Abrar al-Kuwaiti, and he disappeared into the room. Slowly moving down the hall, the team stopped at the door. Abrar al-Kuwaiti was wounded and struggling on the floor. Just as they opened fire again, his wife Bushra jumped in the way to shield him. The second burst of rounds killed both of them."

This paragraph describing U.S. soldiers killing a wounded man "struggling on the floor" disturbed me probably more than anything else in the book. There's no indication the man was armed. And accidentally killing his wife is just tragic.

Moving to the second floor of the compound, the Americans killed Bin Laden's son Khalid when he poked his head out into a stairway landing and was shot in the face.

As they reached the third floor, Bissonnette describes himself as being second in line, behind the point man.

"We were less than five steps from getting to the top when I heard suppressed shots.
"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."

That was Bin Laden, who apparently was hit in the head, and fell back into his bedroom. Bissonnette and another soldier found him.

"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 soldiers found that he was not carrying a weapon.

It's jarring how different this account is from the original White House story, which said the Bin Laden was armed and "resisted." The White House later backed off from the claim he was armed, but still insisted that he had resisted capture.

The Bin Laden mission is not the only event described in the book, though you can hardly be blamed for skipping to that section. The first half of the book is filled with Bissonnette's swaggering tales of other Seal missions he took part in, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. These can be interesting, though they're largely told in a cold military tone where people are "targets," helicopters are "birds," and dead enemies are "re-engaged" to make sure they're dead.

It's fair to wonder whether Bissonnette's version of events in the Bin Laden raid is true. Did he exaggerate his role in the raid, or perhaps hide mistakes he may have made? Still, the reaction of Pentagon officials to the book speaks volumes they've accused him of divulging military secrets and are hunting for a way to punish him. Clearly, he hit close enough to the truth to strike a nerve.

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